4 Sep 2014

Alpine views on resilience

It was again a great experience to be in Davos and participate in IDRC 2014. High up in the Swiss alps the views were good and so were insights provided into disaster resilience by an again very international group of participants. Margaretha Wallström, Assistant Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction of UN, gave an inspiring plenary on the process towards the upcoming Sendai 2015 conference where the new Disaster Risk Reduction framework will be discussed.

As our research project Public Empowerment Policies for Crisis management (PEP) will deliver a roadmap by the end of 2014, we may also have a modest contribution to this global process, though with a focus on Europe. Nowadays, the latter may make less of a difference than one might think. Disasters are not just a problem of poor countries, although risks are not divided equally, as demonstrated also by statistics presented by prof. Ortwin Renn in the same conference.

A community approach seems a more natural choice in the case of development countries, but its actual application often depends on involvement of NGOs. In western countries taking care of disaster preparedness has been delegated, for a long time already, to specialized rescue organizations. However, nowadays disasters are not seen as events needing primarily the attention of trained first responders, but rather as a longer process involving more actors including also civil society.  

A whole community approach needs different capabilities, including communication among diverse organizations and citizens, in order to enhance resilience on the individual, community and societal level. The legal tasks of response organizations do not include all of this. So where do such responsibilities belong? They seem to be a joint responsibility of various actors with unclear leadership and risk of negligence.  

A broad integrated approach connecting community resilience with e.g. health care and education would fit municipalities well.  However, research shows that local volunteer groups often feel their input is not welcomed by the administration. Municipalities have multiple tasks competing for attention. National authorities delegate more and more tasks to the local level, but the process often coincides with budget cuts. Moreover, Margaretha Wallström stated that it is unclear how activities of national authorities contribute to those of local authorities concerning Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). Activities on all levels, local as well as national, are important to enhance resilience. So are activities by diverse organizations and citizens groups. Recent cases of river flooding showed that citizen initiatives were created faster than authority response.  Activities of all actors are needed, as well as strong facilitation of cooperation. Resilience is a network characteristic, needing evolving cooperation and well-functioning links.

Contribute to the Roadmap of Public Empowerment Policies for Crisis Management by joining the discussion FORUM on www.projectPEP.eu ! We now also have a Crisis communication WIKI for professionals, for you to check out.

15 Feb 2014

Juggling balls

Sometimes one feels one is swimming against the stream, loosing energy, while it would be better to find a more fruitful way of doing matters. That was the case for me recently. I was focused on building a research group but lost members when these were offered longer contracts than researchers have. Also, I used to treasure my office with its big table, and see it as the place where the team meets to build a long term perspective. But for the third time in recent years we will have to move to temporary work places dispersed over the university campus because tests say the air quality in our current building is not healthy. So much for building structures and long term team perspectives!

Sometimes things have to happen more often before one gets an inkling how to work with the tide, rather than against it. Finally I got it. This should not be about building everlasting structures in an environment that can’t facilitate that. A university may cultivate a reputation of longstanding scientific tradition, but nowadays conditions do not facilitate building long term perspectives. However, what universities are good at is forming interesting meeting places for groups of very diverse scholars. This in itself is a great good.

Therefore, I concluded that while I am not able to change the conditions, I am able to change my own perspective. I can follow the content of my research, which is on dynamic networked communication in demanding changing environments. It seems fruitful to use a postmodern perspective in my own work life also.

In my new view I emphasize utilizing moments and meaningful meetings, and who knows what beauty can come out of that. Now I again have something to share with the people around me. Projects are opportunities to gain experiences, just like meetings are opportunities to instead of having a boring time and making minutes, rather exchange your best ‘insight of the day’. Students can grab the moment when in class, to start discussing topics they are passionate about. Researchers could accept temporary arrangements when meetings and classes are opportunities seized to share interesting content.

As research managers we can better not see projects as building blocks for future structures, though one never knows. Mainly we can be jugglers that keep many projects as colourful balls in the air, to attract and inspire students and researchers alike. Let's do away with bureaucratic and long term planning. At best, university life is a string of moments and meetings that bring us opportunities to share and create new insights. You never know who you will meet and where, but with the right attitude this is an adventurous scientific journey. Each day you understand better how foolish you were yesterday, but there is no way to know what you may find out tomorrow.