Developing a concept of social-ecological-technological systems to characterize resilience of urban areas and infrastructure to extreme events
Climate change is widely considered one of the greatest challenges to global sustainability, with extreme events being the most immediate way that people experience this phenomenon. Urban areas are particularly vulnerable to these events given their location, concentration of people, and increasingly complex and interdependent infrastructure. We are developing a conceptual framework for urban social-ecological-technological systems (SETS) that will allow researchers and practitioners to assess how infrastructure can be resilient, provide ecosystem services, improve social well being, and exploit new technologies in ways that benefit all segments of urban populations. The framework integrates the three domains of social and equity issues, environmental quality and protection, and technical/engineering aspects, to form a concept of infrastructure that occurs at the intersection of the domains. Examples show how the more common socioecological systems and socially sensitive engineering approaches that fail to incorporate the third dimension may elevate vulnerability to climate-related disaster.
The SETS conceptual framework bridges currently siloed social science, environmental science, and engineering approaches to significantly advance research into the structure, function, and emergent properties of SETS. Extreme events like heat waves in Phoenix, coastal and urban flooding in the wake of superstorm Sandy in New York, NY and following hurricanes in Miami, FL; drought in Hermosillo, Mexico; and urban flooding in Baltimore, MD, Portland, OR, San Juan, PR, Syracuse, NY, and Valdivia, Chile provide examples of the impacts of and vulnerability to extreme events that demand a new approach. The infrastructure of the future must be resilient, leverage ecosystem services, improve social well being, and exploit new technologies in ways that benefit all segments of urban populations and are appropriate to the particular urban contexts. These contexts are defined not only by the biophysical environment but also by culture and institutions of each place. We apply the SETS conceptual framework to nine western hemisphere cities in diverse settings, presenting hypotheses about the relative efficacy of strategies for resilient SETS infrastructure in cities contrasting in event type, biophysical setting, and cultural and institutional contexts.