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Change Leader: Climate Change Necessitates ‘Safe to Fail’ Engineering

Todd Danielson on August 30, 2022 - in Articles, Profile

This particular webcam interview was recorded by Todd Danielson, the editorial director of Informed Infrastructure. You can view a video of the full interview above or by visiting bit.ly/3QyEfF4. For additional related information, read The Role of Engineering to Address Climate Change,” a new report the from Engineering Research Visioning Alliance (ERVA)

Mikhail Chester is associate professor, School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, Arizona State University. 

Mikhail Chester has devoted his life to engineering research as an associate professor and member of several organizations studying real-world conditions to help professionals position infrastructure for future success in a rapidly changing world.

One area he focuses on is infrastructure in destabilizing conditions such as climate change, financial and political uncertainty, cyber security, and social-technological change. “All these things seem to be coming to a head,” he notes. “We need to adapt infrastructure to be able to provide the services we might need in a wildly different future, a future marked by some of this uncertainty.”

Decoupling Change

In terms of climate change, Chester believes we need to decouple what’s happening with our climate and what our infrastructure can do. He notes that the climate is changing very rapidly; infrastructure also is changing but on a much slower time scale.

“Infrastructure isn’t changing fast enough, and we’re not giving ourselves the flexibility to allow it to change in response to this uncertainty,” he explains. “We, as an engineering community, need to view infrastructure in the face of climate change in a slightly different way.”

Engineers typically focus on hardening, strengthening and armoring infrastructure to hold back climate, but Chester believes it would be better to build systems that can be quickly changed. Instead of instantiating large rigid assets for long time horizons, engineers should build systems where they can go in and change them when they’ve learned more about how climate change is actually playing out. Also, although financing may be improving, it will be impossible to rehabilitate all the infrastructure that’s out there.

Safe to Fail

“If we accept that that failure is going to happen, then we can start to think critically about how we manage failure,” says Chester. “I’m not saying failure is OK; I’m saying it’s going to happen. As such, we need to think about how we design, how we plan for failures as they unfold, and how we prevent loss of life and major economic damages from happening. We call this ‘safe to fail.’”

According to Chester, engineers need to plan for failure in the design process to create systems that minimize negative consequences. As an example, he cites the “Room for the River” project in the Netherlands, which manages higher water levels in rivers by lowering the levels of floodplains, creating water buffers, relocating levees, increasing the depth of side channels and constructing flood bypasses.

“There’s a fundamental challenge of uncertainty and inability to quickly adapt all the infrastructure we have that necessitates new approaches that revolve around what we call agility, flexibility, maybe decentralization of infrastructure—safe to fail,” he adds.

Always Local

Chester also is a member of the Urban Resilience to Extremes Research Network, a National Science Foundation-funded interdisciplinary network of researchers primarily across the United States. The network involves academic researchers across 19 institutions as well as practitioners on the ground in nine cities.

“We’re trying to do what’s called ‘knowledge co-production’ toward climate adaptation, finding innovative ways in which we adapt infrastructure for the particular needs and circumstances of what’s going on in those cities,” he explains.

He notes that Miami and Phoenix both experience urban flooding, but they’re different cities with different circumstances, causes and effects. Researchers explore how infrastructure solutions might differ or overlap, which areas might benefit from hardened gray infrastructure and which might benefit from green infrastructure. Some areas should rely on failsafe infrastructure, and some should incorporate safe to fail.

“It’s a large research network that’s been quite productive at thinking in new ways about how we might adapt cities into the future,” he adds.

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About Todd Danielson

Todd Danielson has been in trade technology media for more than 20 years, now the editorial director for V1 Media and all of its publications: Informed Infrastructure, Earth Imaging Journal, Sensors & Systems, Asian Surveying & Mapping, and the video news portal GeoSpatial Stream.

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