Urban areas—their inhabitants and their infrastructure—are often concentrated in exposed areas like coasts and drylands and thus vulnerable to extreme events. Climate change is driving increasing frequency and magnitude of such events, such that risk to people and infrastructure in cities is one of the prime manifestations of the interaction between these two major components of global change. As a result of this accelerating risk, there is increased awareness of and interest in the concept of resilience among city practitioners and urban scholars alike. We present a conceptual framework for urban social-ecological-technological systems (SETS) that integrates three domains: social/equity/governance, environmental/ecological, and engineering/built environment/technology issues. We assert that socioecological systems and socially sensitive engineering approaches that fail to incorporate the third dimension may reduce resilience to climate-related disaster.
The Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network is exploring: 1) potential solutions such as green infrastructure and safe-to-fail design, 2) modifications of ecosystem services approaches and vulnerability and resilience assessment under a SETS framing, and 3) participatory visioning of sustainable, resilient futures to guide urban transformation. A SETS approach enriches these activities through sensible balancing of the three domains, evaluating tradeoffs among them and opportunities for emergence that can support transformation. The infrastructure of the future must leverage ecosystem services, improve social well being, and exploit new technologies in ways that benefit all segments of urban populations and are context specific. Contexts are defined not only by the biophysical environment but also by culture and institutions of each place. The SETS conceptual framework is being applied in ten diverse western hemisphere cities to co-develop, with city practitioners, visions of resilient SETS infrastructure for an uncertain future.