Doctoral students Vaishali Kushwaha and Josh Laufer work on a research project in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs suite.
What would happen to Boston if the city were struck with a Superstorm Sandy-like event? “A lot of water is going to end up in places that most people don’t think water should come to,” says professor Stephen Flynn.
Flynn, co-director of the Kostas Research Institute and director of the Center for Resilience Studies, Matthias Ruth, director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, and doctoral students Vaishali Kushwaha and Josh Laufer are part of a larger team of researchers at Northeastern University, Ohio State University and the Wharton School that is assessing metro Boston’s interdependent energy and transportation sectors to identify a governance framework that would enhance resilience and regional institutional coordination.
Their project, funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, seeks to identify the extent to which mitigation, response and recovery plans by infrastructure owners and operators take into account their dependency on other sectors. The goal, they said, is to create better resilience-building models and tools.
“How will these infrastructures react to what might not be ideal circumstances?” said Laufer, a third-year student in the PhD in Law and Public Policy. “If you have a solar panel but the grid goes down due to a storm, that panel will not operate. In general, there are ways in which infrastructures that are sustainable may not be resilient.”
A can’t-miss opportunity
When professor Ruth, director of the Resilient Cities Lab, invited Kushwaha and Laufer to participate in the “Governance Project” in late 2015, they jumped at the opportunity to close the loop between research and practice.
At the time, Kushwaha was almost done with her first semester in the PhD in Law and Public Policy and Laufer was completing his second year in the program. The duo started working on the project in January 2016 by conducting a literature review of resilience governance. Now, they are in the process of creating a network model of stakeholders’ interactions and collaborations in the energy and transportation sectors.
“We’re trying to study the greater Boston area energy-transport nexus, looking at how resilient they are in governance, structure and model, if there are barriers or if there can be any improvements, and how those lessons can then be translated for other cities and regions,” said Kushwaha whose research interests lie in urban sustainability and resilience.
Thus far, the duo has found vertical hierarchy connections in the energy sector and horizontal connections on the transportation side. Therefore, MassDOT, MBTA and Massport seem to work side-by-side, whereas communication flow within the energy sector moves from federal to regional to then local utility companies, they said.
On Nov. 1, the team participated in a kick-off meeting at the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security on “Interdependent Critical Infrastructure Hurricane Preparedness: Building Resilience in the Energy and Transportation Sectors in the Metro-Boston Region.”
The goal was to assess the potential impacts on energy and transportation infrastructure in greater Boston from the storm surge associated with a hurricane striking the city at high tide. A Superstorm Sandy-like event, for example, would cause major inundation damage to both the transportation and energy sectors within the Boston-Metro region.
“We’re dealing with a real and present challenge,” Flynn said at the meeting. “If we get this right and figure it out, we can hopefully help.”
Drawing on lessons from Superstorm Sandy in New York City and other similar events, participants identified potential mitigation strategies and examined response and recovery gaps and challenges.
“Many of the basic questions that must be answered to improve resilience of the energy and transportation sectors in Boston haven’t been asked by the stakeholders. Everyone does their best and assumes the others do so too, but coordination on how to manage key interdependencies of the sectors is lacking, and there’s a void of long-term thinking and planning in advance of future risks, many of which we already know about. Some of the challenges lie in the complexity of the interactions between the infrastructure systems and the way their governing institutions evolved. Some of it has to do with misaligned incentive structures.”
—Matthias Ruth, Director and Professor, School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs
The next stage of the project involves interviews with stakeholders in the energy and transportation sectors where they will be asked to contextualize their priorities and decisions. Then, the team will convene a workshop with all participants to present their findings, highlight areas where cross-sector collaboration could be strengthened, and propose solutions to the identified resilience governance challenges.
“This has never been done before and it becomes rewarding because you’re able to contribute,” Kushwaha said.
Photos: “Interdependent Critical Infrastructure Hurricane Preparedness: Building Resilience in the Energy and Transportation Sectors in the Metro-Boston Region”