Building resilience: championing sustainable infrastructure

Roads & Infrastructure Magazine speaks with resilience expert Rebecca Miller, who has been awarded a top sustainability leadership award for her development of a resilience rating tool.Roads & Infrastructure Magazine speaks with resilience expert Rebecca Miller, who has been awarded a top sustainability leadership award for her development of a resilience rating tool.

When trying to explain the concept of infrastructure resilience to stakeholders, Rebecca Miller asks them to share the first thing they think of when they think of resilience.

As part of this exercise during her workshop, she says the first thing that comes to her mind is the Australian brush-turkey.

“The brush-turkey embodies a lot of the characteristics of resilience, especially when it comes to flexibility, adaptability and the ability to bounce back, survive and thrive,” Ms. Miller explains.

“Often a brush-turkey will build its nest in an unusual spot that doesn’t make much sense, like a driveway. This often leads to their homes being destroyed, but they’re quick to rebuild them and learn what works best.

“A lot of the time, human civilisations have also built in places that now don’t make much sense, but because we have built there, we need to ensure our infrastructure and homes can absorb any extreme events and bounce back quickly,”

Ms. Miller has been involved with the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA) since it began as the Australian Green Infrastructure Council in 2007. The organisation is a member-based non-profit that aims to enable sustainable outcomes through infrastructure through education, training, connectivity and knowledge sharing.

To assist its members plan, design, construct and operate infrastructure assets sustainably, ISCA has developed an Infrastructure Sustainability (IS) rating scheme. The scheme aims to provide a national assessment framework for sustainability in infrastructure, provide a mechanism for supporting consistent application in tendering processes and foster efficiency, innovation and continuous improvement through the sector.

More than $80 billion in infrastructure and civil works programs have become engaged in the IS rating program, which analyses a projects governance, economics, environment and social impacts. Organisations from the across private and public sector have since applied the rating program to improve the sustainability of their infrastructure assets.

ISCA approached Ms. Miller for her expertise to review the climate change category for the ISv2 scheme. She was asked what the next level was from a climate change risk and adaptation perspective.

Her answer was to improve focus on urban resilience, which would eventually evolve into a standalone credit category as part of the ISv2 tool to help its implementation across the industry and set best practice targets for the infrastructure sector.

Her support and expertise in the development of the category has seen her go on to win ISCA’s Individual Leadership award. Roads & Infrastructure Magazine sat down with her to discuss her journey leading up to the award.

Roads & Infrastructure Magazine speaks with resilience expert Rebecca Miller, who has been awarded a top sustainability leadership award for her development of a resilience rating tool.

GROWING RESILIENCE 

Growing up, Ms. Miller always wanted to leave a positive legacy. She says she knew she didn’t want to be a doctor, nurse or teacher and wanted to find her own way to make a difference in the world.

At the start of her career, sustainability was still developing as a concept. While some organisations had been looking at sustainability since the 1990s, it hadn’t yet permeated into the mainstream.

She soon found herself in London, working as a project manager for a sustainable housing development. After spending around five years overseas, she returned to Queensland where she helped develop, implement and maintain a framework for community engagement at Arup which has since grown, evolved and gone on to win multiple awards.

One of the pivotal points in her career was working at the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network in Bangkok for the Rockefeller Foundation. It was here she got her first taste of the broader resilience work being done.

“I was only out there for six weeks or so, but it’s where I got my passion for urban resilience. Up to that point I had been doing work in climate risk and adaptation but hadn’t touched the broader subject that had been developing,” she explains.

“Climate change may be the number one challenge facing built environment, but other elements such as the rise in urbanisation and globalisation can compound the issues we face.

“Urban resilience is necessary to understand where risks lie in different projects and locations around the globe and how to design infrastructure to continue supporting the population through extreme events.”

Each infrastructure project faces its own risks and environments that can present design challenges, making it difficult to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach for resilience. For example, an infrastructure project located in Adelaide would need to be more prepared for extreme heat than those located in Newcastle, which may need to pay closer attention to sea level rise and extreme storms.

One way to improve a project’s resilience is to respond to the individual shocks and stresses by looking ahead to the potential future to prepare.

Ms. Miller explains that it is possible to predict some of the types of extreme weather events that are likely to occur, but steps aren’t always taken to ensure they can quickly recover.

“We know that certain roads always flood during extreme storm events and that some water treatment plants will struggle under the pressure,” Ms. Miller says.

“However, often these are just rebuilt to the same standard as they were beforehand instead of looking ahead to build a flood-resistant structure. We can’t keep using the same approaches that had previously worked, especially as climate change is affecting how we need to respond to extreme weather events.”

She has also recently completed her Masters degree with a focus on climate resilience at the University of Cambridge while working full time in the industry. This allowed her to further improve her understanding of the often deep and complex issues which can be missed when moving from project to project.

Ms. Miller identifies her work with Transport for NSW through ISCA as an important part of her career. She says the department’s willingness and commitment to innovation and best practice has benefited a number of initiatives.

“I helped work on a number of initiatives, from setting targets for ICSA ratings on their projects and whether they set specific credits and levels, through to developing a climate risk assessment guideline for all Transport for NSW projects over $15 million,” she explains.

“That work continues with Transport for NSW and they’re always looking ahead for new best practices to incorporate.”

With the introduction of the urban resilience credit, ISCA members have approached the organisation looking to integrate it across their projects. One of these companies was the NSW Government’s property developer Landcom.

Landcom had been looking to operationalise its climate change resilience practices so that it could apply standards across every project it undertook. In particular, it wanted a greater understanding about the asset interdependencies and key shocks and stresses for its communities.

“We began working with Landcom to build a pilot, which has been used across multiple communities and helped develop an ongoing commission to provide assessments across its assets,” she says.

Climate change presents an uncertain future for many companies that are looking to build assets with long lifespans. By helping inform best practice design, construction and operations philosophy, stakeholders can contribute to a city or region’s ability to persist and bounce back from extreme events.

Ms. Miller remains passionate about improving awareness around sustainability and resilience in the built environment and aims to continue helping stakeholders implement it in their infrastructure projects.

“There’s no silver bullet for sustainability or resilience. We have to hold an evolving conversation that does not dismiss either as just an environmental issue, but as a key part of our future development.”


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