By: Bruce Hull, Josh Nease

With global pressures from rising sea levels and expanding urban centers, resilient infrastructure is a proactive solution to protecting vulnerable communities. Smart design is an increasingly important component in tackling these new development projects, and new types of public-private partnerships are arising to help address the issue. CLiGS recently had the opportunity to interview Shalini Vajjhala about her experiences in trying to provide a link between traditional silos to overcome sustainable development challenges. This interview provides insight on the virtues of resilient infrastructure and practical skills needed for effective leadership.

Shalini Vajjhala has over a decade of experience in green design, engineering, economics, and policy and is the Founder and CEO of re:focus partners.  re:focusis a design firm dedicated to developing integrated resilience solutions and innovative public-private partnerships for vulnerable communities around the world. The re:focus team collaborates with governments, developers, and investors to design infrastructure systems that have sound financial returns and economic, social, and environmental integrity for the communities they serve.

In March 2015, re:focus released a series of reports from the RE.invest Initiative, a 2-year collaboration among eight partner cities and leading engineering, law, and finance firms to develop new resilient infrastructure solutions. Building on RE.investre:focus is also developing the Adaptation Atlas, a tool that will bridge the gap between climate impact science and on-the-ground action by mapping resilient infrastructure and technology projects currently ongoing in cities globally.

Shalini headshot

Prior to founding re:focus partners, Shalini served as Special Representative in the Office of Administrator Lisa Jackson at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In this position, she led the US-Brazil Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability (JIUS). Previously, Shalini served as Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Office of International & Tribal Affairs at the U.S. EPA and as Deputy Associate Director for Energy and Climate at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. She joined the Obama Administration from Resources for the Future, where she was awarded a patent for her work on the Adaptation Atlas. Shalini received her Ph.D. in Engineering and Public Policy and B.Arch in Architecture from Carnegie Mellon University.

Q. We are particularly interested in learning about your role at re:focuspartners. Talk a bit about your role in that effort and how it came to be.

I launched re:focus partners in 2012 after spending several years in public service at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). My role at EPA gave me the opportunity to work with many incredibly dedicated civil servants across the federal government and tackle environmental policy issues at a global scale. One of the initiatives that my team developed was the US-Brazil Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability (JIUS) to catalyze investment in sustainability in cities around the world. This collaboration brought together federal, state and local government officials with private sector innovators to find new ways to develop and finance green infrastructure in the cities of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Philadelphia, PA. Despite their many differences, these two cities face similar challenges when it comes to designing and financing new water, energy, and transportation systems. Thanks to the leadership of both of these cities, the lessons from the JIUS (pronounced juice) were successfully highlighted at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development or Rio+20 in June 2012 (more here and here). Through the JIUS, it became clear that we were playing a unique role in designing and brokering new types of public-private partnerships for sustainable infrastructure. re:focus was born to continue this important work.

Q. Leadership means different things to different people. How do you define leadership and what is your leadership style or philosophy? Can you give an example from re:focus of that style or philosophy?

My personal philosophy of leadership is about creatively aligning people and resources to solve really big problems. I think leadership is a constant process of listening, learning, and experimenting to maintain that alignment over time. There are two ideas—attributed to everyone from Yogi Berra to President Eisenhower—that guide what we do at re:focus.

  • In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.
  • If you can’t solve the small problem, make it bigger, so you can begin to see the outlines of a solution.

These quotes always make me smile, but they also remind me to stay focused on practical solutions. When you are working on really big problems, it is easy to get caught up in process or stuck in narrow ideas or only see the nails that match your hammer (expertise).

National Report infographic

For over two years, we were working with eight cities in a 2-year partnership called RE.invest to design resilient infrastructure solutions for vulnerable communities. (To see the full set of solutions, check out our Roadmap for Resilience (PDF).) In each city, our work involves bringing together engineers, lawyers, finance experts and city officials to find new ways to solve seemingly intractable local challenges. Thanks to the leadership, creativity, and resourcefulness of all of our collaborators in this process, we developed new ways of combining investments in parking and broadband with green infrastructure to protect communities from flooding. Getting to these solutions takes time, and we spent several months building relationships and creating a safe space/process for everyone to contribute and iterate until we had a workable idea.

