The eruption of the undersea volcano in Tonga last January is an illustrative case of how cascading risks work. A disruptive event triggers another, then another, in an incremental chain that exacerbates multiple vulnerabilities becoming critical in a certain environment.

The Covid-19 pandemic made clear that crisis don’t come alone. While cities were fighting the health emergency, many of them were impacted by climate extremes – floods, droughts, cyclones – that made the existing issues of aging and inadequate urban infrastructures come to the surface and jeopardized the effort towards the economic and social recovery.

Cascading risks have become more visible in recent years, as cities can barely recover from an extreme weather event or a natural disaster, before being struck with a follow-on cybercrime attack, civil unrest, or other social disruptions.

As disruption has now become the ‘new normal’, city managers need to endorse resilience as the overarching approach to tackle cascading risks from climate change, urbanization, and digitalization.

But resilience is not something that can be achieved overnight, said Elaine Tan, Deputy Director at the Center for Livable Cities in Singapore, during a recent online event by the Resilient Cities Network and The World Bank Group.

It is paramount to reshape urban models, design and implement resilient infrastructures, leveraging smart technologies to improve the efficiency and quality of key public services (think of power and water supplies, mobility systems, law enforcement, just to mention a few) while making them resilient and accessible even in crisis times. Cascading risks will be less frightening if the city relies on a smart urban infrastructure to monitor and control critical services.

“The ‘hardware’ infrastructure resilience has got to do a lot with the community resilience, the ‘software’ side of things”, added Elaine Tan. And that’s absolutely true: there can’t be a smart resilient city without smart resilient citizens.

In this uncertain time, it is especially important for local governments to engage people, creating trust and open lines of communication and collaboration. Only cohesive communities can respond to multiple, ongoing cascading risks and thrive even in the face of adversity.