Rockefeller Foundation chief: Resilient cities harness the power of data

Rotterdam is one of the Northern European cities that is leading the way in terms of resilience. [veryulissa/ Shutterstock]

Michael Berkowitz, an expert on resilient cities, praises the work done by many European municipalities in preparing for risks linked to climate change, for example. But Europe should relax its privacy laws in order to better harness the power of data and deal with other emerging challenges, he claimed.

Michael Berkowitz is managing director at the Rockefeller Foundation, and president of its ‘100 Resilient Cities’ initiative. Before that, he was global head of Operational Risk Management (ORM) at Deutsche Bank, and editor of Emergency Preparedness News, a Washington-based newsletter for emergency management professionals.

Berkowitz spoke with EURACTIV’s Jorge Valero during the World Economic Forum in Davos. 

How resilient are European cities compared to other parts of the world?

Europe has very high-capacity cities. Municipalities have thought about their problems in a pretty progressive way. Many cities in Europe do quite well.

An interesting case is the city of Rotterdam (the Netherlands). It is a city that traditionally has dealt with existential flood risks. For many decades, it thought about flooding in terms of keeping the water out. But the Dutch cities in general, and Rotterdam in particular, are turning cities into sponges in a very interesting way.

In Rotterdam, 60% of the people were not born in the country. They have used interventions to address climate change or water control to also foster social integration, to build social capital, like the water park built in the Soho area.

Because the next challenge that will hit Rotterdam is not going to be a flood or something similar, but it would be a terrorist attack, or perhaps changes in the shipping industry.

Are these double solutions working in the real world?

What you want is both to deal with some climate change issues as well as bringing the community closer together.

Paris has a big opportunity here. When they applied to our programme, they wanted to talk about environmental issues, for example air pollution. Then in 2015 we witnessed two terrorist attacks and the refugee crisis. Paris is going to spend a lot of money in meeting the COP21 goals to address climate change by extending the cycling system, electric cars or rapid transit lines for buses.

If they also think about the suburbs in every single step, to integrate them better into the city, that would make Paris stronger regardless of what is the next challenge. That is what resilience is about, about making yourself stronger. And it is not easy.

Also because city halls work in silos…

That’s it. Silos are important because they allow things to happen efficiently. And yet they are part of the big problem of big organisations, and cities in particular. We are helping cities to hire chief resilience officers (CRO) to involve everyone in the room when social cohesion is discussed.

It seems that every time there is a proposal to integrate processes there is a need to create a new post. Recently, it was chief information officer. Is there a risk of overpopulating the system with too many ‘chiefs’?

I totally agree. Part of the idea is to get into the DNA of the city workers, without having this artificial mechanism in place. But I think we are still a bit far away from that.

How do external risks affect internal challenges?

These two things cannot be separated. Think about New Orleans, hit by Hurricane Katrina more than ten years ago. The risk that the city faces with climate change is not simply about how warm the weather is, or how strong the storms are.

It is also about how poor the neighbourhoods are, how effective the transportation system is, or how the citizens trust their institutions. That is the difference we saw between New York when Hurricane Sandy hit and what you saw in New Orleans. New York has a much higher capacity to deal with such a challenge, and fewer social problems than New Orleans.

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How are European cities implementing this integrated approach?

Northern European cities, as we know already, traditionally led the effort on funding progressive integrated solutions. Some of the world’s best cities are in the North of Europe. Think about Copenhagen, Stockholm or Rotterdam.

Or even think about London. London is a much larger city, with ‘big city’ problems. And yet, you have examples such as what the city did with the Olympic development, converting the whole area into a flood control zone and a park.

Another example, it continues to use neighbourhood data to predict crime and radicalisation in the most progressive and interesting way I have seen.

But this brings different challenges like privacy concerns. How to take these new risks into account when dealing with old risks ?

I would say that privacy laws in Europe go too far. For Europe to progress, you need to find a workable solution to some of the privacy issues.

The refugee data is a good example. It would be great if refugee data could be shared widely among the different social agencies dealing with refugees. It would be good for them and for the agencies, and for the cities they come to. But privacy laws prevent that kind of data sharing in a way that is not helpful.

Europe neglects integration of refugees as humanitarian tragedy looms

Refugees and asylum seekers risk suffering “long-term damage” due to ill-prepared policies to integrate them, the OECD has warned, while European nations start preparing for the worst.

What is your assessment about how European cities are handling the refugee crisis?

This is a classic resilience story. Cities that have the best infrastructures, sound economies, or good planning and response mechanisms in place are better able to handle refugees that come. And they can turn this moment into an opportunity integrating new talented citizens and workers.

Could you name some examples?

Rotterdam would be one example. My impression is that the way German cities are dealing with it also speaks about their capacity.

But some of the southern European cities, some more economically challenged, have less capacity. Resilience is about building that capacity. Time will show whether they are capable of integrating refugees in their cities.

Dealing with refugee flows partly goes beyond a city’s competences, for example when it comes to asylum laws. How do you become more resilient if you don’t have control? 

In no city in the world, not even the most powerful cities structurally, does the mayor control everything to make cities resilient.

One of the things that mayors can do though is to use both formal and informal power. We encourage them to use more informal powers. If they can point in a certain direction, you will be surprised how many people will follow.

But indeed, challenge number one is governance. How do you get the right level of authority that is not too broad and not to limited. Municipalities cannot be too small or fragmented. But if the authority is too high, it is too far away from people’s needs.

The other challenge would be inclusiveness. There is always a risk of imposing well-designed but top-down solutions. What you need is to involve people not once, not twice, but more, in the responses so they can feel their voice has been heard. That will make the city stronger regardless of the challenge


'100 Resilient Cities' is a global network with 17 of the 100 cities being European, including Paris, Rome and London.

As part of his work, Michael Berkowitz helps them understand their most critical challenges and develop solutions.

These challenges can be external shocks (natural disasters and climate change related flooding, rising sea levels and heatwaves, migration/refugee influxes, etc.) or internal stresses such as high unemployment, inefficient infrastructure, endemic violence or chronic food and water shortages.