My goals as a leader are to build these safe spaces; to always be able to “zoom out” to keep myself and my team focused on the really important challenges facing our world; and to build sustainability solutions that have economic, social, and environmental integrity for the communities we serve. Being effective means that I am always looking for inspiration in unexpected places and trying to paint a picture of what is possible, not just what is familiar.

Q. Will you please describe an instance at re:focus partners where you helped cross-boundary collaboration occur and how you helped.

At re:focus everything we do involves collaboration. No one has all the answers to every problem, so we actively seek out diverse partners and incorporate new people, disciplines, and methods into our work as our projects evolve. Our network of collaborators currently includes engineers, lawyers, urban planners, investment bankers, policy experts and a wide range of multidisciplinary loose cannons!

In sustainable development, collaboration is even more important because both the problems and solutions can shift with new information. One of my favorite examples comes from one of our early RE.invest working sessions when a city health department realized that the city’s new building codes to promote green infrastructure—with rain barrels and other water retention systems—didn’t include any measures to prevent mosquito breeding. Our collaborative process gave two city departments a safe space to coordinate and adjust the draft building codes on the spot to enhance sustainability and protect residents from disease.

Q. What do you see as some of the top sustainability challenges of the next few years?  How will you address them?

Many of the biggest opportunities in sustainable development are at the “seams” of existing sectors and fields. Because taking advantage of these opportunities requires many diverse types of experts, I think all of the biggest challenges in sustainability in the coming decade are about people. We need a new generation of “integrators,” rather than traditional experts, who can build bridges between disciplines and communicate across sectors. These new types of trusted problem-solvers will be essential if we want to make progress on our many sustainability challenges.

RE Invest Roadmap

We work hard at re:focus to serve as connectors and ambassadors between traditional silos. Often our work involves helping everyone see a problem in the same way. For example, in talking with both transportation and water experts about greening urban stormwater systems, we try to find simple illustrations—like turning the city from a funnel into a sponge—so we avoid jargon and create the space for collaborative problem solving. Often our most successful working sessions will involve someone saying, “Well, we’ve never done this before, but it looks like a little bit of x and y with a dash of z thrown in.”

In parallel to launching re:focus, I also had a chance to develop and teach a new course on “Case Studies in Sustainable Development” at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. The aim of the whole class was to give students experience making trade-offs and tackling real-world sustainable development problems. Rather than describing an issue, students were required to put themselves in the shoes of decision-makers. In the process of researching, writing, and teaching their own cases, it was tremendously encouraging to watch every single student in these classes grow from an expert into a problem solver. For the  full set of published cases, visit the Case Studies in Sustainable Development Series at the University of Washington’s Electronic Hallway.

Q. Change is not always easy for people. What strategies have you found most effective for influencing change and achieving sustainability goals?

Change is hard. One of the best strategies I have found is to gradually create space for something new by starting where an existing system is failing. It is much easier to talk someone from a sinking ship onto a lifeboat than it is to get someone to shift course, if they don’t know their boat is taking on water. Too often we cling to a system that we know isn’t working for us today to avoid the unfamiliar tomorrow. Finding gentle ways to bring up existing problems and look for solutions is the most reliable approach I have found to make change seem like the preferred alternative to the status quo. This is especially important when you are actively looking to do something completely different than you have done before, so you can make change that is wise and not just leap dramatically into a scary unknown.

One important thing we try to avoid at re:focus is making a future problem or benefit more important than what is happening now. Lots of experts in fields from behavioral economics to psychology and health care know that people everywhere struggle to make decisions that have benefits in the distant future. Instead, we look for where stakeholders in a system are losing money or value today—for example, talking about the costs of current local flooding instead of future climate changes—since these same systems are likely to be the first to fail or worst off in future.

Q. What is the source of your commitment to sustainable practices?

Being trained as an architect taught me to how to think like a designer, balance multiple objectives, and see constraints as opportunities for creativity. Sustainability is all about creatively turning what we used to see as constraints into opportunities to improve peoples’ lives. What could be a better way to spend every day?

Thank you Shalini, we really appreciate your insight on these matters!

For more insight on being a leader for sustainability, read our interviews with other pioneers in the field.