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New book examines how preparing for disaster is key to bouncing back

December 2, 2014 at 6:30 PM EDT
Only communities that prepare for the unpredictable -- from health scares to cyber attacks -- can quickly bounce back. But how can we flip the paradigm for dealing with disaster? Author Judith Rodin joins Gwen Ifill for a conversation about her book “The Resilience Divided,” on what defines resilience and how cities can move their focus from relief and recovery to preparedness and readiness.

GWEN IFILL: Whether it’s hurricanes, a health scare, or a cyber-attack, communities and institutions bounce back only if they can prepare for the unpredictable.

That’s the topic of a new book called “The Resilience Dividend” by Judith Rodin, who’s also the president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

I sat down with her recently at the Miami Book Fair.

What is resilience?

JUDITH RODIN, Author, “The Resilience Dividend”: Well, somewhere in the world, at least once a week, there is a storm or a new epidemic people hadn’t heard about six months before, civil unrest, a cyber-attack.

And in this age of so much unpredictability and so much turmoil, we need to shift our paradigm. And so we are very much focused now in the United States and around the world on relief and recovery, and not enough on preparedness and readiness.

And let me tell you just one short story. And I think it will make the point about preparedness. Boston, for at least six or seven years, had been rehearsing for something to go wrong, whether it was a terrorist attack or a violent storm or flooding. They didn’t know what it would be.

And, of course, none of us know what it will be. So this is about readiness for any kind of disruption makes you better ready for every disruption.

GWEN IFILL: In Boston’s case, it was about the Boston Marathon bombing…


GWEN IFILL: … something which, even though you say they were preparing, for some reason, that kind of disruption, you’re still completely unprepared.

JUDITH RODIN: But they brought together all the elements of government. They brought together communications companies and water companies and transit companies and all of the medical responders precisely because they didn’t know what it was, and they had a plan, so that they really knew who was on first.

GWEN IFILL: Well, now, think about the word resiliency. I think about it as bouncing back. Does this mean that there always has to be a disaster involved?

JUDITH RODIN: No, because, obviously, this is about planning in case something goes wrong.

The idea here is that not every disruption has to become a disaster. The dividend that I talk about is really the investment in preparedness that pays off whether or not something going goes wrong. And that’s the ambition.

GWEN IFILL: So much of the disasters or the disruptions that you write about in the book have to do with water, and I think of Katrina. That’s a case in which we would be hard put to say that that city, that New Orleans, that the Gulf Coast was terribly resilient or prepared.

JUDITH RODIN: It is very clear that New Orleans was completely unprepared.

Think about all of the elements that made them dysfunctional, a great deal of poverty, being — having housing in areas that were totally vulnerable to floodplains, even if the levees had not broken, a very dysfunctional city government, and very high rates of crime.

It will be 10 years next year since Katrina. And I was in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago, and they used their recovery to revitalize in the most profound and really elegant way. They took over all their public schools, and the schoolchildren’s performance now is truly extraordinary. They completely diversified their economy. Diversity is such an important component of resilience, because it gives you strength.

GWEN IFILL: When you talk about diversity, you have a different definition that would leap to mind for many people when they talk about diversity.

JUDITH RODIN: So, it is both, actually. One of the elements of resiliency is diversity. And, typically, we think about that as redundancy. And redundancy is critical.

I will give you another example from the book. And that is many people will remember the debacle of Lululemon’s yoga pants in 2011, when they were so unbelievably sheer. Well, they lost $2 billion of market caps — cap, and they had many, many lawsuits and of course lost consumer confidence.

What was wrong is that they were relying on a single manufacturer for a single source of that fabric from a single kind of fiber. So, redundancy in that sense is really very critical.

GWEN IFILL: Well, here’s another example. In Japan, the Fukushima disaster ultimately was conceded to be a disaster made in Japan.

JUDITH RODIN: Well, I talk about Fukushima and analyze it deeply in the book because they had for the first time a post-situation commission.

It’s the first time in the history of modern Japan that they have ever been willing to publicly analyze what went wrong. So there’s a wealth of data. And part of it, they absolutely attribute to their culture, the culture of acquiescing, the culture of not being willing to call out something that goes wrong, the culture of not being able to be adaptable and flexible.

But there’s a positive example from Japan, Toyota. Toyota lost almost 700 plants and 370,000 cars, so they slipped from number one car producer in the world to number four. But Toyota has this amazing culture. They rebounded very quickly, and they revitalized. And two years later, while Japan is still reeling economically, Toyota is again the number one car producer.

GWEN IFILL: But isn’t it a natural human instinct to not to want to acknowledge risk, let alone plan for it?

JUDITH RODIN: I’m a psychologist, and I would argue that we need to acknowledge potential risk or potential failure in order to cope better, and that that’s something we need to teach our children to do more effectively.

It’s really easy to learn how to succeed. It’s harder to learn how to fail. And part of resilience-building is learning how to fail safely, and not catastrophically, whether you’re a person or a city or a business. That’s, in a way, what this is really all about. So we are building core elements of strength when we are building resilience in people, in institutions, and in our cities.

GWEN IFILL: Judith Rodin, thank you very much.

JUDITH RODIN: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: And thank you all.


JUDITH RODIN: Thank you all.