Key nations have announced US$ 4.8 million in funding for the delivery of early warning systems and services to reduce loss of life from severe weather events in the Pacific region. The announcement was made 10 June 2020 during the 11th Steering Committee Meeting of the Climate Risk & Early Warning Systems (CREWS) initiative by its Member States, the governments of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
The CREWS initiative was established in 2015 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) as a financial mechanism to save lives and livelihoods through the expansion of early warning systems and services in Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States. Its three Implementing Partners are the World Meteorological Organization, the World Bank Group / Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.
Filipe Lucio of WMO indicated at the meeting that the funds would allow the island countries in the region to detect, monitor and forecast severe high-impact weather events. Additional services to be developed include access to longer-term seasonal predictions and operational early warning and response plans that ensure the most vulnerable people in the communities receive warnings.
CREWS Member States also approved the allocation of funds to support countries to monitor the effectiveness of their national early warning systems. Additionally, the preparations of another US$ 4 million project, covering the South West Indian Ocean that includes the countries of Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique and Seychelles was initiated for funding in the near future.
To date, the CREWS Trust Fund has delivered over US$ 43 million in project funding and mobilized an additional US$ 270 million from public funds of other development partners – realizing accelerated life-saving action and maximized finance effectiveness.
In 2019, CREWS support was scaled up to 44 least developed countries and small island developing states. Through this work, more than 10 million people in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities now have access to better early warning services.
In Afghanistan, 3D printers are being used to build automatic weather stations, bringing early warning services to rural communities.
In Burkina Faso, more than 1,100 rural farmers received 130 weather forecasts in 2019, broadcast via local radio stations.
In Fiji, nearly one million people now have advance flash flood warnings, creating increased security and saving lives.
In Niger, more than 600 women were trained in early warning services and have now created women-led WhatsApp groups to amplify advance warnings throughout their communities.
Across the Caribbean, national emergency management offices, national hydromet offices, national gender bureaux, sectorial ministries, and non-governmental groups including women organizations are now working together to bridge the gender divide in access to early warning systems.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta fumed at construction delays on the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor in 2019 – a US$22 billion (£18 billion) transport network that includes a 32-berth port, highways, railways and pipelines. But these delays, caused by financing gaps, afforded fishers, pastoral farmers and conservationists time to challenge the project in court, and push for amended plans that better protect local habitats and migratory routes used by people, livestock and wildlife.
While major road and rail projects often break up wilderness and grazing lands, a sudden pause in construction can offer a lifeline to people fighting to protect these areas.
Lockdown restrictions and the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 have made sourcing labour and materials more difficult, increasing construction costs. The result is that infrastructure building has slowed globally, creating a unique opportunity to redesign road and rail projects around the world so that they benefit the people and environments they share the landscape with.
Barriers to travel
Dozens of new roads, railways and pipelines are under construction in sub-Saharan Africa due to a surge in investment in recent years. Although they are promised to bolster economic growth, our research shows that many of these new mega-highways and high-speed rail lines were approved without meaningful consultation between planners and local people. As a result, they tend to become new barriers that are difficult and dangerous to traverse, forcing people to travel long distances to reach safe crossing points.
In dry regions, this can make it difficult to reach vital water sources. Amid farmland and forests, construction can push people from their land or force them to travel further to reach it. Deforestation usually comes before construction too, which encourages people to migrate further into woodland, building new settlements that drive more forest clearing.
Poorly designed roads and rail lines can take a heavy toll on human and animal life. During our research between 2017 and 2019, we found too few safe crossing points, inadequate signage and lax speed enforcement along new highways and railways in Kenya and Tanzania, resulting in numerous road accidents.
Conservationists are particularly worried by growing roadkill sightings along a new highway in northern Kenya. Endemic and endangered species like the Grevy’s zebra are often killed in collisions with cars and lorries after wandering onto roads that now criss-cross their range. As one pastoral farmer living alongside the new highway exclaimed
How many animals have died? Uncountable.
Fortunately, there are lots of proven strategies for preventing transport projects from fragmenting habitats, such as building passages across new highways and railways that migratory species can use. Repairing environmental damage caused by construction, by filling in quarries that produce construction materials, for example, can also help restore grazing land for livestock and wildlife.
The Mongu-Kalabo road constructed over the Barotse floodplain in western Zambia shows these ideas in action. Completed in 2016, the road was built with 26 bridges over the floodplains and regular culverts between bridges, allowing water and wildlife to move across the floodplain without impeding road traffic and trade, even during seasonal floods.
The road was also planned with local cultures in mind. Wetland livelihoods, such as fishing and floodplain farming, aren’t affected by the road since the regular movement of fish and water remains largely undisturbed. By maintaining these flows across the floodplain, cultural traditions have been protected. The annual Kuomboka ceremony that takes place at the end of the rainy season can continue, when the Litunda (king of the Lozi people) moves from his compound in the Barotse floodplain to higher ground.
There is no single blueprint for building roads and railways that allow humans and nature to thrive. Wherever construction is planned, public participation is vital. Gathering the knowledge local people have of their environment can improve the design of these projects, but this insight cannot come from rushed consultations or impact assessments conducted from a distance. Only meaningful and ongoing engagement with local communities and environmental authorities will do.
Major infrastructure investment will likely be key to pulling the global economy out of recession. The opportunity to mould upcoming projects won’t last forever, so let’s ensure any new road and rail project is designed with respect to the rights of people and nature.
On the International Day of Biological Diversity, IIED hosted a multi-stakeholder webinar on how to work with nature to mitigate and adapt to climate change and halt biodiversity loss. IIED senior researcher Xiaoting Hou Jones chaired the event, and here she shares some highlights from the discussions.
