When the social construction of scale matters differently for policy

It’s no news that our categories for thinking are both strengths (e.g., a career) and weaknesses (e.g., its blind-spots to interdisciplinarity). Nor is it news that professions and interdisciplinarities are historical constructions that morph over time. What may be news is where that social construction takes place and when it matters.

–In much of the public policy and management with which I’m familiar, it’s assumed that major meaning- and sense-making take place at the micro, meso and macro levels–even as we admit that the scales are socially constructed (think: what we use to call international and then global and now planetary). That micro-meso-macro are easily historicized doesn’t stop me, however, from thinking through linkages and connections between these individual, emerging and system levels.

–There are cases where this methodological issue poses no real problem to recasting complex policy issues more tractably. However, there is at least one group of cases where it is problematic, and importantly so. It’s where dynamic interconnections between and among phenomena determine the scale and shifts in scale immediately thereafter.

A city water manager told us that recent improvements in the potable water system meant that, in case of emergencies, they could close down portions of physical system, segment by segment, and thereby isolate “what the scale of their problem” was. At these times and for these purposes, scale effects follow from interconnectivities, and not the other way around.

–So what?

If you’re looking for meaning- and sense-making in emergencies and emergency response, look for them first in interconnectivities made and used by those involved. (And in case there is any doubt, those interconnectivities are also socially constructed, as in the Aristotelian notion of “need unites everything.”)

–Example? A follow-on from a massive magnitude 9.0 or greater earthquake in the Pacific Northwest will be shifts in inter-infrastructure connectivity never seen before, requiring all manner of improvisations never before seen by the improvising emergency management and infrastructural staff: “Basically, we’re going to go from a bureau that treats wastewater to figuring out just how to get it away from people. . . .and we’re not going to know how to do that until we know what’s working and what’s not working,” said an environmental services official.

This means that improvisations–particularly those involving the backbone water, electricity, roads and telecoms together–may well be the best indicator that interconnectivities are possible and so too adjustments thereafter in the scale of the tasks and resources being meshed by one or more of the backbone infrastructures.

Note that, while both are socially constructed, the just-in-time nature of improvisations stand in marked contrast to the historically evolving meanings for micro, meso and macro.

–Again: So, what?

A centerpiece of immediate assessments just after an earthquake or other such disaster should include determining what still remains interconnected even in the midst of the visible devastation. Operators in the backbone infrastructures, both in control centers and as field staff, are especially key to that determination.

If they are not there, the assessments default to an emergency management infrastructure, if present. They in turn are arguably more familiar with devastation (another social construction), as in search and rescue operations, than with backbone interconnectivity (a very different social construction), as in moving mobile generators and cell towers nearby to affected infrastructures for their initial service restoration.

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