Faced with several diverse crises in quick succession – the Covid-19 pandemic, the geo-political conflict in Ukraine and rising energy prices – the City of Antwerp created in 2020 a specific role to prepare and respond to future crises and challenges: a Chief Resilience Officer.
This issue of the Urban Pioneers series presents the experience of Bart Bruelemans, Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Antwerp, and looks into how his role goes beyond the concept of resilience used in the domain of climate adaptation.
What are you trying to achieve in your position?
I want to prepare the City of Antwerp to perform critical services for customers and colleagues no matter the circumstances.
To do so, people working in the local administration must understand that we will keep living in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambigous (VUCA) world and the best answer to this is organisational resilience. Organisational resilience is everyone’s responsibility in the municipality. Every foreseeable challenge that is treated upfront and for which a deliberate decision is taken. Even deliberately ignoring this challenge, is better than (un)deliberately ignoring the discussion.
This means that everybody accepts the idea that project plans need to be repeatedly changed due to external factors, while keeping an eye on the final goal, and without neglecting most people’s need for stability.
Organisational resilience is making sure that the local administration can anticipate for, cope with, and adapt itself after any (un)expected event or crisis. As the Chief Resilience Officer, I am responsible for developing and facilitating a coherent strategy on resilience. However, I will never be able to realise organisational resilience on my own. I need every member of the administration’s buy-in because resilience must be tackled transversally.
The cycle of anticipation, coping and adaptation should be run for any process or service. There are many parameters that need to be considered and an optimal solution is often utopic. However, it is always better to be ‘conscious incompetent’ than ‘unconscious incompetent’ so that at least you know your weaknesses.
What’s your personal motivation to do this job?
I’ve been active in the domain of safety and crisis management for more than 20 years. Crises become more and more complex and emergency services, or an organisation’s crisis manager, will no longer be able to solve all issues.
Being resilient is becoming more and more necessary, not only for individuals but also for organisation, especially public organisations that need to be able to continue to provide services to people. I like working as a public servant to support our citizens and provide them with a reliable organisation, even in difficult circumstances.
I also enjoy jobs in which I need to expect the unexpected and be a pioneer. I am very proud to be the first Chief Resilience Officer of a Belgian local authority, after being the first Belgian local authority emergency manager in 2005.
Walk us through a day in your shoes.
No two days are the same.
The rhythm and business differ a lot, whether the organisation is in the anticipation, coping or adaptation phase. This can change very rapidly.
What are your main challenges?
Collaboration and creating good networks in the administration is key. On the other hand, is it a very specific domain which sometimes makes the role a rather solitary one.
At first sight, my job is to ask extra things from others, for example to adapt current ways of working. So, it takes some soft skills and persuasion to point out the benefits in the long run for the city.
The short-term challenge is the diversity of projects in the Chief Resilience Officer’s department. We try to guide our colleagues and partners from different departments with their work and manage some projects ourselves, however resources are limited.
When was the last time you felt that your position had a positive impact on your city’s inhabitants?
Typically, in this domain people realise the added value the moment a crisis occurs. If the city is acting effectively during a crisis, our citizens appreciate all the effort that was made.
We are now working on a project to make the situation of locals in an area that is below sea level more resilient during heavy rainfall in the summer. We both invested in the public domain and collaborated with the residents to see what they could do to prevent calling the emergency services for flooding in their property.
If you had a magic wand, what could significantly improve the way you do your job?
Ironically, some small crisis now and then is the best way to move forward in the domain of anticipation and adaptation. So, if I had a magic wand I would initiate a tiny crisis on demand on the topic that I’m working on at that moment.
Pitch your job to other local, regional, national, or European governments.
Every public organisation, regardless of the level on which it operates, is confronted with our VUCA world.
This means that every organisation should be prepared for the unexpected and be ready to continue providing critical services in any circumstances. Somebody in the senior management of every organisation should be responsible for a coherent resilience strategy.
This interview is part of ‘Urban Pioneers,’ a Eurocities series published every second and fourth Monday of the month spotlighting innovative and original job positions in municipalities across Europe. Each article in this series highlights a job position aimed at improving wellbeing, health conditions, society and the environment in cities. From tackling the urban heat island effect to countering gender imbalances to encouraging sustainable mobility, ‘Urban Pioneers’ showcases how cities are leading by example and breaking new ground in enhancing people’s quality of life. ‘Urban Pioneers’ jobs can inspire national, regional and EU authorities to create similar positions in their own structures, multiplying across Europe’s regions and nations the positive impact that started in cities.