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Course Director of Cambridge’s Construction Engineering Masters, Dr Kristen MacAskill, tells us what’s on her mind, lessons learned from the resilience round-tables, and the challenges for resilience as a discipline.

Dr Kristen MacAskill has been thinking a lot lately about the language around risk and resilience. She believes that, even now, people who talk about resilience have different views on the relationship between risk and resilience.

“For me, resilience is advancing how we do risk analysis. I think it’s the next stage.”

“Risk analysis relies on the ability to establish a probability, which informs a decision to act (or not). I think resilience is about acknowledging that there is much more uncertainty and complexity surrounding those numbers, particularly when it comes to using them as the basis for decision-making.”

Responding to this uncertainty and complexity is something with which professionals responsible for planning, designing and managing infrastructure must grapple. They might need to respond by modelling more scenarios (which is becoming more feasible with improvements in technology and data availability) or by finding better ways to integrate expert judgement with quantitative analysis (making use of expert knowledge of how assets perform under various conditions).

She says, “I think resilience resonates with people, in the sense that we know we are vulnerable to various possible shocks and stresses and people are becoming more concerned about that”.

“Sustainability is often marginalised – the Sustainable Development Goals are helping to shift that perception but it’s still often perceived as simply environmental protection, or an added extra that you do if or when you can afford it.”

“There is an opportunity with resilience to refresh this discussion and think about the impact of today’s decisions on the future in a way that overcomes the barriers that have limited the sustainability conversation.”

Kristen runs the Construction Engineering Masters (CEM) programme at the University of Cambridge. A civil engineer by training, with a background in the water and transport sectors and a PhD in resilience and disaster recovery, Kristen’s experience covers diverse areas of infrastructure development, including strategic level options assessment, post-earthquake damage assessment, infrastructure design, project management and sustainability assessment.

We asked Dr MacAskill about the CEM programme, and the expectations of today’s students. The average experience of participants on the CEM is 11-12 years in industry, but this can range from 5 to 25+ years of experience. She explains that people have different reasons for coming to do a professional-oriented Master’s degree. Some are keen to enhance their leadership capabilities, others seek the experience to challenge their thinking.

“When we’ve had discussions around the sustainability agenda of the industry, for some people it has really opened their eyes, because they haven’t yet thought about this problem. While more people seem to be engaging with the concept of sustainability and resilience, there are still a lot of people in industry who focus more narrowly on the short-term demands to deliver their project. They don’t necessarily have the time to think: are we delivering the right outcomes?”

“For the Masters programme, our principle has always been about broadening the horizons of the people involved in planning, designing and delivering infrastructure.”

“What we see is that when people have been working in a particular part of the sector for a certain period of time, their thinking becomes shaped by that experience. The ethos of the CEM is to challenge this and provide an environment that exposes people to different ideas and different disciplines and emphasise critical and reflective thinking.”

Running the series of round-table events for the Resilience Shift has also reinforced to Kristen that not everyone is in the same place on the resilience journey and that this is affected by exposure to major events and, critically, governance structures.

“It depends on who you get into the room as to how the conversation goes. I’m intrigued as to how we manage this to promote cross-sector learning and bring everyone forward”, she says.

“The ports and logistics round-table held in London, for example, highlighted that the commercial drivers across participants in this sector limits the appeal of coordinating on strategic challenges.”

“In Berkeley, California we held a round-table exploring city-scale modelling. There was clear awareness of the vulnerability to earthquakes based on the exposure to this hazard and past experience of devastating impacts. There has been a focused effort to reduce the impact of future earthquakes. Climate change is emerging as a concern, requiring more regional coordination to help individual organisations understand how they may take effective action.”

“Participants in the Christchurch round-table – which was designed to explore lessons from disaster recovery – supported the need to build relationships across sectors to help build resilience. Those who haven’t been through an event may not perceive a real threat and don’t necessarily see the value in spending time with other organisations as a priority. As Christchurch emerges from post-earthquake recovery, they value this time spent fostering relationships because they understand the benefit.”

“It reinforced the whole agenda of the Resilience Shift in trying to build relationships and develop ways that people can communicate to collectively improve resilience. It reinforced to me that that’s the right way to go.”

She concludes: “Disasters around the world are telling us that we need to think about the potential impacts of low likelihood events. We’re not going to be able to predict exactly what’s going to happen, but we still need to be prepared for what could.”

“The human condition is that we don’t tend to think or act on things if there is a low probability of it happening in our lifetime.”

“We need to start changing that mindset.”


With thanks to Dr Kristen MacAskill

Kristen and fellow academic Professor Peter Guthrie (supported by Francesca O’Hanlon) run the Resilience Shift Technical Advisory Group.

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