“Building in resilience”: really?


The typical divide across pre-disaster/disaster/post-disaster becomes more complicated when you talk to practicing emergency managers. They can go into great deal about efforts to “prepare for,” “mitigate,” and “prevent” situations even when in immediate response and restoration, and not just beforehand.

It would however be a mistake, I think, to see preparation, mitigation and prevention as continuous variables, punctuated from time to time for whatever reason.

To telegraph ahead, what changes over time, more formally and specifically, are different configurations of socio-technical interconnections around which ongoing prevention, preparedness and mitigation efforts are coordinated—from now into and across immediate response and initial restoration of services.


To see how, start this way.

Some infrastructure operators and emergency managers we interviewed say they are best in response and restoration when following plans, while others say they are at their best when surprised by the unexpected. This means operations people may look like cowboys to the engineer department because both cognitively understand the same system differently: “I don’t think you respond to 92 breaks in 13 days without having the ability to adapt on the fly,” said a city’s water distribution manager.

But this may be less a matter of different professional orientations as commonly understood and more about orientations with respect to different “scales of operation,” even within the same city.

For engineers, seismically retrofitting a bridge represents efforts to manage ahead latent interconnectivity so that it does not become manifest during or after an earthquake, e.g., the bridge holds and traffic is not disrupted there. For operations people, even if the seismically retrofitted bridge does fail in the earthquake and traffic disrupted, improvisations are still possible, both by the city departments involved and by commuters who individually or collectively organize alternatives. The respective interconnectivities, before and after, of course look very different.

Improvising after failure may seem like weak beer compared to the promise of better avoiding failure in the first place, but not foregrounding the necessity of improvisations (and improvisational skills) leads to confusion about “building in resilience” and its role in emergency management. All the money and political will beforehand won’t get rid of the key role of improvisation in emergency management. There is no planner’s workaround for improvisation.


So what? Isn’t that obvious?

If the necessity of improvisation in emergency management is obvious, not all the implications are.

A very major issue emerges when it comes to the role of politics after immediate response and initial service restoration, i.e., that is, as you move into longer-term recovery. For some interviewees, the transition out of a (more or less) command-and-control response, with its own clarity, logic and urgency, into a more inclusive, more politicized (read, more conflicted) recovery raises unavoidable governance issues.

What, they ask, are the organizational and management markers and decisionmaking criteria for resuming (bettered) civic operations? “At this point, it’s not been determined,” said an interviewee with long experience.

Nor is that question, along with the like question “When is ‘resilient-enough’ enough?,” in fact not determinable. Why? Because the granularity about the (latent and manifest) interconnectivities necessary in coordinating immediate response and initial service restoration is simply not possible, prospectively, for longer-term recovery.

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