One key message from the webinar was the urgent need to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss together.
Alex White, team leader for International Climate and Strategy at the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), summed up the urgent need. He said: “We need to develop approaches that reflect the complexity and scale of the challenges and work for climate, nature and people. Nature-based solutions (NbS) are part of the solution.”
This resonates strongly with the increasing global support from scientists, governments, private sector and civil society for integrated solutions such as NbS for climate change.
The discussions also pointed to the multiple social, environmental, and economic benefits provided by NbS to climate change. A wide range of stakeholders, especially vulnerable local communities, can enjoy the benefits of NbS, making these solutions more attractive than their grey infrastructure counterparts.
Innovative financing to get money where it matters is one of the most important building blocks for NbS. Chip Cunliffe, sustainable development director for multinational insurance company AXA XL, highlighted the need for blended finance from public and private sectors. He said: “It is key that we start to build the right narrative that highlights the values of natural capital to engage possible investors and try to drive down existing barriers for financing NbS at scale.”
Alliance partners are piloting innovative finance products to fund NbS at scale. These include blue carbon credits; resilience credits that allow companies to invest in restoration and conservation to reduce climate risks; corporate bonds where corporates can borrow money to manage and maintain natural capital while providing benefits for biodiversity and local communities; and insurance products that explicitly integrate natural capital and incentivise working with nature to mitigate climate risks.
Participants also shared other financing models and emphasised the importance of finance reaching local communities, which are bearing the brunt of climate change impacts and are key for implementing NbS. Examples include: educating consumers and creating demand for diverse eco-friendly products, leveraging forest carbon market to support local communities to sustainably manage forests in Tanzania, and utilising lottery funds to mobilise local communities to implement NbS in the city of Bath in England.
Click on the word cloud above to expand it. We asked participants to pick up to three words that capture the most important building blocks for translating global ambitions for nature-based solutions for climate change into effective local actions (Image: IIED)
Indigenous peoples and local communities in the driving seat
Indigenous communities around the world have been working with nature to adapt to changes for hundreds of years and are effective stewards of biodiversity and natural carbon sinks such as forests. Musonda Kapena, CEO of the Zambia National Forest Commodities Association (ZNFCA), said indigenous knowledge systems can provide useful lessons on how to effectively design and implement NbS. ZNFCA has been working with traditional leaders in Zambia to mobilise communities at landscape scale to sustainably produce a wide variety of forest and agriculture products.
ZNFCA is one of many forest farm producer organisations around the world supported by the Forest and Farm Facility, a partnership between FAO, IUCN, IIED and Agricord. Producers’ organisations such as ZNFCA can mobilise 1.5 million smallholder producers at scale, to drive a paradigm shift away from large-scale monoculture production systems that are vulnerable to climate change.
In supporting local communities working with nature to build more resilient local economy, these locally placed organisations can also support its members to respond and recover from COVID-19 and climate-related risks.
Webinar participants highlighted the importance of building local capacity to access finance, communicate and share knowledge in ways that capture benefits that matter to local communities, and to ensure secure land and natural resource use rights for indigenous peoples and local communities. Participants shared examples of how they work with local communities to champion NbS around the world, including in Scotland, Mali, Bermuda and Latin America.
Increasing global ambitions to build back better from COVID-19
Many participants pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought sharp focus on societal vulnerability to systemic and multidimensional risks such as climate change and biodiversity loss. To build back a more resilient society, governments need to ensure global recovery responses tackle climate change, biodiversity loss and protect the most vulnerable.
Sarah Nelson, head of policy oversight in the international environmental conventions team in DEFRA, highlighted the UK government’s efforts to increase the focus on the interlinkages of nature and climate and push for global ambitions for a green recovery. She said: “Nature will be one of the key themes for COP26 hosted by the UK government. The UK government recognises to achieve success either on tackling climate change or biodiversity loss, we have to tackle both simultaneously.”
Nelson, who is leading on UK government’s nature theme for the next UN climate summit, said it recognises the important role NbS can play in building back better from COVID-19 (paywalled article). She said that in the lead-up to COP26, the UK aims to develop a ‘nature action pledge’, enabling countries to pledge concrete actions on nature and climate, providing a clear bridge between climate and biodiversity conventions.
Another immediate opportunity to increase global ambitions on NbS is the post-2020 biodiversity framework, currently being negotiated by parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Speakers called for close engagement with local communities and the finance sector in developing the framework and ensuring effective implementation mechanisms that can mobilise actions to achieve targets.
“We all need to act!” urged Musonda. As participants from all over the world representing private sector, NGO, communities, government and academia shared inspiring examples and called for close collaboration across sectors and countries, I left the webinar feeling hopeful and inspired for a future where integrated solutions like NbS is the norm rather than the exception.
This article was originally posted on the IIED website. It has been reposted with permission.
All these far exceeded the recent Cyclone Amphan’s total of 26 deaths so far. Understanding the generally declining death toll offers lessons on how the rest of the world could prepare better for such events. Part of it is forecasting, warning, and evacuation.
But another part is local action, which we research. Much of this science is participatory, directed by the people who are vulnerable in order to balance and meld local and external ideas and approaches.
From vulnerability to resilience
Cyclone Amphan made landfall in Bangladesh on May 20 2020. It inundated over 4,000 sq km of land and destroyed homes, polders (low-lying areas of land surrounded by dikes or levees), embankments, roads, electricity poles, mobile phone towers, bridges and culverts, with the exact costs still being tallied. Many agricultural fields and fish farms were overwhelmed by the saltwater storm surge.
