Rethinking crisis scenarios and response

Thinking differently about the unimaginable

The above reads as if an oxymoron, but “thinking about the unthinkable” is a longstanding genre for crisis scenarios.

First, there is the predictably unimaginable that comes with new categories and convention. Think here of “violent crime” as a legal category in the US that didn’t exist prior to the 1970s. “Speaking of ‘political prisoners’ had become such a major political criticism that it was no longer possible to imagine it as a legal category,” concludes another. That there are ahead new categories and conventions that we don’t imagine is, frankly, quite predictable.

Second, that there are already existing but different analogies to redescribe current policy problems is also predictable. The Green New Deal has most often been likened to Roosevelt’s New Deal. It’s also been likened to the Civil Rights Movement, 19th century abolitionism, and the war economy of the Bolshevik Revolution. There should be no doubt that the climate emergency has been or will be compared to many other events you and I won’t imagine until that comparison is made.

Third, earthquakes with unimaginable impacts are predicted all the time. That in fact is the genre convention. It’s no different than predicting that experience after my death will be the same as experience before my being conceived.

Thinking differently about implementation scenarios

The authors of a fine report conclude that significant gaps exist between what’s proposed in the EU AI Act (concerning artificial intelligence) and the existing EU digital legislation (formally “the digital acquis”):

We identify eight key areas where challenges may emerge, and make the following policy recommendations: 1) there is a need to clarify and align the terminology with the legal categories and notions in existing EU legislation related to AI; 2) negotiators should ensure better fine-tuning of the interactions of the act with sector-specific rules (notably in the health sector); 3) the act should be made consistent with EU data protection rules, for example regarding the lawfulness of personal data processing; 4) the act’s risk-based approach features a number of loopholes that need to be addressed to improve legal certainty for AI providers and users; 5) while the act aims to complement existing product safety rules, it requires more detailed provisions to allow for meaningful integration with EU acquis; 6) the act introduces a weak enforcement scheme, which should be strengthened and aligned with other digital policies; 7) EU legislators should tackle the growing divergence between the stated goals of the act and emerging data transfer rules; and 8) the act would benefit from exemptions aimed at promoting scientific research.

Bogucki, A., A. Engler, C. Perarnaud, and A. Renda (2022). THE AI ACT AND EMERGING EU DIGITAL ACQUIS: Overlaps, gaps and inconsistencies. CEPS: Brussels (accessed online on November 3 2022 at

In my view, the first question we ask is not, “Who’s going to adopt the recommendations and, if so, with what modifications?” but rather: “Who would implement the finalized recommendations and what are implementors’ scenarios for failing to do so?” This acknowledges the longstanding role of implementation as de facto policymaking.

Thinking differently about pre-disaster mitigations


How do you choose which bridges to retrofit now and just ahead, when so many major ones here could fail in the next big earthquake?

That question is misformulated and its answers accordingly misleading.


Retrofitting a bridge pre-disaster isn’t a chancy wager on what might or might not happen to the bridge. Retrofitting is managing latent interconnectivities between bridges and other infrastructures that become manifest during and immediately after the disaster. That inter-infrastructural connections will shift and these shifts will involve bridges is far more predictable than this or that bridge will fail, unless retrofitted.

This means attention is crucial to the track record in retrofitting bridges before and after disasters, here and elsewhere. Note the implication: Retrofitting has to occur in order to have a track record to monitor and learn from.

Since there are real material and cognitive limits on controlling inter-infrastructural connectivity at any point in time, doing more by way of managing the pre-disaster latency of interconnectivities is elemental. An interviewee with engineering and management experience told us their city water infrastructure was behind the electricity utility in the adoption of automatic shut-off valves. Bringing water systems up to power’s better practices is a way of managing latent interconnectivity in advance of disaster.


In other words, the question we should be asking is more akin to: “What have we learned, here or under like conditions elsewhere, that actually works in better managing latent interconnectivity for post-disaster response and recovery?”

