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Building a Climate-Resilient City: Transformational adaptation

This policy brief looks at how cities can approach transformational adaptation through the implementation of fundamentally different approaches to preparing for, and responding to, climate risks.
Mary Thompson


Climate change impacts involve threats and costs touching on all aspects of contemporary municipal life, and many of its effects on urban environments have yet to be effectively quantified. These growing climate risks have clear implications for local economies and the financial well-being of municipal governments. Well-planned adaptation measures can improve the quality of urban life as well as protect lives and infrastructure, strengthen community ties and improve economic performance.

The Building a Climate-Resilient City series was prepared for the City of Edmonton and the City of Calgary by the International Institute for Sustainable Development in collaboration with the University of Winnipeg’s Prairie Climate Centre. This series makes recommendations for steps that cities can take as part of their municipal adaptation planning to build their resilience to climate change. It explores three key principles of resilience building: robustness (strong design), redundancy (building extra capacity into systems to act as fail-safe networks) and resourcefulness (citizen empowerment).

This policy brief* focuses on how cities can build resilience to climate change through transformational adaptation. As opposed to incremental adaptation—which involves building on and improving the efficiency of conventional practices, approaches, technologies and governance structures for climate risk reduction and management—transformational adaptationmay lead to the implementation of fundamentally different approaches to preparing for and responding to climate risks. Transformational adaptation involves a broader and more systemic look at the root causes of the vulnerability of a system (such as a city) to the impacts of climate change— and taking steps to reduce these sources of vulnerability.

*The text below provides the key messages and recommendations from the brief and summarises some of the economic and financial factors that can support the building of climate-resilient cities. See the full text for much more detail.

Lessons Learnt

  • Transformational adaptation occurs when fundamentally new and innovative responses are required—typically upon realizing that historic approaches are insufficient for current or anticipated climate risks.
  • Governance systems that emphasize transparency, integration, flexibility, monitoring, continual learning and knowledge sharing increase the likelihood that transformational adaptation occurs at the necessary and appropriate time.
  • Adaptation to climate change may be incremental or transformational in nature. Cities can choose to combine both approaches, depending on their needs and circumstances.

What is “Transformational Adaptation”?

Although there is growing interest in the concept of transformational adaptation, it has no commonly agreed upon definition. Generally speaking, though, it is understood to involve profound, systematic, structural change at different levels (i.e., political, social, cognitive, technological and biophysical systems). It has been described as leading to a change in development pathways, a shift in paradigms, a re-shaping of the status quo and a fundamental restructuring of the system.

At its core, transformational adaptation involves questioning the effectiveness of existing systems and processes in light of changing circumstances, particularly the potentially significant impacts of climate change. It requires looking at the economic, political and/or sociocultural factors that make a region, population or system more vulnerable to climate change shocks and stresses and then applying innovative approaches to reduce vulnerability to current and/or anticipated challenges.

Transformational adaptation can be reactive or, some argue, planned. Reactive efforts can be triggered by a system reaching the limits of its ability to engage in incremental adaptation, such as when a disaster demonstrates that existing practices and approaches are no longer adequate to address current risk(s) and new approaches are needed. Planned transformational adaptation involves deliberate efforts to address the underlying failures of existing development approaches and processes that increase vulnerability to climate change.

As transformational adaptation is a relatively new concept, few concrete examples of this approach at the city scale have been described. Pockets of innovation that are transformative in nature, though, can be found in many cities. Examples of possible transformational adaptation efforts led by cities include:

  • Applying common risk management strategies at a larger scale, with greater intensity and over a longer period of time, such as by significantly increasing the use of green infrastructure to address climate risks.
  • Introducing new practices, either those that are previously used elsewhere or completely new.
  • Transforming the composition, nature and/ or location of activities, such as by moving people and businesses from locations identified as being particularly exposed to increasing risk of flooding.

Enabling Transformational Adaptation and Resilience

Creating a resilient city involves enhancing the core qualities that enable it to effectively respond in a timely manner to changing circumstances. These qualities— flexibility, redundancy, robustness, resourcefulness, reflectiveness, inclusiveness and integration—can also enable the pursuit of climate adaptation measures that are transformational in nature. For example, cities can promote transformational adaptation by:

  • Favouring measures that are robust under a wide range of potential climatic conditions.
  • Building redundancies into systems, making available a breadth of alternative measures that enhance capacity to deal with uncertainties.
  • Encouraging resourcefulness through a high reliance on stakeholder involvement.

Efforts to build a resilient city that enables the potential occurrence of transformational adaptation should promote planning and decision-making processes with the following characteristics:

  • Apply a systematic approach to planning and implementation.
  • Be forward looking.
  • Take an integrative approach.
  • Recognise uncertainty.
  • Prioritise flexible solutions.
  • Emphasise cooperation, involvement and participation.
  • Enable continuous learning and re-evaluation.

Potential Limitations

Processes that promote transformational adaptation have the potential to help cities avoid locking themselves into development pathways that are unsustainable and increase their vulnerability to climate change over time. It is important to keep in mind, though, that the complexity and interdependencies of systems mean that poorly designed processes can result in unintended and unforeseen consequences.

To be effective, transformational adaptation may also need to occur at more than one scale simultaneously if its outcomes are to be reinforced and strengthened. In the absence of effectively coordinated action, there is the potential for transformation to occur on different timelines and to different degrees in different locations.


The cities of Calgary and Edmonton can help ensure their economic and social resilience in the coming decades by creating an environment conducive to the occurrence of transformational adaptation. This objective can be achieved by establishing systems that emphasize transparency, integration and flexibility; focus on continual learning from practice and knowledge sharing; promote monitoring and evaluation of interventions; build capacity within people and systems to engage in systematic inquiry and be comfortable with uncertainty; and encourage leadership that values new ways of thinking and doing.

Potential actions for building a resilient city in which transformational adaptation is possible include:


  • Document and share examples of past and present efforts in Alberta to transform practices and approaches to climate and non-climate related problems, such as EndPoverty Edmonton, to both understand the factors that enabled these efforts and demonstrate their potential.
  • Undertake an assessment of current municipal policies and programs to determine if they are flexible and adaptable in and of themselves, and therefore have the potential to enable adaptation and avoid locking cities into approaches and practices that are maladaptive or unsustainable over the longer term.
  • Regularly (e.g., annually or biannually) engage in participatory scenario processes that explore potential future conditions (economic, social, climatic) in the medium term, their implications and the means by which vulnerabilities might be reduced. This process should engage a crosssection of municipal departments as well as representatives from the broader community (e.g., private sector, social services, community organizations and academia).


  • Mainstream near- and medium-term climate risk considerations into existing planning and budgetary processes.
  • Establish effective systems for monitoring, reporting and evaluating climate risks and adaptation actions to better enable identification of when “tipping points” are close to being reached, or have been reached, and therefore there is a need for transformational adaptation.
  • Introduce or strengthen leadership training for city administrators in areas that build the qualities needed for resilience, such as systems thinking, the interrelationship between the environment and society, cross-sectoral collaboration, climate change adaptation, and the management of risk and uncertainty.

Voluntary/Community Linkages

  • Strengthen existing processes for engaging the public in municipal planning to better ensure that a broader range of voices and perspectives is reflected in decision-making.
  • Initiate community-level processes focused on envisioning what a resilient or transformed Calgary or Edmonton might look like, building on past and ongoing work within each city. Such an initiative could draw inspiration from ecodistrict initiatives, such as the United Kingdom’s Transition Towns movement and R-urban in France, as well as the 100 Resilient Cities movement.

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