The low death toll can be largely attributed to Bangladesh’s long-term efforts to reduce vulnerabilities, including at the local level, which is always the key in preventing disasters. In 1970, the country had only 42 cyclone shelters, whereas now over 12,000 functionally active cyclone shelters dot the coastline, serving nearly 5 million people.
A diverse system of warning messages tailored to local needs keeps people informed about evacuation, ranging from social media to people on bicycles with megaphones. Training in school means that the announcements are trusted and the population knows how to react and why.
Bangladesh has invested in constructing numerous polders to reduce the force of storm surges, although water retention has sometimes damaged agriculture and infrastructure. Local leaders, organisations, and authorities collaborate to implement tidal river management and nature-based approaches such as mangroves. This helps to deal with storm surge and rainfall, as well as reduced freshwater due to India’s Farakka Barrage, built across the Ganges River to keep the water in India since the 1970s.
We assessed one local programme funded and supported by the British and Swedish Red Cross for implementation by the Bangladesh Red Crescent. This “Vulnerability to Resilience” programme ran between 2013 and 2016 in the coastal villages of Pashurbunia and Nowapara in Kalapara Upazila in Patuakhali district.
This was the first time that people there had been involved in such resilience-building work. They installed flood-resistant tubewells, raised latrines above expected flood levels, trained for improved hygiene and first aid, distributed safety equipment, improved local early warning and evacuation systems, and were trained as local volunteers to continue these activities.
Diverse and alternative livelihood opportunities were also promoted. Household-level businesses and shops were encouraged, alongside local markets for the products.
This included people growing and selling garden vegetables and rice, producing crafts through quilting and sewing, rearing cattle for milk and beef, and investing in ducks, chickens, and aquaculture for fish. If any one of these livelihoods is interrupted or ruined, then people would still have options for earning income.
These initiatives are clearly not about cyclones only and move far beyond forecasting, warning, and evacuation. They improve livelihoods, living conditions, community interaction, health, and safety irrespective of a storm. Our calculations immediately after the programme demonstrated that every dollar invested in the programme produced a quick payback of almost five times that amount through enhanced income and local activities.
The real test, though, remains what happens during a hazard. Three weeks after the programme ended, Cyclone Roanu ripped through the south coast of Bangladesh on May 21, 2016. Pashurbunia and Nowapara reported successful warning and evacuation, no casualties, livelihoods with limited interruption, and a water supply and latrines that functioned afterwards.
Similar success is now repeated with Amphan. Despite the cyclone’s devastation, the people are alive and are returning home to rebuild. In Pashurbunia and Nowapara, seven kilometres of polder length were destroyed while the villages and agricultural lands were inundated.
The local population is repairing the damaged polders, houses, and latrines while restoring the drinking water supply and resuming their livelihoods. This is mainly through self-help, without much external assistance so far. It is not easy, but much better than before.
“A lightness in the way we hold thoughts gives us room to learn, to shift perspective, and to keep a rigorous humility in confusion”, Nora Bateson
Complexity vexes the traditional problem-solving model, which separates problems into singularly defined parts and solves the symptoms. The COVID-19 pandemic or the climate and ecological crises are pressuring policymakers to try new approaches to meet today’s challenges. But none of these “wicked problems” can be understood with reductionist approaches alone.
In other words, the deliberate simplification of a problem and its causes – by removing it from its contexts – renders the understanding and ensuing policy responses or solution either incomplete or obsolete. The issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic are wrapped in contextual interdependencies that require an entirely different approach in assessment and action.
Most current scientific research tools and methodologies pull “subjects” from their contexts to derive detailed, specialized, quantifiable information. We need a wider practice of science to also use information derived from interrelationships and interdependencies within and across systems. For now, the cultural habit of de-contextualizing information, or reductionism, is the standardized, authorized and empirical norm.
To make more appropriate assessments of risks – arising out of multi-causal circumstances – we need observations that can address this complexity. The decisions on what actions to take, by whom and with what resources, are decisions based upon information about the situation or event. If that information cannot hold the appropriate complexity, these decisions will rely on inadequate knowledge, resulting in greater loss and damage – economic, human and ecological.
Risk creation and its realization in complex systems do not remain in one sector at one time. Yet current institutional structures mitigate these complex issues by attending only to what is within their specific jurisdiction. Health crises remain in the realm of health ministries, while economic issues are under the separate attention of ministries of finance or employment. Likewise, ecological risks overlapping with cultural or political risks are still, in most cases, considered in parallel within the ministry of environment. Yet, as evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, we must research and better understand the relational interdependence of these phenomena.
We need research bridges and increased communication across societal systems. This is particularly true of public service systems. Lack of communication and contextual perspective (among systems such as education, health, transportation and communication) can increase community-level vulnerability during complex, dynamic systemic risk events. Connection and increased contact between such sectors will make communities more robust and resilient to long-term risks and sudden onset emergencies. The development of relational information approaches can cultivate the relationships among sectors. This strengthens inter-system interaction and collaboration, both within and across countries.
‘Relational information’ describes how parts of a complex system (for example, members of a family, organisms in an ocean reef system, departments of an organization or institutions in a society) come together to give vitality to that system.
Relational information describes the interplay and vital relationships of the parts of a system in context. Other information will describe only the parts. For example, to understand a family, it is not enough to understand each family member. You must also understand the relationships between each of them. This is the relational information. This relational information (also known as ‘warm data’) helps to better understand interdependencies and improve responses to issues located in relational ways to each other within complex systems.
This is particularly important in understanding the realisation of a complex systemic risk such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Because such an event includes multiple systemic risks across many living systems and contexts – in health, ecological, economic, and education systems and many more. Attempting to suppress complexity (or de-contextualizing) gives specific information that can generate mistakes. In contrast, relational information gives a more coherent understanding of the complex nature of the systems.
