How a hometown earthquake changed the future for global banker

As his hometown crumbled in the wake of one of the most destructive earthquakes in living memory, Richard MacGeorge made a major life decision.

He wanted to help build a better future for humanity – one that wouldn’t fall apart.  

Richard MacGeorge

Richard MacGeorge

Now, more than a decade since his leadership role in rebuilding Christchurch after the quake, the 59-year-old finance professional is studying a PhD in Futures Studies at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

The aspiring futurist is eager to find out how humans might better protect their lives and their environments for years to come.

The earthquake
that hit home

Richard MacGeorge is a former World Bank financier who has worked on vital infrastructure projects in 40 countries, but it was a 7.1 magnitude earthquake that really hit home in 2010, followed by a 6.3 on 22 February 2011.

Returning from overseas to Christchurch, New Zealand, he found his family house damaged beyond repair, along with much of the city centre.

Many people had been killed or injured and hundreds more lost their homes. Thousands of kilometres of roads, water and sewerage infrastructure were damaged and destroyed. It became the fourth most expensive global insurance event of all time.

Richard was appointed General Manager of Infrastructure with the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority – tasked with helping rebuild and restore a region that was rocked for 18 months by a further 11,000 smaller quakes.

“Residents became citizens, toiling by day to redefine their community and by night on their insurance claims, while also trying to heal from within their broken houses,” he said.

“Some of the city’s lower socio-economic neighbourhoods were on land affected by liquefaction, meaning 7,500 households required relocation.

“I watched people piecing their lives together as my family and I did the same.

“We developed a heightened interest in what makes a good society, and that dominated conversations in our cafes, meeting rooms, lecture theatres and conferences. A sense of a higher calling pervaded.”

Uniforms gave way to suits as the city moved from emergency to recovery.

“People had been jolted by losing the services they had taken for granted, such as turning on a tap, flushing a toilet, having a habitable house and an accessible workplace or school,” Richard said.

“To me, the connections between infrastructure and the wellbeing of people became paramount, but I didn’t find much research on the topic.

“As an infrastructure finance professional in international development, I realised my hometown was facing what we would usually see in ‘other’, less developed places – and I realised it could be the focus of its own human development project.

“I felt compelled to find a way to articulate these relationships in a way that could be helpful to Christchurch’s recovery.”

A global search for the
perfect PhD

Wellington-based Richard scoured the globe for the right university program, contacting former UniSC adjunct and UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies Professor Sohail Inayatullah via LinkedIn.

“We met in Honolulu and I had an inspirational two hours in a café with him,” said Richard, who already had a Master of Philosophy in Development Studies and a Bachelor of Agricultural Commerce.

“That was the spark that led me to apply to UniSC. It was clear to me the University had the most significant Futures program in the southern hemisphere.

“Soon after, Dr Marcus Bussey became my second UniSC supervisor, giving me new levels of rigour that have kept my research on track despite my ongoing consultancy work.

“I’m interested in Futures because I believe we have extracted from the planet to the point where the ‘throwaway approach’ to life no longer works.

“The linear economy has led to problems of population, pollution, environmental degradation and resource depletion.

“Infrastructure can be one of the biggest takers, and wasters, but everything we use relates to infrastructure.

“Our future depends on us shifting fundamentally towards something more socially sustainable. I want to understand the role of infrastructure in a circular economy.

“Many people want their studies to lead to employment but for me, this PhD is not about career development. It’s about giving back, adding value, in the legacy phase of my career.”

Keeping his feet on the ground

Humans spend billions of dollars on building things to live more comfortably in our natural environment. From residential and commercial developments to power, water and sewerage schemes, transport and telecommunications networks, we’re continually updating our world.

Richard has been part of this process of funding and guiding infrastructure in both developed and developing countries since the late 1980s, when he started working in finance at London investment bank, Morgan Grenfell. 

Based at the bank’s Soviet and East European desk, Richard witnessed massive change – and the scrambling of countries to adapt physically, economically, politically, socially and culturally – following the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the USSR. 

“I grew to love seeing the tangible outcomes of investment in rebuilding, first in the private sector, where I was involved in the nuts and bolts of delivering projects, and later in the public sector, such as financing gas deliveries for Ukraine through my job with the World Bank in Washington DC,” he said. 

“That was a gruelling time with much travel, but it gave me perspectives that help ground my research today.”

The pyramid
that Richard built

During reconstruction efforts in Christchurch, Richard put a new twist on an old theory.

He adapted Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory – which categorises human needs in levels of importance often shown as a pyramid – and applied it to infrastructure.

His Built Environment Hierarchy of Needs is a pyramid diagram that matches individual human needs with corresponding infrastructure designed to meet those needs.

Physiological needs are matched with water and electricity infrastructure and housing.

Security needs are matched with hospitals, defence, and police stations.

Belonging needs are met with community and recreation facilities, faith-based centres and libraries.

And esteem and self-actualisation needs are matched by cultural infrastructure like performing arts centres, universities and museums.

 For his PhD, Richard is putting his own theory to the test.

 “If the COVID-19 pandemic is considered as a disaster, and civilisation is heading towards further and compound disasters arising from climate change, for example, then a model such as this could have much wider application.

 “I want to find out if this approach to sustainable infrastructure development can also inform non-disaster environments and lead us to a future that better balances human and ecological wellbeing."

Self-actualisation: Arts, cultural and creative centres Self-esteem: Educational institutions Belonging: Community and recreation facilities, faith-based centres and libraries Security: Hospitals, defence facilities and police stations Physiological: Water and electricity infrastructure and residential development
Self-actualisation: Arts, cultural and creative centres Self-esteem: Educational institutions Belonging: Community and recreation facilities, faith-based centres and libraries Security: Hospitals, defence facilities and police stations Physiological: Water and electricity infrastructure and residential development

Interested in Futures Studies at UniSC?

 What is it?

The study of values, actions, hopes, fears and decisions in the present that arise from assumptions about the future. Investigations are both practical and philosophical.

What is a key principle?

There are probable, possible, plausible and preferred futures, and it is up to us to navigate between these.

Who can study it?

Higher degrees (Master and PhD) in Futures have been offered at UniSC since 2001. They are open to all people with suitable academic qualifications and research backgrounds.

For further information contact:
Dr Marcus Bussey
Senior Lecturer in History and Futures Studies
School of Law and Society