Thinking differently about risk management for crises


To live is to manage risk. But what then to make of the debacle of Sam Bank-Friedman’s cryptocurrency firm?

“I wasn’t even trying, like, I wasn’t spending any time or effort trying to manage risk on FTX,” Mr. Bankman-Fried said in an interview. Echoed a co-head of digital asset trading in Citigroup about FTX, “The thing that I picked up on immediately that was causing us heartburn was the complete lack of a risk-management framework that they could articulate in any meaningful way.”

Before it was the wrong framework for managing risks; now the problem is having no framework at all. But how could FTX not have risk managers, albeit of sorts and not formalized?


In answer, let’s recast the issue. Risk and risk managers were around long before risk management frameworks and registries had been formalized. Think Christians being around from the time of Jesus to the time of formalizing the Scriptures in 4th century AD at the Council of Nicaea, How did Christians operate in the 300 years between? Can we think of Bank-Friedman and his FTX colleagues (and other cult-entrepreneurs) in the same way as these early Christians?

If we did, one question would be: What does the FTX debacle herald for risk management frameworks going ahead? No wonder the guardians of current frameworks might want to convince us the FTX debacle has nothing to offer.

Thinking differently about crisis leadership

The literature on crisis leadership is largely top down (leaders direct) or bottom up (self-organizing crisis response), where networks are said to be vertical (hierarchical) or horizontal (laterally interacting leaders).

We add a third category: control rooms, and not just in terms of Incident Command Centers during the emergency but already-existing infrastructure control rooms whose staff continue to operate during the emergency.

Paul Schulman and I argue control rooms are a unique organizational formation meriting society protection, even during (especially during) continued turbulence. They have evolved to take hard systemwide decisions under difficult conditions that require a decision, now. Adding this third is to insist on real-time large-system management as the prevention of major failures and thus crises that would have happened had not control room managers, operators and support staff prevented them.

Thinking differently about predictions

As I remember the too-ing and fro-ing over the introduction of Bt cotton in India, saving on insecticides was the putative plus and runaway GM crops the putative negative. I know nothing about the subsequent record but suspect that the findings must be differentiated, as any such findings, by region and other demographics.

All this came back to me when I read the following passage describing a recent conference paper on Bt cotton:

Ambarish Karamchedu presented on Dried up Bt cotton narratives: climate, debt and distressed livelihoods in semi-arid smallholder India. Proponents of this ‘technical fix’ position GMO crops as a triple win. India has semi-arid and arid areas where rural poverty is concentrated, with an intense monsoon season (3-4 months), making farming a challenge. BT cotton introduced around 1995, thrives here. India is the biggest cotton cultivator and Bt cotton is grown by 7 million smallholder farmers, 66 percent in semi-arid areas with poor soils and low rainfall prone to monsoon. In Telangana, 65% of farmers across all classes produce BT cotton, with good harvests for 5 years, after which they decline. Failure of farmers who face increased input prices have to resort to non-farm incomes. The triple win technological fix narrative perpetuates and exacerbates the problems it seeks to solve, and benefits farmer institutions rather than enriching farmer knowledge and practice.

It’s that “with good harvests for 5 years, after which they decline” that grabbed my attention. Did anyone predict that, be they proponents or opponents of Bt cotton?

This matters, because in the absence of any such prediction, why not also conclude: “Well, five years is five years more than expected?”

Thinking differently about luck in infrastructure crises

Ensuring systemwide service reliability has always involved luck in major critical infrastructures. This, the control room operators, will tell you. At its most abstract, good luck can be defined as the non-occurrence of system failure in the absence of exercising failure avoidance options, while bad luck is the occurrence of failure in the presence of exercising those options.

But luck also favors the well-prepared, and well-prepared operators make a difference. Consider how a senior operations engineer for a transmission grid described a close call to us:

. . . We nearly caused a voltage collapse all over the western grid. Everything was going up and down, we were trying to get power from all the nuclear units in the western grid. Life flashed before our eyes. And then the gen dispatcher did intuitively the right thing. He said, Shut one pump down. How he figured that, I still don’t understand. It was something we had never seen before. We had no procedures. . .We went back and looked at it, and the planner said, Oh yeah, you should never have been running three pumps, and we said, Where did you get that from? So we started writing new procedures.

