After the severe flooding that Phoenix, Arizona faced in September 2014, researchers from the Arizona State University have joined together to lead a team of 50 researchers from 15 institutions to change the way we think about urban infrastructure.
Currently, problems that are commonly associated with the developing world, such as sewage-strewn stormwater that floods streets, are happening in around 300 U.S. cities. The research team are there to say that this is not ok and to try to find a new approach to an old problem.
They think that something that needs to change is instead of building “fail-safe” infrastructure, instead, “safe-to-fail” infrastructure would be a better solution.
“Fail-safe is built on a risk-management principle. It’s all about how often does it happen, how potentially bad is it, who does it affect. Those are the parameters you work with and you work with acceptable levels of those parameters. It leads you to build things that are bigger and heavier,” Redman said.
“Safe-to-fail has to be built on less certainty, but it also has to be built on restructuring the dynamics of the system – and that’s where SETS (social, ecological and technical systems) comes in. We think we need to really understand these dynamics better than people do.”
There are examples of both kinds of infrastructure that people can look to in Scottsdale – with the safe-to-fail Indian Bend Wash Greenbelt, which sometimes does flood, but is easy to repair vs. the Los Angeles River channel, which is “fail-safe”, but would be effectively ruined if even one part of it was damaged.
The research team know that no single solution could ever apply to all cities and they think that infrastructure design should be appropriate for each site.
With climate change and increasing climate variability ‘safe to fail’ systems may be a more logical way to manage uncertainty, and give more systems resilience. Something to think about.