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The Imperative and Opportunity to Invest in Resilient Infrastructure

Monday, February 22, 2021

A Recap of the U.S. DOT Volpe Center’s Recent Thought Leadership Event

The U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) Volpe National Transportation Systems Center (Volpe Center) welcomed Dr. Stephen Flynn on February 9, 2021, as part of our Straight from the Source thought leadership speaker program. Dr. Flynn is founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University. 

This post provides a recap of Flynn’s talk on “The Imperative and Opportunity to Invest in Resilient Infrastructure.” You can also view video highlights

Our Grandparents’ Mansion

Investing in infrastructure is a critical priority for policymakers at federal, state, and local levels, but we have been failing to make significant investments for a generation. Flynn likens this to “inheriting our grandparents’ mansion,” an asset built with our grandparents’ resources and ingenuity but not adequately maintained or improved. 

Making these long-overdue infrastructure investments is essential to our prosperity; however, these investments—whether they come from the public or private sectors—must reflect best practices for sustainability and resilience.

Apart from basic maintenance and asset management, our transportation infrastructure is experiencing new stresses and pressures associated with climate change, such as severe weather events. According to Flynn, making sustainable and resilient infrastructure investments then can achieve multiple objectives: improve our economy, mitigate climate change impacts, and reduce security vulnerabilities.

Bounce Back, Bounce Forward

The Port of Newark is adjacent to the New Jersey Turnpike and Newark International Airport, with nearby arterial roads and transit systems. The site functions like “the ultimate multimodal machine” where planners and engineers optimized freight efficiency at the Port, said Flynn. The efficiency gains unfortunately created vulnerabilities (i.e., illicit activity) and had built fragility into the system by situating critical infrastructure in extremely close proximity. From a security perspective, we need to be more creative about addressing vulnerabilities. 

The definition of resilience, stated in the 2013 U.S. Presidential Policy Directive 21, underscores the idea that resilience is not only about responding to a disruption but is achieved through policies and activities that happen long before the disruption. 

“Resilience needs to be designed or baked-into” our infrastructure systems, Flynn said. The key to adaption is “bouncing forward” rather than simply recovering and replacing the systems that may have been affected by a disruption.

“Resilience is the ability to prepare for and adapt to changing conditions and withstand and recover rapidly from disruptions. Resilience includes the ability to withstand and recover from deliberate attacks, accidents, or naturally occurring threats or incidents.” – U.S. Presidential Policy Directive 21 (2013)


Flynn posits that “the underpinning of the resilience imperative arises from the reality that we are hyper-connected.” Each connection creates a dependency, and multiple connections create interdependencies. Resilience is urgent not because there are more threats or severe weather events, for example, but because these interdependencies create the risk that “a shock, which was once localized, now cascades in far more costly and disruptive ways.” 

While infrastructure systems are the primary subject of the Global Resilience Institute’s research, information-age connectivity is equally important. Flynn notes that with the new “Internet of Things” model, we are on track to have 38 billion connected devices by 2025. This scenario creates vast interdependencies that may generate efficiencies, but also real risks.

One of the issues with respect to increased connectivity—hyper-connectivity—among physical infrastructure systems is the “stove-piped” or isolated way these systems are often managed. Transportation systems are managed separately from health delivery networks or telecommunications systems; the reality is that each of these systems are really “systems of systems,” according to Flynn, making the resilience imperative even more profound.

Recent events like Hurricanes Harvey and Maria and Western wildfires highlight the ripple effects of catastrophic events. Compared to severe weather events a century ago, like Galveston, Texas’s Hurricane Isaac, impacts are not limited to a specific city or town, but can cause national and global impacts. 

“If we’re not thinking about infrastructure…through the lens of climate change, we’re undoubtedly going to set ourselves up for continued catastrophic losses,” said Flynn.

Overcoming Five Barriers to Resilience

Flynn observes that “turbulence has become the hallmark of the 21st century,” with serious economic consequences. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Bank estimated between $300 billion and $500 billion in annual worldwide economic losses due to climate change induced disasters.

How, then, can we build resilience? According to Flynn, there are five critical barriers that must be overcome. These barriers include:

  1. Risk Illiteracy and a pervasive lack of understanding of interdependent systems;
  2. Inadequate designs for embedding resilience into systems at multiple levels;
  3. Pervasive economic disincentives for investing in resilience;
  4. Inadequate governance frameworks and policy guidance to foster resilience; and
  5. Lack of adequate training and education to support the development and implementation of tools, applications, processes, and policies.

Putting Resilience into Practice

Resilience is an ongoing cycle of preparation, mitigation, response, recovery, and adaptation. These activities, according to Flynn, should happen prior to a shock or disruption, during the disruption, and after the disruption in order to continuously build resilience.

Living with risk and managing risk are essential to incorporating resilience into economic development and economic recovery. Specific actions include blending development priorities with resilience imperatives, adapting building codes and incentives to support innovative and resilient designs, and teaming urban and regional planners with emergency managers. 

“We need to think collaboratively and creatively, and we need to do that with some urgency,” said Flynn.

Paying particular attention to infrastructure resilience, “there are three essential and concurrent activities: we must conduct academic research that informs infrastructure and community resilience, we must support early and widespread adoption of resilience applications, tools, and protocols, and we must identify and deploy both public policy and market-based incentives for adopting infrastructure best practices,” he said.

Flynn concluded that resilience requires a deeper understanding of hazards and risks; resilience must be multi-jurisdictional and must be incorporated into all of our critical systems. It is both a national security and an economic competitiveness issue, and, ironically, is something that “doesn’t happen without a lot of connectedness.” 

View video highlights from Flynn’s February 9, 2021, talk, “The Imperative and Opportunity to Invest in Resilient Infrastructure.” 

To learn more about the U.S. DOT Volpe Center’s thought leadership program, please contact U.S. DOT Volpe Center Director of Strategic Initiatives for Research and Innovation Ellen E. Bell.

Please note, the views expressed here do not constitute or necessarily represent official policy of the U.S. DOT, and the U.S. government does not endorse products or services.

Celebrating more than 50 years of federal service to the nation, the U.S. DOT Volpe Center’s mission is to improve the nation's transportation system by anticipating emerging issues and advancing technical, operational, and institutional innovations for the public good.