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Readiness Challenge Update: How Puerto Rico plans to build back stronger

Submitted by kevin ebi on December 13, 2018

Last week we were in Puerto Rico, a humanitarian grant winner in our 2018 Smart Cities Readiness Challenge. A year after Hurricane Maria, there’s still much to do, but there’s also optimism for the future.

Puerto Rico is now determined not only to recover from Maria, but to use smart cities approaches to become more resilient for the next — whenever it may come. It provides a great lesson for communities that often don’t think about how to prepare for natural disasters until after they have struck.

Below you can read about some of the ideas to emerge from our Readiness for Resilience Workshop in partnership with Qualcomm, National Association of State Energy Officials and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy.

We also invite you to participate in our 2019 Smart Cities Readiness Challenge. Applications are open now for government jurisdictions of all levels and sizes in North America. Winners receive their own Readiness Workshop among other mentoring services. All qualified applicants receive a year of free access to the Smart Cities Project Activator, an online tool for strengthening smart cities visions and building consensus. Applications are due January 18. — Kevin Ebi

A year after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, there are still reminders of what happened. Many of the traffic signals that have power only blink “caution.” Many more traffic signals don’t have power.

But for Puerto Rico, it’s not just a matter of rebuilding after its worst hurricane in nearly 90 years. Nor is it even just about preparing for the next one. Rather, Puerto Rico is committed to using smart cities approaches to become a resilience showcase for the rest of the world.

“Our main aspiration in the mid- to long-term is that we innovate,” said Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, “that we not only build as was before, but that we take best practices that we think outside the box and that we create a platform for Puerto Rico to innovate and to develop technologies to be used all across the world.”

Building back better
Fact is, even before Maria, Puerto Rico was facing a storm — just one of a different kind: an economic storm. A weak economy had resulted in a problem of emigration. Many of the most talented workers left the island for better opportunities on the mainland.

“We can either execute the same things that have been done in the past and continue on the downward spiral,” Rosselló said, “or we can take the opportunity to be bold, think outside the box, get the best available minds to come to Puerto Rico and definitely change the path that we were heading on both from an economic perspective, but more importantly a social perspective. … The potential of what we can achieve here is great.”

Today, Puerto Rico already has ambitious plans, including mandating 100% renewable energy by 2050. It wants to learn from global smart cities best practices, but then improve upon them. “At the end of the day, Puerto Rico reconstructs better than we were before,” said Carlos Mercader, Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration.

A platform for innovation
Turning Puerto Rico into a “platform for innovation” is what Omar Marrero, Executive Director, COR3, calls “the greatest opportunity we are going to have to rebuild Puerto Rico in a stronger way. We cannot just rebuild what we had before. We cannot. We can’t afford it.”

That’s because Puerto Rico now understands that preparation is an investment that pays off — a lesson it hopes to teach other cities.

“Don’t wait until these events happen in your jurisdiction because it’s going to be more costly, more painful,”  Rosselló said. “You can invest a little bit more and address a problem beforehand.”

Lessons from Maria
Puerto Rico’s first data portal came in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Before, data was often impossible to access. Sometimes essential data was on paper, locked in someone’s office. In part due to the necessity of being able to show the status of recovery efforts, it created an online data portal and now is more committed to using data to drive smart decisions.

What’s next?
Participants in the workshop divided into one of four focus areas: energy, communications, housing and transportation. They discussed how to use technologies and smart approaches to make Puerto Rico more resilient in each of those areas.

In energy, they discussed building an energy grid that has no center. They envision a network of microgrids that are connected to each other, each supporting critical infrastructure.

Agencies struggled to communicate with each other in the aftermath of the hurricane. Participants suggested a new communications system with several layers — radio, wireless, fiber optic, satellite — that operate in parallel, which should be available to all agencies.

Housing presented a unique challenge in that many people build without seeking permits. One area of the suggested housing plan is to find ways to use data and other approaches to increase compliance so that more homes are built to code. Training programs are also needed due to the shortage of skilled labor.

In transportation, Puerto Rico has a need for very basic infrastructure, which makes longer-term planning more difficult. This working group explored how to “future proof” roads and other transportation infrastructure so that basic elements will be in place when there finally is demand for things like electric or autonomous vehicles.