Systemic consequences (and consequences of consequences) are easily disconnected from their networks of causation. In so doing, the importance of the relationships among contexts can disappear. Context includes the relational processes that come together to produce a given situation. In fact, most complex situations or systems are ‘transcontextual’, meaning there is more than one context in play. Transcontextual, relational information brings together multiple forms of observation, from multiple perspectives.
In recognition that information comes in many forms, a relational information lab (or warm data lab) brings together on-the-ground “wisdom” from locals, art and culture, personal stories and the voices of many generations in a series of transcontextual conversations and exchanges. The task of generating relational information is not only to incorporate details and data points, but also to highlight relationships among the details as well, at many scales simultaneously.
Around the world, researchers, governments, and public service professionals already use contextual or relational information in the form of warm data. This is particularly helpful to assess complex situations and identify preventive approaches or responses to complex community (or health) crises requiring expertise that spans a breadth of contextual conditions.
When applied to specific local contexts and fields, scenarios using warm data can be useful to involve local stakeholders and decision makers in a transdisciplinary environment – a collaborative laboratory or “collaboratory”. The approach allows the production of alternative futures that are robust to all the relevant uncertainties and complexities. A set of scenario exercises can help to identify stakeholder preferences, motivations, scale-specific trends and drivers, and most importantly, add the local contexts needed for the modelling exercises to formulate appropriate, timely and proportionate policy responses and solutions.
Changing patterns of interaction at local levels using transcontextual knowledge processes
The natural extension of the above process is bridge-building across systems, across silos. This is a step towards forming collaborative decision-making bodies at local levels. This can bring together people from different, but interdependent fields to explore and energize or regenerate local community vitality. As these community groups form and exchange knowledge, new communication patterns begin to emerge, linking otherwise separated sectors of experience.
The place-based solutions that emerge from the collaborative development of contextual warm data lend themselves to self-organizing around actions that are co-created, with local ownership of data, risks and solutions. By providing context, warm data is a metashift that generates connection, communication and action. It unlocks new ways to address complexity through a systemic perspective, not a siloed perspective. Drawing from collective intelligence and engaging in mutual learning can quickly increase local capacity to deal with even the most complex, dynamic systemic risk challenges
When human interaction occurs in this way, across contexts, the interdependency becomes plain. For example, food cannot be separated from economic, nor even political, systems. Neither can it be separated from culture, nor health, nor identity. The solutions in complex systems lie in the recognition of a collective response. No single response is enough to address a complex problem like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Warm data is the overlap across systems and is produced by groups of people, either in-person or online, with enquiry practised in crossing contextual frames, sense-making and finding patterns. The lens of contextual enquiry and transcontextual research not only brings disciplines together but also many other forms of knowledge – including the place-based wisdom of local practitioners, as well as cultural and indigenous sensitivities.
We need structures and approaches that can bring forward relational information that presents the contextual interlinking of the potential impacts of disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic as they are felt at the individual level within wider global contexts.
When superficial solutions are implemented to provide answers to problems in complex systems, the problems proliferate. Developing the capability for transcontextual understanding and decision-making from a systemic perspective is far more effective. The benefits are then felt across multiple sectors simultaneously, including at municipal and national levels of government.
The next and final article in this series (#8 of 8) introduces the United Nations response to the need for improved understanding and management of the systemic nature of risk incorporating collective intelligence and relational information. The Global Risk Assessment Framework (GRAF) aims to work across all scales and all typologies of risk. Including complex, systemic risk events such as the COVID-19 pandemic. It is in service of the needs of people across the world to engage with complex systems. And to support them to make better decisions both in the short- and the long-term.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”, Margaret Mead
Risk is a human construct. It is created in language and meaning to describe the felt or feared volatility and uncertainty of human life. In other words, it describes the experience of complexity and of complex systemic effects. Humans in many societies have become accustomed and attached to the illusion of control that the construct of risk has given us. But as the COVID-19 pandemic develops, it becomes clear that the effects of interdependent, globally connected systems and vulnerabilities may be beyond accurate human measurement or effective management. We must acknowledge the limits of that illusion and the limits of present systems of governance and organization of human knowledge.
This requires a new paradigm for understanding and living with uncertainty and complexity. One that activates the power of human, social and contextual intelligence, and where possible, leverages it through appropriately designed artificial intelligence. This is at the core of systemic risk governance.
Developing the capability for contextual understanding and decision-making is a far more effective way of dealing with uncertainty and complexity than the present reliance on extrinsic frames of reference and categorical technical expertise, siloed into disciplines. In part, such capability is built using a lifelong learning approach to grow an aware, internalized ability to notice the relevance of context and the role of self, and in doing so, to recognize and anticipate interdependencies and nonlinear effects. That is demonstrably not wide-spread across populations affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Human decision-making is emotional, not rational. It is thus more successfully activated by mental models based on meaning attached to values and beliefs. Over time, the use of narrative and meaning to negotiate the changing relationship between identity and context has proven to be an effective mechanism to build resilience and to enable rapid sensing, understanding and sensemaking. In this way, collective intelligence becomes possible as an essential precondition for collective responsibility. Collaboration with and through that intelligence holds the key to building systemic resilience to challenging, complex and dynamic risk events such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘Collective intelligence’ is the powerful combination of human intelligence, artificial or machine intelligence and processing capacity.
Building resilience is necessary to reduce risks and prevent disasters, and when necessary, adequately respond. Resilience requires:
Planning and preparation based on assessments to avoid or minimize risk creation and reduce the existing stock of risk;
The development of capacity to restore functions in the face of disruptions; and,
The capacity to adapt and change after a shock.
