Preparing Cities for an Uncertain Future

Lauren Sorkin helps urban centers share knowledge, withstand crises, and contribute to the planet's health

In February 2020, a few weeks before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the Resilient Cities Network was already on alert. Officials in Huangshi, China, about 45 miles from where the COVID-19 virus originated, had notified the network that they were closing their city’s offices.

“Even before we knew there was a pandemic,” says Lauren Sorkin, A03, executive director of the Resilient Cities Network, “we were hearing about Huangshi’s experiences; they described what they were doing to manage risk and protect their most vulnerable communities.” 

Within a few weeks, the Resilient Cities Network created Cities on the Frontline, a program of weekly webinars that enabled officials from cities around the world to share vital data and knowledge. Huangshi’s early sharing of information was key in readying the network to support other cities, Sorkin notes. “Because of the connections we foster, we were able to help a number of cities prepare better for the shock of the pandemic.” 

Resilience on the Rise

Preparing cities to handle shocks—events that occur unexpectedly and cause a crisis, such as heat waves, earthquakes, typhoons, and, of course, pandemics—is one of the driving aims of the Resilient Cities Network, which currently comprises 98 member cities located around the world. Such preparation is becoming more and more necessary, Sorkin points out, because climate change is causing more frequent and intense weather-related disasters.

Moreover, “more than half of us live in urban centers today—and when we think about population centers, we also have to think about environmental impacts. Cities are responsible for more than two-thirds of global emissions,” Sorkin says. “The battle against climate change—and for reduced vulnerability—will be fought and won in the urban space.”

In addition to equipping cities to handle shocks, the Resilient Cities Network also aims to help them overcome stresses: the lasting negative effects caused by a shock or by deeply rooted social problems, such as economic disparity. 

“Resilience is the capacity to be responsive instead of reactive,” Sorkin explains. For the Resilient Cities Network, it’s also the ways in which cities, “from the citizen and community levels up through the institutions, can survive, adapt, and thrive no matter what shock or stress they face,” she says. 

The network helps its members in three central ways. It guides cities in creating a role for a chief resilience officer, modeled on corporations’ chief risk officers, who assesses the city’s risks and opportunities and creates resilience strategies. The network also helps cities implement projects designed to bolster resilience—such as plans for managing a weather-related crisis. And it catalyzes financing for those projects.

Tikkun Olam

Sorkin grew up in central New Jersey, where her father, a double Jumbo, is a dentist and her mother, a former therapist, now works as a hospice nurse. (Sorkin’s sister also is a Tufts alum—and also serves others, both as a teacher and as a volunteer helping refugees settle in the United States.) 

The family’s commitment to helping others inspired Sorkin’s career path. “In Judaism,” she explains, “we have a phrase: tikkun olam. It means, ‘be a part of healing the world.’ That was my family’s way—you take care of others and you give back.” 

Sorkin studied environmental economics and international relations at Tufts and then worked on USAID projects in Latin America and Asia. Afterward, she landed a role with the Asian Development Bank, designing strategies for climate change mitigation and adaptation. “From there, I ended up in the city space,” she says, “because cities naturally integrate all the concepts I was interested in. They are the stage where you can make the biggest difference.”

From Incubation to Worldwide Presence

Sorkin, now based in Singapore, joined the Resilient Cities Network in 2014, when it was a newly launched initiative funded by a Rockefeller Foundation grant. In 2019, she moved into the executive director role of the nonprofit that grew out of that early enterprise. She oversaw the transition process and led the organization’s strategy development, operations, and partnership formation, as she still does today. 

Sorkin aims for the network to grow by five to ten cities per year. She’s also exploring how technology, including augmented reality and artificial intelligence, can help the network share lessons learned in its cities with other urban centers globally.

“Resilience is not about making sure that bad things don’t happen,” she says. “It’s about recognizing that investing in opportunities to protect and progress can help us all build better systems that take care of people and the planet.”

Back to Top