Q&A with Christchurch CRO Mike Gillooly

When Mike Gillooly became the first Chief Resilience Officer of Christchurch, New Zealand, earlier this month, he hit the ground running.

He had to — in the last few years, New Zealand’s second-largest city has been beset by a series of devastating natural disasters, including two major earthquakes that caused massive destruction in the city center, and heavy rains resulting in widespread flooding.

While Gillooly may be new to 100 Resilient Cities, he’s spent the last few years rebuilding his city and making it safer for the future. A trained surveyor, he spent the first part of his career in land development engineering and urban planning. When the back-to-back quakes hit in 2010 and 2011, he was reassigned to focus on the recovery effort, coordinating with organizations including the Ministries of Building Innovation and Employment and the Insurance Council of New Zealand. Most recently, Gillooly served as Christchurch’s Land Drainage Operations Manager, where he oversaw the repair of Christchurch’s quake-damaged pipe infrastructure.

His vision for urban resilience involves working side-by-side with members of the community as equals, taking advantage of cutting-edge technology, and promoting the tools and tactics used in Christchurch with other cities across New Zealand.

When did you first become interested in the concept of urban resilience?

Resilience became front of mind for me after our city was struck by a 7.3 magnitude earthquake which was followed by a sequence of devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. My appreciation for building a resilient city was heightened by severe flooding in parts of our city since June 2013. A significant part of my role has involved engaging with the community. I have been amazed at the depth of understanding that people have about potential solutions to their individual and community risks. This has reinforced my view that resilience needs to be community-driven if it is to be relevant.

How would you describe Christchurch’s attitudes around resilience before the earthquakes?

From a systems and process point of view, we knew where everything was; we knew how everything worked. We felt quite comfortable, and I think that’s probably true of a lot of local authority and government systems and processes. When you have an earthquake, all of those things are thrown up in the air and then residents realize just how much they value things that have been taken for granted. My experience reinforces the need to invest appropriately to make sure that our systems can endure whatever shocks could occur.

And how have things changed since then?

Immediately after the earthquakes, at a community level, people helped each other and their wider communities. Three years on I see a community that is hungry for information. I see small community groups popping up with very capable community leaders and communicators. Without exception these groups want to engage as equals on their issues.

How do you plan to get the community involved?

There is going to have to be the right mix of top-down and bottom-up. One initiative I want to see pursued is to re-engage with those community groups that responded so well during the earthquakes and get them to write the templates for a civil defense response going forward. What we have learned is that there are natural leaders everywhere.

I’ve been amazed at the capacity of quite seemingly ordinary people standing up and leading their community, particularly around the recent flooding. At a grassroots level there are multiple organizations we know that we can tap into. And they’re keen for the conversation.

What’s the status of downtown Christchurch’s recovery?

Rebuilding and recovery of the central city so it is seen as a place to invest in both commercially and socially is vital. We have a vision for central Christchurch to become the thriving heart of an international city that will draw on our rich natural and cultural heritage. We have in place — in partnership with Central Government — a recovery plan that defines the form of the central city and sets out the locations of key anchor projects. Under construction at the moment are a number of commercial retail as well as social and community initiatives like the bus interchange, the Avon River Precinct, the Justice and Emergency Precinct, and the innovation precinct.

Besides restoring the city center, what are your other top priorities?

My first priority is to link in to all the initiatives and conversations taking place across multiple government and private organizations in the city. I think these all need to come under a representative resilience governance structure. At the moment, my perception is that we have a number of governance bodies overseeing a number of resilience initiatives. It makes sense to get these under one umbrella so that we can make sure multiple organizations are looking at everything through the same resilience lens.

Do you see yourself as having a wider role beyond just Christchurch?

Yes, I do. Other major urban centers are already contacting us, signaling that they want to tap into what is happening here. In Auckland City, which is our largest city, they are working to get to grips with the same issues around climate change, infrastructure, youth resilience and community engagement. All of those issues are relevant right through the country. I also anticipate engaging with central government on a range of issues. A lot of work has already been done in the area of building-code requirements and seismic resilience, but I also see an opportunity to address national standards for infrastructure design and levels of service to address seismic risk, and that is not just a Christchurch issue. One of the learnings from the earthquakes is the importance of sharing the risk and the need to make sure that going forward we remain a city and a country that is attractive to the insurance market. That means a lot of engagement with insurers and industry to provide them with good data that allows them to make informed decisions on risk.

As one of the 100 Resilient Cities, Christchurch will have access to a number of Platform Partners tasked with helping you meet your goals. What kind of help do you need most?

The range of tools and partners available through the 100 Resilient Cities Network is impressive. I can see huge benefits from the platform of services provided in key areas of infrastructure, community and social resilience, and technology. I’m keen to make sure we leverage from platform partners as many opportunities for innovation as possible. For example, we have an exciting social enterprise underway called Sensing Cities. Their vision of a rebuilt city would allow us to look to the future, where thousands of digital sensors can inform people and businesses about everything from water and air quality to energy consumption and traffic flow. The timing is perfect for the city to invest in that initiative. Bringing exciting ideas like that into a wider strategic context and getting access to tools and services from platform providers is really important for initiatives like that.

As a CRO, you’ll be entering a dialogue with other CROs from around the world. Are there any you’re especially excited to work with?

I read [San Francisco CRO] Patrick Otellini’s blog and I’m really keen to meet him. It sounds like we have very similar backgrounds. Melbourne is coming onboard with a Chief Resilience Officer soon, I hope. I’m really looking forward to working with someone closer to home, with a similar culture, similar attitudes. And [Medellin CRO] Oscar Santiago Uribe Rocha — I find it quite inspiring to see a guy of that caliber in a CRO role. I’m excited to be in such good company.

What lessons could other cities learn from Christchurch?

We have learned the hard way. Our experience proves that disaster can strike at any time, and for a city to cope with adversity it needs to be prepared. There are so many things we can do in our natural and built environments to make ourselves more resilient. For example, in the data and infrastructure space, our Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) datasets were hopelessly inadequate for the rebuild in terms of understanding our pre-quake topography, and our design standards for much of our piped infrastructure weren’t up to the seismic loads they experienced.

What kind of support are you getting from the government?

Central government assisted the Council with its application to the 100 Resilient Cities Challenge. High-ranking central government officials also attended the Agenda Setting Workshop hosted by the 100 Resilient Cities network in Christchurch in March this year. I expect that central government will continue to support this initiative, given our priority to involve neighboring territorial authorities and other New Zealand cities, including Auckland and Wellington.

What will success look like for Christchurch? What changes do you hope to see in the next 5-10 years?

In 10 years, I want to be able to drive around the city and not see any signs of an earthquake. I would like this city to be recognized as thriving over the range of natural and built environmental indicators. That means we are a first choice in people’s minds as a place in which to live, strive, and thrive.

*Head photo: Phillip Capper, Flickr