By addressing these complex systems challenges, every individual, organization or group involved in resilience building could thrive by tapping into a “bigger mind” through collective intelligence. This could be by drawing on the brain power of other people with diverse cultural experience, age, education or occupation and gender, combined with the processing power of machines.
While needed for processing big data about the functioning of complex systems, machine learning and artificial intelligence do not help people to solve more complex coordination and governance problems – like physical distancing – that need trust between people. They cannot decide on how people want to live human lives, for example in densely populated cities. This is a complex human dynamic problem, solvable only by humans making decisions and taking action.
Truly global collective intelligence is a long way short of being able to solve global problems. It is now important to assemble new combinations of tools that can help the world think and act at pace, as well as at the scale commensurate with the complex problems we are currently facing, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate and ecological crises.
In too many fields, the most important data and knowledge remain flawed, fragmented or closed. They lack the context and organization required for them to be accessible and useful for decisions. As yet, no-one has the means or capacity to bring them all together into a universal, pluralistic data ecosystem, let alone into a dynamic three-dimensional topographical map of risk through time.
The critical interdependence among human health and well-being, ecology and technology is highly complex. The complexity lies both in the dynamic nature of connections and in responses in time and space. To effectively manage and govern a complex risk event like the COVID-19 pandemic, we need an improved understanding of human–ecological–technological system interactions. This is starting to be achieved in some fields through the application of new types of sophisticated multi-layered computer modelling.
Thanks to this revolution in systems modelling, it is now possible to begin modelling the interlinkages and interdependencies among the economic (values), societal (health, welfare and productivity) and environmental impacts of decisions and investments driven by the live interactions between weather, Earth crust shifts, soils, land, and ocean ecology and human activity. Geodata at many scales support this approach to better understand the interactive nature of the drivers of risk and for long-term risk reduction. But its practical application remains limited for complex, systemic risk events. As evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, this needs to change, and change quickly.
Technology-based solutions to coordination problems need to be combined with human-based solutions, made by or involving humans for solutions at a human scale. Unlike machines, which need to operate with probabilities, humans – within a social network of trust – can make decisions under radical uncertainty by attaching values to decisions. This ability in healthy human beings is due to emotional responses to highly complex decision situations. In such situations there are no solutions from purely calculative and value-free accounting or analysis of costs and benefits.
Under conditions of extreme, systemic risk – such as the COVID-19 pandemic – humans can (and should) decide on changing deeply embedded values that define higher level rules, and shape attitude, choices and behaviour.
We are now living a critical time calling for fundamental reflections on the impacts and consequences of individual and collective choices, and the accountability for those impacts and consequences. Otherwise, societies may continue to create financial and economic wealth at the expense of human health and the declining ecological life support functions in a positive spiralling feedback loop. This will further create systemic risks with cascading effects making overarching economic, ecological and social systems increasingly susceptible to collapse.
The next article (#7 of 8) in this series discusses the challenges and opportunities of generating relational information to inform a systemic perspective. It explores how to help decision makers, including government officials, to be more sensitive to interdependencies and the dynamic nature of risks and to ultimately improve whole-of-society outcomes during and after complex systemic risk events, like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Governance generally refers to actions, processes, traditions and institutions (formal and informal) to reach and implement collective decisions. Risk governance is “the totality of actors, rules, conventions, processes and mechanisms concerned with how relevant risk information is collected, analysed and communicated and how management decisions are taken.” Risk governance is usually associated with the question of how to enable societies to benefit from change, so-called “upside risk”, or opportunity, while also minimizing downside risk, or losses. In contrast, systemic risk is usually seen as downside risk.
As illustrated by COVID-19, the realization of systemic risk by definition leads to a breakdown, or at least a major dysfunction, of the system as a whole. Assessing, communicating and managing – in short, governing – systemic risk is compounded by the potential for losses to cascade across interconnected socioeconomic systems. Losses can cross political borders (including municipal and national boundaries), can irreversibly breach system boundaries and can impose intolerable burdens on entire countries. Systemic risk governance is also confounded by almost intractable difficulties in identifying causal agents and in assigning or attributing liability.
What needs to be set up so that institutions can govern systemic risk? Like any emerging phenomena, systemic risk cannot be measured by quantifying each of the contributing parts. This means that effective governance must consider the interconnected elements and interdependencies among individual risks, within and across systems.
For this purpose, a network perspective, with attention to interconnected nodes or agents, is useful. Individual and institutional decision makers also need greater accountability and responsibility, for example, through the establishment of the principle of collective responsibility.
Systemic risk governance requires new institutional structures. This was recognized after the global financial crisis in 2008. Prior to that, early warning systems (EWSs) were in place to identify precursor signals and anomalies in the overall performance of the complex financial system. Yet they failed to detect what are now understood to be clear signals. In 2007, the estimated probability of a financial crisis occurring was between 0.6% and 3.4%.
Financial systems operate in a siloed fashion. Constituents operate from their perspective and within their mandates. Yet such systems often become corrupted. Or they behave in a way that is suboptimal or pro-cyclical at a systems level, thus reinforcing underlying dynamics. Few organizations have the wherewithal to investigate at a system level, let alone a system-of-systems level. Consequently, ownership of the problem is often lost.
The global financial crisis prompted the development of new – or the reshaping of old – institutions and mechanisms to identify, and ideally prevent, future systemic risks in the financial system. But, post-crisis governance structures remain insufficient to prevent a further financial crisis – or the realisation of other systemic risks, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The financial crisis focused attention on global interdependencies and cascading risks with potentially catastrophic consequences. But there are a worrying number of other potential triggers. These include, amongst others, extreme climate events, armed conflict, forced migration, food system disruptions, food and water shortages, unregulated digitalization, loss of biodiversity and zoonotic pandemics such as COVID-19. The climate crisis is a systemic risk with potentially catastrophic impacts cascading through financial, ecological and social systems. Climate change also has one of the most developed global governance regimes.
