Cyclone Gabrielle: Engineering our escape from harm’s way

Events such as Cyclone Gabrielle bring managed retreat to the forefront of the conversation. We’ll need to start having some very uncomfortable conversations about what communities look like in the future in Aotearoa New Zealand. 

While the immediate focus will be on the communities affected by the cyclone, this is a conversation we need to have on a much larger and more proactive scale. To get the rebuild right, we need to enable bold and innovative decision-making about where and how we invest.

To get there, we need radical collaboration; bringing diverse groups of people together to create a shared understanding of a problem, and to enable diversity of thought to pull together solutions in a new, innovative way.

At its core, it’s about effective communication for smart decision-making.

In the case of the cyclone response, it’ll need to be central and local government, iwi Māori, the affected communities, and the private sector including consultants such as engineers and surveyors, planners and environmental scientists, and contractors, and the wider business community including banks and insurers.

We need to collaborate for a sustainable, resilient future for the good of communities, rather than focusing on competitive advantage and commercial interests.

Community involvement is key. The importance of enabling local communities to be part of their own destiny was a key lesson emerging from the Queensland flooding events. The engineering and consulting sector in Aotearoa is an expert at facilitating community involvement alongside delivery partners.

We need planned, coordinated delivery models. There are several pieces to this puzzle. The recovery and rebuild following the Canterbury earthquake sequence was in part facilitated through the use of collaborative contracting models like SCIRT - the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team. Their mandate was to provide a cost-effective, efficient way to quickly get the city’s civil infrastructure back on its feet. It was a $2.2 billion, five-and-a-half-year programme, funded by central and local government, involving more than 700 individual projects across the city repairing and rebuilding water infrastructure, roads, bridges, and retaining walls.

This approach provided certainty around the pipeline and programme of work, so businesses could scale up for the hard mahi ahead and invest in the people and equipment needed to deliver.

We need a similar framework here; one that continues to elevate the local community in decision-making and delivery.

These planned, coordinated approaches will also need to consider where we can create efficiencies.

One key area where efficiency can be gained is in the procurement and contracting of service providers. Procurement can be a lengthy process. Firms put a lot of time and resources into responding to bids and negotiating contracts – time that could be better spent getting on with the work. In this case, there is plenty of work to go around.

While allowing for a level of healthy market competition, we need to look at how we can bring more efficiencies through these procurement processes so time and money aren’t needlessly wasted.

We can also learn from the experience of residential insurance claims after the Christchurch earthquakes. Nobody wants a repeat of unresolved insurance claims 10 years after the event.

Immigration settings are critical for the success of the rebuild programme.

Our sector reported more than 3000 shortages in 2021; that figure hasn’t changed.

Our borders only really opened in the latter half of last year, and we’ve seen attrition through delayed OEs and families relocating overseas.

Though our borders are open and there are immigration pathways, we need to change the perception that New Zealand is closed.

We need to provide out-of-the-box, collaborative solutions like the collaboration we led with our engineering and consulting sector and recruitment specialists, HainesAttract. The initiative pulls resources for an international requirement campaign to benefit the whole sector.

We also need to have smooth immigration processes. The new six-month visa is only good for emergency responder professionals who want to come in for a short period of immediate recovery support. Imagine you are an engineer on the other side of the world wanting to support New Zealand through the longer-term rebuild – you’ll only relocate yourself and your family if you have certainty of the pipeline of work and certainty that you can stay. The six-month visa does not give that.

We are asking for processes that enable us to be competitive in a global war for talent.

Most importantly, we need to create an environment that will work into the future as we tackle not only the recovery and rebuild from Cyclone Gabrielle, but also the considerable job of responding to our massive infrastructure deficit which has been severely tested by this event.

This article was originally published in the NZ Herald 8 March 2023.