On Technology and Building Resilient Societies to Mitigate the Impact of Disasters

I recently caught up with a colleague at the World Bank and learned that “resilience” is set to be the new “buzz word” in the international development community. I think this is very good news. Yes, discourse does matter. A single word can alter the way we frame problems. They can lead to new conceptual frameworks that inform the design and implementation of development projects and disaster risk reduction strategies.

The term resilience is important because it focuses not on us, the development and disaster community, but rather on local at-risk communities. The terms “vulnerability” and “fragility” were used in past discourse but they focus on the negative and seem to invoke the need for external protection, overlooking the possibility that local coping mechanisms do exist. From the perspective of this top-down approach, international organizations are the rescuers and aid does not arrive until they arrive.

Resilience, in contrast, implies radical self-sufficiency, and self-sufficien-cy suggests a degree of autonomy; self-dependence rather than dependence on an external entity that may or may not arrive, that may or may not be effective, and that may or may not stay the course. In the field of ecology, the term resilience is defined as “the capacity of an ecosystem to respond to a perturbation or disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly.” There are thus at least two ways for “social ecosystems” to be resilient:

  1. Resist damage by absorbing and dampening the perturbation.
  2. Recover quickly by bouncing back.

So how does a society resist damage from a disaster? As noted in an earlier blog post, “Disaster Theory for Techies“, there is no such thing as a “natural disaster”. There are natural hazards and there are social systems. If social systems are not sufficiently resilient to absorb the impact of a natural hazard such as an earthquake, then disaster unfolds. In other words, hazards are exogenous while disasters are the result of endogenous political, economic, social and cultural processes. Indeed, “it is generally accepted among environmental geographers that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. In every phase and aspect of a disaster—causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction—the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus” (Smith 2006).

So how do we take this understanding of disasters and apply it to building more resilient communities? Focusing on people-centered early warning systems is one way to do this. In 2006, the UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) recognized that top-down early warning systems for disaster response were increasingly ineffective. They therefore called for a more bottom-up approach in the form of people-centered early warning systems. The UN ISDR’s Global Survey of Early Warning Systems (PDF), defines the purpose of people-centered early warning systems as follows:

“… to empower individuals and communities threatened by hazards to act in sufficient time and in an appropriate manner so as to reduce the possibility of personal injury, loss of life, damage to property and the environment, and loss of livelihoods.”

Information plays a central role here. Acting in sufficient time requires having timely information about (1) the hazard(s) and (2) how to respond. As some scholars have argued, a disaster is first of all “a crisis in communicating within a community—that is, a difficulty for someone to get informed and to inform other people” (Gilbert 1998). Improving ways for local communities to communicate internally is thus an important part of building more resilient societies. This is where information and communication technologies (ICTs) play an important role. Free and open source software like Ushahidi can also be used (the subject of a future blog post).

Open data is equally important. Local communities need to access data that will enable them to make more effective decisions on how to best minimize the impact of certain hazards on their livelihoods. This means accessing both internal community data in real time (the previous paragraph) and data external to the community that bears relevance to the decision-making calculus at the local level. This is why I’m particularly interested in the Open Data for Resilience Initiative (OpenDRI) spearheaded by the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR). Institutionalizing OpenDRI at the state level will no doubt be a challenge in and of itself, but I do hope the initiative will also be localized using a people-centered approach like the one described above.

The second way to grow more resilient societies is by enabling them to recover quickly following a disaster. As Manyena wrote in 2006, “increasing attention is now paid to the capacity of disaster-affected communities to ‘bounce back’ or to recover with little or no external assistance following a disaster.” So what factors accelerate recovery in ecosystems in general? “To recover itself, a forest ecosystem needs suitable interactions among climate conditions and bio-actions, and enough area.” In terms of social ecosystems, these interactions can take the form of information exchange.

Identifying needs following a disaster and matching them to available resources is an important part of the process. Accelerating the rate of (1) identification; (2) matching and, (3) allocation, is one way to speed up overall recovery. In ecological terms, how quickly the damaged part of an ecosystem can repair itself depends on how many feedback loops (network connections) it has to the non- (or less-) damaged parts of the ecosystem(s). Some call this an adaptive system. This is where crowdfeeding comes in, as I’ve blogged about here (The Crowd is Always There: A Marketplace for Crowdsourcing Crisis Response) and here (Why Crowdsourcing and Crowdfeeding May be the Answer to Crisis Response).

Internal connectivity and communication is important for crowdfeeding to work, as is preparedness. This is why ICTs are central to growing more resilient societies. They can accelerate the identification of needs, matching and allocation of resources. Free and open source platforms like Ushahidi can also play a role in this respect, as per my recent blog post entitled “Check-In’s With a Purpose: Applications for Disaster Response.” But without sufficient focus on disaster preparedness, these technologies are more likely to facilitate spontaneous response rather than a planned and thus efficient response. As Louis Pas-teur famously noted, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Hence the rationale for the Standby Volunteer Task Force for Live Mapping (SBTF), for example. Open data is also important in this respect. The OpenDRI initiative is thus important for both damage resistance and quick recovery.

I’m enjoying the process of thinking through these issues again. It’s been a while since I published and presented on the topic of resilience and adaptation. So I plan to read through some of my papers from a while back that addressed these issues in the context of violent conflict and climate change. What I need to do is update them based on what I’ve learned over the past four or five years.

If you’re curious and feel like jumping into some of these papers yourself, I recommend these two as a start:

  • Meier, Patrick. 2007. “New Strategies for Effective Early Response: Insights from Complexity Science.” Paper prepared for the 48th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association (ISA) in Chicago. Available online.
  • Meier, Patrick. 2007. “Networking Disaster and Conflict Early Warning Systems.” Paper prepared for the 48th Annual Convention of the Int’l Studies Association (ISA) in Chicago.  Available online.

More papers are available on my Publications page. This earlier blog post on “Failing Gracefully in Complex Systems: A Note on Resilience” may also be of interest to some readers.

18 responses to “On Technology and Building Resilient Societies to Mitigate the Impact of Disasters

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  3. Dear Colleague,
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    We have the honor to you that Grameen Development Society (GDS) is a non Government Voluntary human development Organization. This Organization has been conducting various socio-economic development activities such as Water Supply & sanitation, Environment & Climate Change, Education, HIV/AIDS Prevention Programme, Health, awareness, legal aid and protection to the persecuted women and children are worth mentioning.
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    Mr.Zahid Hossain Khan
    Executive Director
    GDS – Grameen Development Society
    Aziz Villa, Kali Bari Road
    Barisal- 8200, BANGLADESH
    Phone- 088 0431 217 6528
    Fax- 088 0431 64881
    Mobile- 088 017169 52749

  4. Thank-you for explaining resilience in such a clear way! Crowdingfeeding/sourcing are interesting ways to look at resilience and response. We look forward to reading more about how you see this applied to disaster risk reduction.

  5. Interestingly enough, San Francisco has been attempting to frame our strategies around successful disaster mitigation and recovery in the same exact way. While resilience as a concept means something different to almost everyone, we have enjoyed great success in bringing new partners to the table because this non-traditional method of approaching disaster management as a holistic practice allows them to directly influence their own interest. I am personally very glad to see the academic development of this theory and I think this is a great example of taking lessons learned and actually applying them to future practice. I’d like to see the word “resilience” in dialogue as much as possible!

  6. Sounds good, but its a contested term constantly being reterritorialised by concerned actors. Im interested how you say its adoption by the world bank is a good development. I might define define resilient societies as those that able to mitigate the impacts, elude and undermine such nefarious financial institutions!

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  15. It’s GFDRR, not GFDDR

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