Neither the governance of the financial system nor the climate system can claim full success. But both have raised awareness of the necessity, and spatio-temporal complexity, of governance regimes to address systemic risks at the global scale. Moreover, the financial and climate governance regimes have brought attention to the complex web of challenges. One major challenge is establishing causal attribution of systemic losses as the basis for assigning accountabilities and responsibilities. This is essential for risk governance.
Attribution in relation to systemic risk is generally unclear, in particular where large uncertainties exist in determining the causal effects across complex geospatial regions, across stakeholders, and across sectors. For example, experts generally agree climate change amplifies the risk of extreme droughts and floods in some regions. Yet attributing losses from any event to human-induced climate change is still unachievable. As we observe in the COVID-19 pandemic, attribution is further complicated as systemic risk can evolve up to the global macroscopic scale, through disruptions at the microscopic scale; so-called “scale-free properties”, or through behaviour that is not directly linked to the disruption it causes in a specific system.
So, the difficulty of attributing accountability bounds the solution space for the reduction of systemic risks. It also hampers the urgent development of a joint vision defining clear approaches to management and the development of much needed policy responses at appropriate scales.
Another challenge, although not unique to systemic risk, is the often deep uncertainty surrounding the triggers, exposure and cascading consequences. Adopting a systems approach that takes account of network dynamics and social processes can form a basis for designing risk governance approaches in this context.
Beyond uncertainty, the lack of understanding of the systemic nature of many risk contexts poses a more daunting challenge. One suggestion taken from the climate risk community is to use a triple-loop learning process. from reacting to reframing and finally to transformation. This is also in line with suggestions made towards an adaptive risk management framework with a focus on solutions with multiple benefits.
The need for inclusive stakeholder expert processes is at the core of any risk governance framework, including systemic risk governance. These are important for co-designing and co-generating information, evidence and responses or solutions. While the importance of stakeholder buy-in has become clear, there are special challenges for systemic risks. For one, the cascading and uncertain nature of the losses means that stakeholder communities are ill-defined and often span political borders. Because of the uncertainty, the issues are characterized by varied perspectives on the nature of the problem and its solution, as well as different “risk constructs” on the part of the stakeholder communities.
For the “realists”, the risks can be objectively assessed in terms of their likelihood and impact. Whereas for the “constructivists”, the existence and nature of risk derives from its political, historical and social context. That is, it is constructed.
The two divergent views can have a significant impact for policy implementation. Modernity reflexively relies on increasing complexity to manage the very risks it creates. These in turn cause disasters that are often embedded in the construction of social organizations and institutions. Consequently, iterative approaches are better able to determine potential conflicts and possible solutions by identifying precursor signals or anomalies in system performance at the earliest possible moment.
Human agency may play a less-important role in some systemic risk considerations (for example, in supply chain risks) than in others (for example, a pandemic like COVID-19). This is important to consider for the corresponding governance approaches. The question is related to the optimal complexity to govern systemic risk. That is, how detailed the approach should be, given that there are always limited resources.
In the case of complex systems and systemic risks, current measures and approaches represent a collection of failed attempts. Nevertheless, the approaches are raising awareness and addressing challenges. These can shed light onto critical aspects of what is itself a complex issue – systemic risk governance.
Emerging approaches (for example, the International Risk Governance Center (IRGC) systemic risk governance guidelines) seek to address the difficult problem of assessing or measuring systemic risk, of modelling cascading consequences, of applying different management instruments, and of implementing participatory processes.
Successful implementation of such systemic risk governance approaches assumes flexibility and (continuous) adaptation to context (that is, adopting an iterative process). It is contingent upon strong leadership (with mid- to long-term focus), to prove the willingness to adapt or revise often non-linear, non-sequential processes, and the willingness to accept and resolve trade-offs. Applying insights from more conventional risk analysis, risk communication and risk management to connect systemic risk with more traditional risk governance approaches can speed up the transition from managing disasters to managing risks.
The next article in the series (#6 of 8) builds off this exploration of some of the necessary elements to consider for systemic risk governance. It focuses on the importance of building collective intelligence to understand how parts of systems are related. It also explores the implications for improving both direct and indirect policy responses in challenging, dynamic systemic risk contexts, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory
(NREL) in US have developed a framework for valuing the benefits of applying
resilience approaches to the country’s energy systems. Their work could be a
major breakthrough in helping to demonstrate the importance of building
resilience into critical infrastructure systems. To date, utilities have been
able to calculate with reasonable accuracy the cost of applying resilience
measures but have not been able to reliably quantify their benefits. This has
been a major barrier to the widespread implementation of resilience in
“We’ve heard from federal
agencies, states, local governments, tribes, other countries, and industry
professionals that there is a need for more secure and resilient power
systems,” said Eliza Hotchkiss, co-principal investigator of the resilience
research project and co-author for two forthcoming publications on quantifying
resilience metrics. “Understanding the nuances of power system vulnerabilities
and how to finance resilience solutions has been a large barrier for
implementing resilient systems. Our research is trying to overcome those
barriers through robust resilience science and energy modelling to further
knowledge in this space.”
