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International leaders highlight Global Resilience Institute’s vital role

Uta Poiger moderates a panel discussion between Daniel Hiller, Peter Neffenger, Najib Abboud, Jennie Stephens, and Peter Boynton during the Global Resilience Institute Launch held in the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex Tuesday. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

At a launch event Tuesday afternoon for Northeastern’s Global Resilience Institute, five leaders in the resilience field emphasized the importance of one of the institute’s overarching goals—to establish and facilitate collaboration across disciplines in order to best create resiliency on multiple fronts.

Drawing on real experiences—such as recovering from a hurricane that knocked out 77 percent of the electrical grid in Connecticut and cleaning up after a massive oil spill on the Gulf Coast—leaders from industry and higher education highlighted the role that the Global Resilience Institute will play in the real world.

Uta Poiger, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, opened the conversation, held in the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex’s auditorium, by describing the “ambitious vision of an institute that’s going to be about sustainability as well as adaptation,” one that “relies on collaboration, partnerships, and innovation.”

Stephen E. Flynn,

professor of political science with affiliated appointments in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, will lead the Global Resilience Institute, which will drive an interdisciplinary effort to create a more flexible, nimble world.

Steve Flynn gives remarks during the Global Resilience Institute Launch on Tuesday. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“We’re thinking about resilience as an outcome,” Flynn said just before the panel discussion Tuesday. “The secret sauce is figuring out how to get individuals, communities, and systems to be more resilient.”

Najib Abboud, senior principal and Weidlinger Applied Science practice leader at the engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti, and one of four researchers who conducted a structural investigation of the World Trade Center collapses post-9/11, noted that a lack of incentive—one of five key barriers to resilience identified by the institute—has led to a history of looking backward at disasters instead of anticipating the next one.

“One thing is for certain: The next thing that happens will not be the last thing that happens,” he said.

Similarly, Peter Neffenger—former administrator of the Transportation Security Administration and former deputy national incident commander for the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf Coast—said that he spent much of his time in both roles “preparing for and recovering from disasters.”

“We started thinking, ‘How can we protect everything from everybody all the time?’ when really that’s a fool’s errand.”

Peter Boynton Chief executive officer and co-director of Northeastern’s George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security

One of the reasons the Global Resilience Institute is so critical, he added, is because “crisis is the natural state of affairs.” As such, the need for connectivity between crisis management organizations and research institutes, as well as the need for adaptability after a disruptive event, is paramount to success.

“The thing we need to ask ourselves is, ‘How do I make sure that I don’t revisit the same lessons?’ If there’s another explosion and oil spill in the Gulf, I would hate to think we would just go back and start from scratch.”

Connecting research and practice is something the Fraunhofer Institute, a German-based research facility —and Northeastern—already does, and is part of what makes the two such a natural fit for each other.

“Everyone has to be involved when we develop solutions to problems,” said Daniel Hiller, the Fraunhofer Institute’s head of strategic management.

In fact, it’s baked into the equation. “In order to get funding when we draft ideas, we have to ensure that all the key players—the end users, market managers, researchers—are at the table,” Hiller said. “We need to demonstrate as a research community that we’re capable of taking on these real-world problems.”

Indeed, it’s the application to ‘real-world problems’ that is so vital for emergency management personnel, such as Peter Boynton, chief executive officer and co-director of Northeastern’s George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security and former commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.

After 9/11, Boynton led an assessment of Connecticut’s infrastructure to determine what was essential. As it turned out, consensus on what was vital was hard to reach.

“We started thinking, ‘How can we protect everything from everybody all the time?’ when really that’s a fool’s errand,” Boynton said. After discussing the issue with his friend, Flynn, at the time, the better question, he realized, is, “What do you need to preserve functionality in the face of risk?” That preparation was put to the test in 2011, when Hurricane Irene knocked out 77 percent of Connecticut’s power grid, leaving 800,000 people without electricity.

Resilience applies to risks other than sudden incidents like hurricanes, however. Jennie Stephens, the institute’s associate director of strategic research collaborations, said that the institute can help prepare for chronic stresses such as unequal concentrations of wealth and power or gradual climate change.

“Universities have a unique place in society; they have the responsibility to think long term,” said Stephens, Dean’s Professor of Sustainability Science and Policy in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs.