Spotlight: Integrated Viewpoints Provide Adaptation Solutions


Dan Rodrigo, Vice President and Water Resources Market Leader at CDM Smith Inc., has been working in the areas of water supply, integrated resources planning, systems thinking, green infrastructure, risk management and climate change for the past 25 years.  He appreciates the work that GAIN and others are doing in facilitating information sharing and bringing greater awareness to climate change adaptation throughout the world.  In his work with urban communities in the United States and globally, he recognizes that resiliency is key to climate change adaptation. But resiliency requires a thorough understanding of climate change risk—risk of no action, risk tolerance, and the cost of minimizing risk.  The GAIN Index is one tool that can help communities understand their climate change risk, as well as identify those regions worldwide that will benefit the most from adaptation measures.

Urban communities across the globe are facing many challenges, including population growth, constraints on natural resources, environmental degradation and quality of life issues, competition for scare financial resources, and the need for greater resiliency to factors such as extreme events and climate change. Urban communities are also very tightly intertwined and interlinked.

Decisions in one area such as transportation can impact other areas such as water, energy and environment.  And while there have been great advances in urban planning and design, there are still a great many cities in the world that do not view their urban communities as interconnected “systems of systems”.   Systems thinking, an offshoot of systems dynamics research, is a discipline in which many different systems can be viewed holistically and dynamically. These systems can include land use, natural environment, water, energy, transportation, and more.  By viewing these many systems together, we can better understand our risks to climate change and also measure the benefits of being resilient to climate change impacts. 

For CDM Smith, this integrated viewpoint is second nature—examining how infrastructure (water, transportation, energy, solid waste and facilities) is interconnected and interdependent, and how this infrastructure interacts with the natural environment and our quality of life. Understanding these complex interactions is the primary job of the smart women and men who work in CDM Smith’s Neysadurai Centre for Integrated Urban Solutions (  The Centre’s Urban System Model can perform advanced computer simulations of land use, urban form, water/wastewater/stormwater utility systems, solid waste, transportation, energy, and natural environment CDM Smith can quantify not only the impacts of climate change, but the cost of no action and adaptation. Greenhouse gas emissions can be tracked, potential water shortages quantified, water pollution estimated, and tons of solid waste enumerated. Through thousands of metrics, a complete understanding of a city’s workings can be told. And when one action to improve one sector (e.g., water reliability) is taken, the computer simulation model can indicate the impact on energy, solid waste, and water quality.

But systems thinking and tools like CDM Smith’s Urban System Model are only one part of achieving climate change adaptation. Our urban community leaders need to break down the silos of government operations and work more collaboratively. They need to reach out and work together—not only with various constituents within their cities, but also reach across to other cities, private enterprise and organizations like GAIN.

While the challenge is great, the consequence of not meeting the challenge is potentially catastrophic.  But there is hope. Many urban cities around the globe are embracing this holistic viewpoint. In San Diego, CDM Smith helped this world-class city become more climate change resilient through advancing the concepts of indirect potable reuse—a method by which reclaimed wastewater is further treated using advanced methods such as reverse osmosis, UV disinfection, and other techniques to purify the water for drinking purposes.  In Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Singapore, and Dublin, CDM Smith has helped advanced the concepts of watershed planning, green infrastructure and integrated resources management to capture and harvest rainwater, reduce flooding, and protect water quality of receiving waters.  All of these examples, and many more are resulting in communities that are more resilient to climate change and extreme events, as well as being more efficient and prudent in how crucial financial resources are expended.