Today, large-scale systemic threats are receiving unprecedented attention due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and infrastructure managers are looking for ways to manage complex systems in times of uncertainty. Beyond the current pandemic crisis, climate change will make the operating conditions for human systems less certain on a permanent basis. Governments are therefore exploring resilience approaches to ensuring that critical infrastructure systems can continue to provide their primary services during times of shocks and stress. Global peace, security and prosperity depends on critical infrastructure systems more than any other time in its history. With more people living in cities than ever, well-functioning food, energy, water, transport and sanitation systems are the things seperate functioning societies from chaotic breakdown. Organisations such as Resilience Shift are driving the resilience agenda in critical infrastructure, helping to move the concept from theoretical discussion into widespread applied practice.
Modelling resilience benefits to energy systems
For utilities, the costs of
implementing resilience measures to energy systems (for example the price of
replacing a power line after a storm or installing more grid capacity) are
reasonably easy to calculate. However, assessing the benefits of resilience are
more challenging to reliably quantify. Many of the benefits accrue some time
into the future (which means they are subject to discount rates), may only be
as savings from avoided damages or interruptions to the system, and may only be
realised when shocks or stresses occur that test the system.
NREL researchers have therefore developed a framework that models and values resilience metrics when applied to different energy systems. They have published the framework in a technical report that show how the framework can be applied to five different energy system types.
The NREL framework runs
simulations of shocks and stresses to energy systems, such as power
interruptions, and includes resilience metrics in these systems at varying
scales. Examples of resilience metrics include the number of hours that
customers are without power, the number of hospitals or fire stations without
power, the loss of business and community economic revenue, and the loss of
utility revenue. The output of the modelling is designed to help utilities
inform their resilience investments and planning.
“In the face of increasing
long-duration outages with broad economic and social impacts, strengthening the
resilience of the power system is more important than ever,” said Kate
Anderson, co-principal investigator of the project alongside Hotchkiss. “For
system owners and operators tasked with weighing the cost of a resilience
investment against the benefit it provides, understanding the value of
resilience is important for informing public and private investment decisions
in power systems resilience.”
The NREL researchers have since further refined the analysis framework applying it to two case studies. The first case study examines the framework for a grid-level operator, while the second considers a campus, base, or building-level operator. Their finds have been published IEEE Systems Journal article, “Integrating the Value of Electricity Resilience in Energy Planning and Operations Decisions”. In the study, the authors analyse how the quantified value of lost load during a disruption and its impact on customers can help officials better forecast their resilience needs.
What history knows as the 1918 ‘flu pandemic infected about a quarter of the world’s population at the time – around 500 million people – and left virus lessons for this generation, whether or not it’s learned them.
Thankfully, the 2020 coronavirus outbreak shows no sign yet of matching last century’s virulence. There are growing calls, though, for the world not just to get back to normal, but to turn this global horror into an opportunity to rebuild by finding a better normal to reclaim.
In late 2018 the Rapid Transition Alliance was launched with the intention of building a community to learn from moments of sudden change and to apply those lessons to the climate emergency.
Changes in the biosphere are happening faster than changes in human behaviour, so the question the Alliance asks is this: how do we match the speed and scale of social and economic change with the science – and what it is telling us to do?
It is now working with two other British organisations, the original Green New Deal group and Compass, the campaign that builds support for new ideas among social movements, decision-makers and political parties.
In the first of several digital meetings the three have begun to sketch out a framework for how society can “learn as we go” from unprecedented events. They have identified five principles for a just recovery, which say in essence:
Health is the top priority, for all people, with no exceptions. That means resourcing health services everywhere and ensuring access for all.
Providing economic relief directly to the people is vital, particularly those marginalised in existing systems. Concentrate on people and workers and on short-term needs and long-term conditions.
Assistance directed at specific industries must be channelled to rescuing communities and workers, not shareholders or corporate executives, and never to corporations whose actions worsen the climate crisis.
The world needs to create resilience for future crises by creating millions of decent jobs that will help power a just transition for workers and communities to the zero-carbon future we need.
We must build solidarity and community across borders: do not empower authoritarians, do not use the crisis as an excuse to trample on human rights, civil liberties, and democracy.
An indication of the degree of international support for the five principles is available here.
Making things happen
The principles are already accepted by millions of people, but are no closer to reality, for all that. If they were, the climate crisis would be almost over. What can the three groups offer to make them happen?
The coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance is Andrew Simms, author of a summary of what the discussions have agreed so far. He told the Climate News Network: “Nobody can guarantee that things will turn out any certain way.
“But once people have seen what it is possible for a nation to do, and how fast it can do it, it is much harder for those in power to justify inaction, or wrong action.
“The current pandemic crisis is wreaking havoc on families, communities and whole economies. But it is also changing our ideas about what really matters to people and also what it is possible to do as a nation when faced with a great challenge.
“There is a new appreciation of key workers who provide the goods and services that a society really relies on – like health services and those in the food supply chain – but who typically lack recognition or are poorly paid.
Good-bye to inertia
“One of the greatest enemies in overcoming the climate emergency has been the sheer inertia of business-as-usual. Now there is a great sense of people taking stock of what is truly important.
“Vitally, when there is a fundamental threat to society, we have seen that financial resources can be mobilised. Fundamental change cannot happen without there being a consensus that it is both desirable and possible.
“The last few weeks have made visible underlying cracks in society, but also our ability to fix them. Once people have seen that, they are unlikely to settle for less.”
This first meeting spent some time talking practicalities, including how to protect wages and income. One example was the call by a member of Parliament for the introduction of a basic income scheme. Globally, the pandemic has prompted the United Nations to call for a worldwide ceasefire.
Overall, the summary says, greater consensus is emerging on how our economy and way of life relies on public not private interests, from health services to community aid groups, and that both local and national government have a vital enabling role on the need to improve the resilience of the economy at a national and local level.
Broadband before wheels
A radical reappraisal of transport came days after the meeting from the president of the UK’s Automobile Association (AA), Edmund King, who predicted a major shift in behaviour after the pandemic.
