Building a resilience ecosystem in Puerto Rico

Digital Puerto Rico and Resiliency Innovation Network
Digital Puerto Rico and Resiliency Innovation Network

In 2018, following the devastation of hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico, People-Centered Internet fielded a team of experts, working with the RAND Corporation, to offer recommendations for leveraging the Internet for the archipelago’s recovery plan. This initiative followed extensive disaster response work by PCI community member, Melvin Cordova, through his “Project Coqui.” PCI team members — including Marci Harris, Mei Lin Fung, and Lin Wells — traveled multiple times to Puerto Rico to engage with local business leaders, innovators, academics, and policymakers. They also participated in a knowledge-exchange trip, organized by Mei Lin Fung, for leaders from Puerto Rico to visit Singapore and engage with their counterparts in business, government, and academia to learn from Singapore’s post-colonial transformation. PCI’s work culminated in 11 recommendations (courses of action or “COAs”) for leveraging federal programs and private resources for Puerto Rico’s recovery and were included in the plan submitted to Congress.

Puerto Rico delegation visits Singapore in 2018.
Puerto Rico delegation visits Singapore in 2018.

While many of the public resources earmarked for Puerto Rico and required for the implementation of the recommended COAs were delayed, notable progress has occurred, much of it through the hard work and collaborative initiatives championed by the local leaders who advised and helped to shape the PCI recommendations. On June 26, PCI co-founders Mei Lin Fung and Vint Cerf spoke with leaders from the exceptional “Echar Pa’lante” (Moving Forward) Multisector Alliance of Puerto Rico and University of Puerto Rico President, Jorge Haddock, about the locally-led transformation that has occurred in the past few years.

Another effort inspired by the initial PCI recommendations is the concept of a “Resiliency Innovation Network” (RIN), which draws on businesses’ technological strengths and seeks to create clusters of innovative resilience businesses to help them thrive together. At the center are universities and some 25 learning and innovation centers distributed across Puerto Rico. The network seeks to generate one new company at each of these centers in the first year, with more in the capital, San Juan, and then to accelerate rapidly. The allied universities have even more to offer, like natural resource monitoring and support for the energy sector, or even knowledge transfer through conferences.

This also offers the opportunity to develop a “resiliency industry” in Puerto Rico. As PCI’s report noted, “The archipelago’s location within the hurricane band of the Caribbean could be viewed as a strategic disadvantage until considered in the context of a growing worldwide need to develop and test resilient systems and construction processes that can withstand natural disasters. Puerto Rico has an opportunity to leverage its extreme weather to incubate a resiliency technology industry.” The concept of a resiliency industry has been expanded by PCI board member, Lin Wells, who also serves as the Executive Advisor to the Center for Resilient and Sustainable Communities (C-RASC) at George Mason University. Wells offers particular praise for partners, like the Puerto Rico Science, Technology, and Research Trust (the Trust), and emphasizes that resilience-building does not work without listening to the local community and working with locally based institutions (ideally in Spanish) to create a plan that will outlast the grants or advisors that helped create it.

Wells describes this “resiliency industry” concept as a way of “strategic anticipation” — building with disaster in mind. Think of the ability to design and produce things like distributed wind and solar energy linked to communications nodes (like cell towers) built to withstand a hurricane. His philosophy is to invest in infrastructure before a disaster strikes — drawing on lessons from previous ones — to save lives and mitigate future harm. “I teach my students about the resilience framework used by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) which has four phases: anticipate, withstand, recover and adapt,” Wells said. “For every dollar you spend for pre-disaster preparation, some estimates suggest it can save four more than if you had waited until after the disaster to start. This, right here, shows the value of disaster preparation.”

A related initiative is a course that Wells and two colleagues have been teaching remotely on Resilience and Business Innovation. Sponsored by the Trust, the course has parallel tracks directed at two audiences — owners/operators of small businesses, and “Entrepreneurs Support Practitioners.” The business course helps owners/operators develop resilience plans to help them anticipate disasters, withstand them and recover, and then adapt to the post-disaster “new normal.” The support practitioners course builds on this and adds ideas about resilience for the archipelago as a whole.

Wells says that the COVID-19 pandemic has renewed the urgency of the moment and accelerated many trends, like remote work and telemedicine, that already are underway. Businesses, workers, and residents in all areas and all industries need reliable power sources and access to the Internet to be able to continue both their work and personal activities from home and also in moments of disaster. Otherwise, both figuratively and literally, they’ll be left in the dark.

“COVID-19 has shown us that much more of future work, and education, is going to be restructured around the home,” Wells said. “Being on the wrong side of the digital divide becomes a fundamental impediment to reaching one’s economic, social, and political potential.”

The engagement in Puerto Rico was a seminal moment for PCI in the organization’s early days. It highlighted the great potential of the Internet to transform societies (with sufficient public or philanthropic support) and the searing inequity of a digital divide, especially for islands that can, quite literally, feel “cut off” from the rest of the world at their time of greatest need. Importantly, the experience in Puerto Rico illustrates the need to engage with, and follow, the lead of experts and community members in impacted areas. These lessons continue to impact PCI’s work and approach to “digital cooperation” on a global scale.

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