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  • Stephen Jordan

Celebrating Five Years of Breakthrough Research and Policy Development

Hard to believe that it’s been five years since the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD) started the current research cycle. We have been focusing on why and how disasters affect various aspects of human communities, including:

  • 2018 – the impact on small towns and rural communities through the lens of Hurricane Harvey

  • 2019 – the life cycle of small business recovery through the lens of the Thomas Fire

  • 2019 – the need for state-level economic resilience strategies through the lens of the two back-to-back thousand-year floods in Maryland

  • 2021 – ways that large metro areas can overcome the “connect the dots” problem between major disaster programs, like the SBA Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), and small businesses operating in the most at-risk, vulnerable, and low-income neighborhoods and communities through the lens of COVID-19’s impact on Los Angeles.

  • 2022 – ways to support small businesses and “community fabric-makers” through the lens of COVID-19’s impact on Los Angeles.

  • 2023 – what needs to be done to catalyze “blue” (water-based) economy research and development (R&D) through the lens of comparing the approaches to innovation in the U.S. and Sweden

Since June 2018, ISD has been researching and developing new ways of thinking about pressing problems around disaster resilience and recovery, community strengthening, and innovation. Our work has led to the development of small business recovery grant programs, a first-of-its-kind $25 million revolving loan fund for resilience, and the initial concept of a global Center of Excellence for environmental research. Along the way, we have received two awards for being one of the 100 most influential nonprofits in Los Angeles. We have been pleased to collaborate with a wide range of business, government, and nonprofit decisionmakers at the local, state, national, and international levels, from the U.S. and Canada to Sweden and Saudi Arabia.

The Institute was originally founded in 2003 in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, by the Durham and Chapel Hill Chambers of Commerce and academics from Duke and the University of North Carolina. It provided training to over 500 small businesses and local chambers that were interested in learning more about environmental policies and innovations and greening their own businesses. ISD has always worked to build bridges between business, academia, and community organizations.

In June 2018, several colleagues and I decided to embark on a new strategic direction for the Institute in response to the terrible disasters of 2017. These included Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the record-setting California wildfires, an epic typhoon, and a thousand-year flood. Natural disasters are just the tip of the spear when it comes to worries about the environment and impacts on society.

We asked ourselves - could there be a way to develop strategies that might enjoy broad support and depoliticize (or at least change) the politics of environmental, social, community, and economic development?

Even if the world were to halt climate change immediately, the present climate and environment pose plenty of challenges as it is. The entire Gulf Coast, West Coast, Mississippi River delta region, Tornado Alley, New England, and Alaska might not have the same exact climates, but they all must cope with various natural disruptions that threaten lives, living environments, and livelihoods.

As a result, ISD embarked on a series of research projects to identify gaps and promising opportunities to improve disaster management - first because of the short-term challenges and environmental and social policy issues, and second for the long-term framework.

In our first study titled “A Hand Up for Small Towns: Lessons Learned about Long-Term Recovery Challenges Facing Small Towns and Under-Served Communities from Hurricane Harvey,” we focused on the challenges that small towns and rural communities face during recovery.

There were over 600 towns with populations of less than 20,000 in the studied area of impact, some of which faced as much as 50 inches of water. ISD found that, as opposed to the larger municipalities, the small towns did not have the infrastructure, manpower, or financial wherewithal to take advantage of the public assistance framework. They were wary about taking on too much debt, as they were already burdened from normal operations. This meant that Houston, Harris County, and other big metro areas received an additional influx of people, while the smaller towns hollowed out even further.

Two of our recommendations from that study include: (1) creating a shared services model to support small towns in disaster zones, and (2) creating a national bridge fund specifically to allow communities to finance upgrades for overcoming the reimbursement problem.

Subsequently, ISD took on a second major study analyzing the economic resilience framework for the state of Maryland. In this study titled “Advancing Maryland Economic Resilience: Lessons Learned from the Central Maryland 2018 Flood,” ISD analyzed the issues that Maryland had faced as the result of two thousand-year storms in the span of three years.

One of the clear winners that emerged from this study was how Frederick County had incorporated flood management infrastructure into the overall design of its downtown. Before and after the storms, this investment helped to spur economic development. During the storms, it helped the City manage much larger volumes of water than previous.

The study also underscored the importance of mental health, technical assistance, public-private partnerships, and open flows of government communications with the community and business partners. As a result, ISD helped the state of Maryland establish a $25 million revolving loan fund for resilience investments.

The third major study titled “Together for LA: First Report on LA’s COVID-19 Small Business Response,” spotlighted Los Angeles and focused on large metropolitan challenges posed by COVID-19, thus zeroing in on the “connect the dots” problem.

Once the pandemic shut down the city and county of LA, critical resources like the PPP, EIDL, public health assistance, loan forbearance, renter’s assistance, and much more sprang into action – not just from the government, but also from philanthropy, community groups, and businesses.

However, many people in Los Angeles, particularly from minority populations, English as a Second Language communities, and low-income zip codes could not and therefore did not access them, even though in many cases, these programs were specifically designed for them. This analysis led to the formation of Together for Los Angeles (TFLA) – an innovative public-private partnership for providing technical assistance to small businesses and community fabric-makers like daycare centers and local nonprofits.

ISD also pioneered a series of low-tech informational one-pagers in different languages and activated university students to distribute information specifically in the twenty lowest-income zip codes of the region.

The fourth major study titled “Together for Los Angeles: Small Business Recovery Report and Resource Guide June 2022” once again spotlighted Los Angeles, but focused specifically on small business recovery challenges.

What we discovered is that small businesses needed to come to terms with changes in customer patterns, supply chain disruptions, workforce challenges, and more, all while coping with their own personal impacts.

In the last major study just conducted this past March, we were finally able to take a step back and look at the landscape for Green and Blue Innovation. In this study titled “Building the Blue Innovation Pipeline: Lessons Learned from the United States and Sweden,” we specifically analyzed how the U.S. compares with Sweden on water-based innovation, since 71% of all disasters are caused by storms, floods, and drought.

Not only has Sweden been ranked as the number one green economy worldwide, but it also has a deep cultural commitment to sustainability, and has been ranked in the global top five countries for investment in innovation on a % GDP basis. What we found is that while energy investments account for 13% of global R&D, less than 5% goes directly to environmental R&D.

Investments in green R&D could increase by as much as 300%, and if these investments reduced total disaster costs by just 10% and increased green economic opportunities by 10%, they would more than pay for themselves. Therefore, ISD is building an international coalition of businesses and academic institutions to strengthen innovation pipelines around the world.

As a result of these research and analysis efforts, ISD has developed policies and strategies for sustainable development that focus on:

  • building up the community fabric of low-income and vulnerable communities,

  • improving support systems for small business formation, development, and retention,

  • modernizing and strengthening critical infrastructure systems,

  • developing financial tools for future mitigation and adaptation, and

  • increasing investment in R&D and innovation pipelines to promote future resilience and sustainable development.

As we look ahead to the next five years, ISD will continue to investigate both short-term and long-term gaps and challenges and simultaneously build additional support for the policy agenda that it has developed so far.

These accomplishments would not have been possible without the support and encouragement of our Board of Directors and hundreds of individuals, companies, government agencies, and community groups. We gratefully acknowledge all of the contributors to ISD’s success and look forward to more years of resilience, collaboration, and innovation.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD). Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything. ISD values and welcomes diverse representations and opinions.

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