Building Resilience in an Urban Ecosystem

Working with Social Enterprises to Rebuild and Reimagine Christchurch

In the aftermath of the devastating 2011 Canterbury earthquakes, the city of Christchurch is now back on its feet supporting the lives of nearly 375,000 New Zealanders. What’s truly inspiring about this tale of resilience is the way that the government, businesses, and citizens of Christchurch are reimagining a city of and for the future. To them, being resilient is about much more than recovering from a natural disaster. As Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel describes it, being resilient is about “creating a new normal” where people can live happily and thrive in an ever-changing environment.

For two weeks in May and June 2017, I gained rare insight into how a spirited community pulls together to recover and reestablish their homes, their businesses, and their lives. As an employee of multi-national enterprise software firm SAP, I was selected to join 11 other adventurous colleagues on the SAP Social Sabbatical. Our mission was to partner with four nonprofit social enterprises in Christchurch, each working to strengthen the economy, safeguard the environment, and enrich the social fabric of the local community.

The Social Sabbatical is a pro bono initiative undertaken as part of SAP’s commitment to “making the world run better and improve people’s lives.” Social enterprises working to improve economic performance, environmental sustainability, and social wellbeing are invited to apply for the program, and program implementer PYXERA Global matches the chosen organizations with selected SAP employees.

Together with two of my colleagues, I was assigned to work with Science Alive, a nonprofit trust dedicated to educating the public about science and technology through interactive experiences, whose building was demolished in the Canterbury earthquakes. Demonstrating uncommon adaptability, the organization had quickly shifted their service delivery model to outreach and e-delivery, enabling them to survive and continue operating without a fixed address. During our introductory call, Dr. Claire McGowan, Science Alive’s Group CEO, explained that the organization was preparing to reopen at a new location. Naturally, we assumed our task would be to assist Science Alive to return to its former business model.

Demonstrating uncommon adaptability, the organization had quickly shifted their service delivery model to outreach and e-delivery, enabling it to survive and continue operating without a fixed address.

A view of the proposed Science Center. Image courtesy of Science Alive.

When we arrived into Christchurch, we quickly discovered that the social enterprise had grander plans. Science Alive’s original sphere of impact had been bound by physical location, but their recent experience with e-delivery and outreach services locally—and nationally through their partnership with the National Science-Technology Roadshow Trust—had expanded their horizons. Business operations were no longer limited to the Canterbury region, and their thinking was no longer constrained by geography. The organization’s leaders had a new vision: to be recognized as best-in-class, not only in Canterbury, but nationally. In reformulating their scope, they were reimagining their business, bigger and better than ever. In the process, they were building resilience to thrive in an ever-changing environment and becoming better prepared to cope with future adversity.

With only 13 days on the ground, our assignment was to help Science Alive bring its vision to life, reimagining their business purpose, exploring new models and operations, and providing tools that the organization’s leaders could use to execute their strategy.

We started by listening and gaining insights from 28 interviews with stakeholders across the public and private sectors, as well as deep conversations with the Board of Trustees and staff. We coupled that with an analysis of responses to an anonymous online survey, from which we gleaned additional information.

The final deliverables were a set of presentations to key stakeholders and a 50+ page strategy paper, synthesizing our findings into an actionable Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) analysis, and a set of critical decisions required by the Board of Trustees to realize their goal of expanding nationally.

Most important, however, was the outside-in perspective we brought to Science Alive. This enabled the staff to reimagine their business, with a theme of “moving from prominence in the Canterbury region, to pre-eminence as a national industry leader.”

Image courtesy of Proctor Academy

While the organization’s recovery from the Canterbury earthquakes has undoubtedly made them stronger, learning from their response to that experience is what has made them more resilient. They could have recovered by rebuilding and reopening in a bigger and better location. But this would have reset Science Alive to their state of business as it was in 2011, discarding the valuable experiences of their last six years of survival. That approach would also have been based on the false assumption that the world of 2017 is as it was in 2011. It’s quite possible that Science Alive could have risen from the rubble only to discover that their environment had completely changed, and that they are now a fundamentally different organization than they were prior to the earthquakes. Instead, they have redefined their purpose, reimagined their business, and established a new business model that will enable them to thrive in an ever-changing environment.

While the organization’s recovery from the Canterbury earthquakes has undoubtedly made them stronger, learning from their response to that experience is what has made them more resilient.

I felt privileged to witness and contribute to this forging of resilience, and inspired to see the impact of the SAP Social Sabbatical on the local community. The experience has taught me that overcoming adversity might make us stronger, but learning from the experience to prepare for the future is what makes us resilient.

Feature photo courtesy of Suranee Perera.

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