In 1950, 746 million people lived in urban areas around the globe. Today, that number has risen to 3.9 billion, which equates to 54% of the world’s population. By 2050 this percentage is estimated to grow to 70%. As 21st century cities grow in size, they also grow in significance. Cities have become hubs for knowledge sharing, economic growth, and creativity and are at the forefront of global innovation.

While rapid urbanization can be a tremendous opportunity for advancement, it also places serious strain on cities, presenting them with new and more severe economic, social, and physical challenges. Sudden shocks, like earthquakes and floods, and acute stresses, like crumbling infrastructure and lack of social cohesion, can cause significant damage and disruption; and, because city systems are interconnected, breakdowns can lead to multiple or sequential failures. At worst, this can result in social breakdown, physical collapse, or economic decline.

In our modern age, preparing to face these shocks and stresses cannot simply mean repairing neglected infrastructure or enhancing a city’s cybersecurity defenses. Designing and implementing a resilience strategy goes well beyond funding a list of individual projects; cities must be able to effectively cut across siloed departments in city government, as well as engage citizens, business, organizations, academia, and broad sets of stakeholders to develop a resilience plan that is both integrated and holistic.

Guided by these fundamental principles, The Rockefeller Foundation pioneered 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) in 2013, on the Foundation’s Centennial. 100RC is dedicated to helping cities survive, adapt, and thrive in the face of the physical, social, and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.

To achieve its mission, 100RC provides its member cities with four core offerings. The first is financial support to hire a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) to lead the city’s resilience efforts. This is a transformational executive who works across a city’s government to shepherd strategic resilience thinking and planning. The second is support – through private and public sector resilience experts, and 100RC staff – to develop a resilience-building strategy to create understanding of city vulnerabilities as well as outline cross-cutting opportunities to build resilience. Third, member cities are provided with access to 100RC’s diverse and dynamic platform of partners from the private, public, and NGO sectors who are instrumental in the implementation of city resilience strategies. Lastly, cities receive membership to the 100RC Network, which provides support, an exchange of knowledge and best practices in resilience, and fosters new connections and partnerships among cities and CROs.

100RC promotes a holistic, inclusive approach to resilience building. By considering all their challenges together and engaging a wide-scope of stakeholders, cities can facilitate collaborative opportunities across city sectors and with various demographics that allows them to fully utilize all their resources.

Though the steps of the resilience building process may be similar in every location, no two cities’ resilience strategies are the same. Cities that face similar threats can learn from each other’s failures and successes, but there is no specific recipe for resilience that fits all urban areas.

Increasingly, 100RC is honing in on the promise Impact investing and social investment strategies to build resilience. Through our network and partnerships, we see opportunity to blend financial and social returns through the use of initiatives like social impact bonds and private sector impact investing markets. These trends have showed themselves in unique, and sometimes unexpected places.

In 2014 in India, the UBS Optimus Foundation, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), Educate Girls, and Instiglio launched the world’s first Development Impact Bond (DIB) in education. The DIB—managed by nonprofit intermediary Instiglio—is a three-year project aimed at addressing the challenges of high dropout rates and poor education quality in Rajasthan, India. UBS Optimus raised an upfront investment of $238,000 to fund Educate Girls, a Rajasthan-based NGO. Starting in June 2015, Educate Girls will work to retain 10,000 girls and improve results in basic English, Hindi, and math for 20,000 students in close to 150 of Rajasthan’s poorest performing schools. CIFF will pay for the social outcomes achieved by the program.

Some cities have utilized social entrepreneurship to build resilience, like Semarang, Indonesia, which has teamed up with 100RC Platform Partner Ushahidi to use open data sourcing as a tool to engage city members. A collaborative mapping process has allowed community residents to highlight places that are important to them, voice what transformation they want to see in the city, and has become a tool for government participation.

Last year, New York State, Social Finance (a 100RC Platform Partner), and Back of America/Merrill Lynch teamed up to launch a “social impact bond” designed to cut New York City’s seemingly insoluble recidivism problem. The $13.5 million raised will extend the proven approach of the Center for Employment Opportunities. If the Center meets targets for reducing recidivism rates, investors stand to earn up to a 12.5% return.

Finally, for other cities, the key to resilience building has been found in impact investment. Over the last decade, housing corporation Havensteder has worked with the Rotterdam government to purchase real estate throughout ZoHo, a previously unattractive, unremarkable industrial center. Instead of focusing on lucrative corporate development, they have allowed the area to urbanize slowly and organically, becoming a hub for new, forward-thinking businesses—simultaneously bolstering economic growth and social cohesion.

Urban resilience is not an end goal, it’s an ongoing process that requires constant, progressive, innovative, and inclusive thinking. Nevertheless, we can still reap the benefits of resilience building. Resilience has the power to unlock greater economic development and business investment, improve social services, and share prosperity more broadly – and impact investing will continue being a key strategy on the road to resilience.

Lauren Sorkin
Lauren Sorkin is the 100 Resilient Cities Platform Director and is a climate change and knowledge management specialist.