Institute promises interdisciplinary solutions to changing world conditions

By Glenn Billman, news staff

Northeastern will launch the Global Resilience Institute (GRI) March 14 to help people across the world adapt to changes and recover from disruptions such as environmental disasters and aging infrastructure.

By resilience, the institute is referring to the ability to prepare for and adapt to changing conditions on individual, communal, national and global scales, said Jennie Stephens, the associate director of the university’s strategic research collaborations and a professor of sustainability science and policy.

Philip Anderson, the associate director for research and innovation, said resilience has always been important. However, the challenges of the 21st century have made it even more critical.

“When you boil it down to the simplest terms, resilience is the ability to take a punch and recover quickly,” Anderson said. “That is an enormously complex challenge, but it’s one that we as a society, we as a local and regional level, need to be thinking more seriously about because of the changing world. Both the changing geopolitics as well as the changing environment, the climate, everything that goes with it.”

Founding director Stephen Flynn said the GRI will enlist all nine colleges at Northeastern to do research and promote preparedness for and adaptation to disruptions across disciplines. These areas of work include security, sustainability, health and the environment. Northeastern committed to funding research grants over the next five years, supporting international ventures and allowing the GRI to operate on one of the floors of 177 Huntington Ave. starting this summer.

“What my conviction has been is we really need the insights from engineers, scientists and social scientists to really figure out how to become more resilient at the individual level, the community level, the societal level,” Flynn said. “You only are going to do this from taking the benefit and insights from multiple disciplines, so you have to take this on as a university-wide effort versus as a specific effort within a particular college or particular academic department.”

Flynn has been working in the field of resilience for almost two decades. He said the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and Hurricane Katrina convinced him that the United States and the global community were ill-equipped to overcome the challenges and upsets of the 21st century.

“My concern was that while we had all this investment in an effort to try and prevent bad things from happening, we didn’t seem to be very good at coping well when things did go wrong,” Flynn said.

The GRI will bring together students, professors, researchers, industry members, government agencies and other organizations to tackle eight broad goals. These goals include incentivising individuals and entities to embrace resilience; connecting government, communities and organizations; and researching types of resilience, tools, infrastructure and security.

“The Global Resilience Institute builds significantly on Northeastern’s growing international educational network and research profile in the critical areas of health, security and sustainability,” Provost James C. Bean said in an e-mail to the Northeastern community. “Over the coming months and years, the Global Resilience Institute will support multi-disciplinary, cross-college research in eight strategic focus areas that draws on and helps to further advance the diversity of resilience-related expertise across the Northeastern academic community.”

While the center deals with current issues, Stephens said it was not created in response to any one event. Instead, it will combat a range of challenges through funding cross-college research.

“The idea of the theme of resilience is not new at Northeastern, it’s not like it’s in direct response to near-term events,” Stephens said. “But it is definitely responding to this trend of more disruptive events of all kinds, including sudden abrupt changes as well as longer-term more slowly emerging disruptions, like climate change and growing inequality in society.”

Flynn said the GRI will involve students in three ways: By stitching together pre-existing research across disciplines to be more effective, creating a global resilience research network to knit together projects from around the world and working with the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to create a group that will go to disaster sites to analyze what happened.

Flynn said he believes Northeastern’s global network and interconnectivity between disciplines and real world issues will bolster the GRI.

“I think it’s the best place for this work to be done, in no small part because it really is a core strength of Northeastern in engaging in interdisciplinary research,” Flynn said. “The ease at which I have found being able to engage practitioners and work with them on some of these challenges is something that Northeastern brings a special capability to bear.”

Northeastern’s unique approach is also what encouraged Anderson to leave his job as chief operating officer for Analytical Services Inc., a Washington, D.C. based not-for-profit analysis organization that provides insights for the federal government and other clients.
“We’re building out a team of very talented people who understand the ins and outs of operations,” Anderson said. “So you take world class research, bring it together with an operational perspective, that’s very unique. That type of ability, in my experience, doesn’t exist anywhere else, and it can be enormously helpful.”

Leave a Reply