The past is easy to predict, the future not so much. As custodians of the built environment and designers of long-lasting infrastructure, WSP experts need to balance the needs of today with the possibility of the future. We asked our thought leaders what trends are likely to shape their area of expertise in 2020.

Lessons learnt from major seismic events in the last decade have changed the resilience landscape and provided a greater understanding of our vulnerabilities. But there’s no room for complacency; as we grapple with embedding this knowledge, the impacts of climate change are creating new levels of complexity.

It started around a decade ago with the Canterbury earthquakes in 2010, and the 2016 Kaikōura earthquake, which had a major impact on vital transportation networks and buildings in Wellington. We learnt a lot, and at pace. The silver lining is that we are slightly better prepared to face the challenges of adapting to climate change than we would have been.

In the last year, numerous local authorities have declared climate emergencies, heralding a new approach in which climate change in a key consideration in all decisions.

We know that new infrastructure assets need to be planned, designed, built and operated to account for the changes in climate that may occur over their lifetimes. More relevant to New Zealand, with its ageing infrastructure, is the need to retrofit to adapt to changing conditions. We’ll see more infrastructure, such as sea walls, constructed to address the physical impacts of climate change. Seismic hazards and the increasing impact of more frequent extreme weather events and sea level rise are also complicating matters.

To date, the Canterbury earthquakes have cost private insurers and the Earthquake Commission more than $32 billion. With climate change impact, the Insurance Council estimates that New Zealand can expect to face an average annual cost of $1.6 billion – and that’s if risks are managed. In the future, there may be parts of the country that must bear unaffordable insurance premiums, or no cover available to them at all.

So, what’s in store for 2020?

As Kaikōura recovery winds down and lessons bed-in, the NZ Transport Agency has increased its focus on resilience. The Wellington transport resilience business case provides a pathway for other regions and authorities to follow, as they build resilience funding into their new National Land Transport Programme planning in 2020, or the local authority long term council community plan.

Resilient buildings will be a focus, driven by the insurance crunch and acceptance of the vulnerability of buildings to even modest levels of earthquakes. There will be greater understanding of the basin effects and proposed changes to the seismic codes. Resilience-based design will gain momentum. Considering resilience in the early design phases should ultimately result in cost savings.

Changes are already underway, such as the establishment of the new Infrastructure Commission, National Disaster Resilience Strategy and changes to the Earthquake Commission. Their impact will begin to grow once traction is gained in the new year.

Pathmanathan Brabhaharan, Technical Director Geotechnical Engineering & Resilience