When talent meets opportunity, the value added by professionals is stopping close calls and near misses from becoming system failures. That there can be no guarantees makes this “luck”.

Thinking differently about wake-up calls


It’s easy enough to take “right, center and left” and make a linear continuum: as when politics moves from the right through the center into the left.

But the straight line becomes V-shaped, when the center is stretched and pulled away from the other two ends, as when the sequence, beginning-middle-end of a story, is made to sag, like a hammock.

Think here of the time-consuming catch-up to the contingencies that come our way in medias res, rendering beginnings long gone (or always disputed) and ends further off than our stories assumed at the start.

That’s what wake-up calls do when they identify intervening crises that stretch time and space out of shape between thought-to-be beginnings and thought-to-be endings.


For example, the Covid-19 pandemic was reported to us by several emergency managers as “a wake-up call” with respect to the interconnectivities and vulnerabilities among water, electricity, roads and other backbone infrastructures in Oregon and Washington State. In the view of a very experienced emergency management expert, “the one thing that the pandemic is bringing out is a higher definition of how these things are interconnected and they’re not totally visible”.

Covid-19 response made clearer that backbone infrastructures, especially electricity, are “extremely dated and fragile” in the view of experienced interviewees (e.g. in Oregon). So too shortages in road staff in the aftermath of a vaccine mandate were mentioned by a state emergency manager for transportation as making it harder to undertake operations. Covid-19 responses also put a brake on infrastructure and emergency management initiatives already in the pipeline (e.g., preventative maintenance), according to multiple respondents.

The pandemic combined at the same time with other emergencies. A heat dome episode required a treatment plant’s staff not to work outside, but in so doing created Covid-19 distancing issues inside. The intersection of lockdowns and winter ice storms increased restoration times of some electrical crews, reported a state director of emergency management for energy. A vaccination mandate on city staff added uncertainty over personnel available for line services. Who gets to work at home and who gets to work in the plant also created issues.

“We struggled with working with contractors and vendors” over the vaccine mandate, said a state emergency manager for roads: “If we had a catastrophic disaster three months ago that would have been a challenge for us to work through.”

“All [Covid-19] planning happened on the fly, we were building the plane as it moved, we’d never seen anything like this,” said a state logistics manager of their early response. The interviewee added: “Covid is so unique and out of the box that we’ve developed rules and processes that we’re only going to use during Covid because they don’t make sense in any other disaster”.

In other words, the Covid-19 pandemic was a wake-up call to front-line managers about interconnectivities, but not even a rehearsal for what is also to come their way in terms of other crises (including the much-predicted catastrophe of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the two states’ coastline).


Many crises are, I would submit, V-shaped, notwithstanding their linear scenarios. So what?

Minimally, it means that table-top exercises (a.k.a. rehearsals) based on beginning-middle-end crisis scenarios will inevitably be less V-shaped than needed. This is not to say the former are not useful. It is to say that the most useful table-tops are likely to be wake-up calls to more crises or different ones than thought pre-tabletop–and requiring nowNOW attention also.

The point is that we are once again back to a key narrative discrepancy in crisis scenarios—between the stated urgency to DO SOMETHING NOW on the one side, and the stated requirement to do so safely with respect to the ends in sight on the other side—while all the time recognizing that both requirements are urged on us and underwritten by the very same unpredictability at the very same scale of analysis, the system level.

On one hand, we have to experiment even if it risks the limits of survival; on the other hand, being safe means no error should ever be the last trial. This is a discrepancy because it can’t be written off or talked out of; it has to be managed as one of the messes we are in. That indeed, or so I believe, is the wake-up call of all wake-up calls.

Source: The research, from which are drawn interviewee quotes, is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant 2121528.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s