Five unique views on resilience described in words and illustrations

What do you get when you put 6 resilience experts and a visual artist in a room for 3 hours? See for yourself.

As cities and communities seek to address resilience more holistically, it is important to collaborate with others who see resilience through lenses that might be similar to and dramatically different than yours.

Earlier this year, at the American Water Works Association’s Annual Conference & Exposition (ACE19), I curated a technical session where industry experts gave talks on and explored the different dimensions of utility resilience.

To connect a wider audience of water utilities with the insights shared during the session, I invited visual recording artist Rachel Stevens to capture our perspectives. I hope this series of illustrations and commentary brings to life the awesome energy in the room and inspires you to make bold, innovative moves towards building a fit-for-future utility. Thanks to Dusti Lowndes (DC Water) and Laurna Kaatz (Denver Water) for providing invaluable utility perspectives, and to Arcadis experts Edgar Westerhof, Rebecca Slabaugh and Ned Fernandez for sharing their expertise and views on resilience.

Resilience reimagined

Esteban Azagra, Arcadis

I kicked off the session by examining the resilience challenges that keep us awake at night, such as, workforce, aging infrastructure, affordability, and shocks and stressors putting $1.25T in industry assets at risk.

Key takeaway: Embed a resilient mindset that weighs shocks and stress equally. Never let a crisis go to waste; addressing the chronic components of resilience now can help you adapt over time and better prepare you to bounce back when the shocks hit. Invest in asset fitness and organizational health as a way of doing so. And finally, create a lasting impact by continuously moving through the 5 steps to reimagining resilience: Envision, assess, transform, improve, mature and assure.

Learn more at

Hotter, wetter, wilder

Edgar Westerhof, Arcadis

Building resilience by turning climate challenges into opportunities only happens with collaboration. Teamwork can shine a light on related issues, improve the quality of planning, maximize funds and create more resilient cities instead of just a resilient asset or utility. In one example, Edgar explained how Dutch coastal and urban rejuvenation projects created stormwater storage, mutli-functional protective levees and even parks and landscaping to both protect and enhance communities.

Key takeaway: Utilities, as suppliers of critical services, play fundamental roles in the resilience of their cities. Collaborating across organizations can position utilities as thought leaders and create multi-benefit solutions that incorporate quality of life-improving elements that brings added value for citizens. Ultimately, solving for resilience in this way can be more affordable, functionally effective, sustainable and appealing to communities.

Using regional economic impact analysis to determine the real costs of service interruptions

Dusti Lowndes, DC Water

Edward (Ned) Fernandez, Arcadis

The real costs of resilience can turn hesitant stakeholders into willing investors. Dusti and Ned shared a story about how DC Water is developing an approach to quantify the real economic value of providing water and wastewater service to the District of Columbia. Understanding the direct, indirect and induced economic value of service will help DC Water identify, prioritize and pursue resilience projects for funding and implementation.

Key takeaway: Financial stability can be a stressor. To make powerful business cases that unlock much-needed funding, show key stakeholders the real value of resilience and the benefit of maintaining a resilient utility.

Embracing uncertainty

Laurna Kaatz, Denver Water

While DC had a strong prediction for the value of investment, sometimes you’re forced to operate in the unknown. Incorporating uncertainty will be even more important as climate change impacts water supplies and treatments. Laurna detailed how, after a series of compounding shocks and stressors, Denver Water embraced the complexity of future change and began using uncertainty analyses. Strategizing capital investments and master plans that consider what different futures might look like broadened project scopes and created new opportunities, such as its partnership with From Forests to Faucets.

Key takeaway: Create a culture that embraces uncertainty and consider it as an element of every decision made. At times, asking “what if?” is just as prudent as relying on historical data. Perform scenario planning that includes multiple futures and the far-reaching potential effects of climate change.

Can your plant handle what’s coming?

Rebecca Slabaugh, Arcadis

Rebecca also delved into uncertainty but focused on the drinking water treatment process. Uncertainty for a plant, she noted, isn’t just about dealing with the catastrophic damage of a storm. It also includes trickle down effects, like changes to biodiversity that shift treatment and regulatory standards.

Key takeaway: Uncertainty looms large and requires addressing operational resilience. To prepare, start small and plan holistically around fundamentals like public health, and leverage data-driven technology to track progress in real-time. These principles can enhance plans and provide flexibility to adjust to new regulations when they arise.

Building resilience is a team sport

In Resilience reimagined: Building a fit-for-future utility, my colleagues and I compared operating a utility to running an endless obstacle course. On the plane home from ACE19, I considered this perspective as I reflected upon the stories shared during the session. I quickly realized how much easier the course gets when (1) you connect with people and solutions that broaden your views on resilience, (2) you leverage the experiences of others to break down obstacles one step at a time, and (3) you discover that you can help others by sharing your stories.

Conditions will change and new hurdles will arise. But if we emphasize collaboration in building resilience, we can ensure the water industry is fit-for-future.

Esteban Azagra

Water Business Advisory Lead Ask me a question
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