“People travelling up and down motorways just to hold meetings is inefficient, expensive and not good for the environment”, he said. “I think the use of road and rail and indeed bus will be reduced after this crisis.”
The AA, seen for years as a stalwart member of the roads lobby, said government funds for new transport infrastructure, including roads, might be better spent on improving broadband access to support home working.
The meeting agreed that the UK economy lacks a supportive town centre retail banking infrastructure with the capacity to administer a support scheme.
The build-up to the 2007-2008 financial crisis saw the evacuation of local banking services from the high street, and now the pandemic was making clear that the withering of local financial infrastructure in the UK must be reversed.
Universal and more mutual banking services are needed to build more resilient local economies, the three groups agreed. More progressive business models like social enterprises, which have direct community links, and the co-operative movement may help to provide answers.
This is a deeper, more technical dive into important recent work predicated on the concepts discussed in the last article in this series (#3 of 8). They suggest that the shape of risk is similar in very different systems. The ‘homomorphism’ of systemic risks in different domains suggests that as attempts are made to understand the effects of endogenous triggers and critical transitions, there will be more patterns apparent in different domains. This will allow the development of a consistent understanding of the fundamental characteristics of systemic risk.
An apparently stable macro-configuration of a complex system – like the global aviation system – will break down, and will be re-shaped by amplifications of a series of micro-events (like restrictions of flights to and from just a small number of countries) until a new, stable macro-configuration emerges. To apprehend these critical aspects and to disseminate new approaches for decision makers at various scales (in a relatively simple-to-understand format), we need a more comprehensive understanding of the spatio-temporal dimensions of complex, systemic risks and the differentiated nature of ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ systems.
To characterize systemic risks, which involves dealing with information gaps or ambiguity, it helps to capture the random patterns of possible disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic on maps of values describing the vulnerability of people, infrastructure, economies and activities. A resulting systemic risk model will then allow for a quantification of mutually dependent losses in space and time. This will allow for the use of stochastic risk management models. Stochastic systemic risk assessment tools recognize complexity and the inherent unpredictability and chaos in complex systems.
These models do not try to simplify things to make calculations easier. They represent how complex components – such as interactions and interdependencies between disease spread vectors, human behaviour, health system infrastructure and other economic activities – are distributed across systems. And even if the probability is low, they encompass extreme events. This is known as distributional heterogeneity and additivity of extreme events. The global COVID-19 pandemic is an example of a low probability, extreme event. Such systemic risk tools are thus difficult to establish. The approach differs from multi-hazard modelling which relies on “regularity assumptions”. These attempt to make reality less complex and disorderly to ease calculation.
Scenario analyses and stochastic simulations are in use in many applications in the financial sector, including in the insurance industry. Their purpose in the insurance sector is to identify and evaluate risks and to examine possible interconnections and amplifications among them. For example, in the area of natural hazards, they simulate earthquake strength and possible hurricane paths, they define impact scenarios and they analyse potential losses. The findings are then used for pricing, internal guidelines, public policy and management of a portfolio of insured assets.
To focus the attention of analysts and decision makers on the indicators that best capture the character of systemic risk, the impending phase transitions and regime changes of the underlying complex systems, we need new approaches to modelling and understanding of the nature of systemic risks.
If appropriately co-produced, systemic risk modelling will uncover the incentives driving policymaker resistance to going beyond conventional views of risk and those allowing salient early warnings from systemic risk indicators to be ignored or rejected.
The adoption of a multi-agent system in assessments subject to systemic risk is an emerging approach. But it is becoming more and more important, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This approach represents network effects and considers the random nature of human behaviour and (emotional) decision making. A multi-agent system is a loosely coupled network of software agents. These interact to solve problems beyond the individual capacities or knowledge of each problem solver. Certain agents may pose a deliberate threat such as delaying restrictions of movement of populations already experiencing the early stages of exponential cases of infection. People being unaware of the exponential effect of not practicing distancing may pose an unintentional threat. In such cases, systemic risk management requires other agents across all interconnected and interdependent subsystems to take countermeasures to maintain the integrity of the entire system. The application of multi-agent systems research is appropriate and appealing as a way of providing decision friendly scenarios and options to policy makers attempting to manage complex, systemic risk events such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
As is now understood in country after country, systemic risks might be easy to mitigate early. Yet failure (or even intentional ignorance) to appreciate the role of underlying drivers of systemic risk will allow small, manageable risks to grow into major whole-of-society problems. Failed interventions and missed opportunities will increase both economic and human losses. Developing and implementing multi-disciplinary and transcontextual approaches to identify and act on precursor signals and systems anomalies is critical to reduce or avoid discontinuities in critical interdependent complex systems.
To date, assessment and management methodologies for systemic risks are still in early gestation. They are not yet part of the current operations of twenty-first century risk management institutions. Nonetheless, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a growing sense of urgency for a paradigm shift. This is hitting every major twentieth century risk management institution, from governments to insurers. The limitations of the linear constructs of that era are now revealed, with the occurrence and prospect of massive failures across and between systems.
Now is the time to experiment, to explore and invest in developing new approaches, to try to understand the fundamental characteristics of systemic risks. These should be applied, assessed and finessed in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. This may then, by extension, be applied to the potential specificities limiting vulnerabilities of other complex, systemic risks, such as the climate and ecological crises.
Building off this discussion of the characteristics of systemic risk, the next article in this series (#5 of 8) explores the need to improve decision making capabilities, in particular during complex, cascading risk events such as the COVID-19 pandemic. It will also explore opportunities to renovate governance approaches to be able to better focus on the systemic nature of risk.