COVID-19 cases have been rapidly increasing in Pakistani cities in recent weeks. The rate of infection became so high that, on June 13th, Prime Minister, Imran Khan, announced that a “smart lockdown” strategy would be imposed on certain hot spots across the country.
Khan emphasized that the country’s precarious economic situation, meant that a nationwide lockdown was impossible. The smart lockdown strategy aims to curb the spread of the coronavirus and helps to balance the lives of citizens with their livelihoods. The strategy is designed to contain the disease in high risk areas which are reporting large numbers of coronavirus cases negating the need for countrywide restrictions.
The National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) undertook a comprehensive review of potential COVID-19 clusters and, on June 15, identified 20 cities in the country that were “high risk areas”, which are reporting large numbers of COVID-19 cases. These areas were then targeted for limited locality-based. The cities that were identified as having a “likely increase in speed of infection” required restrictive measures for containment of COVID-19. A testing, tracing and quarantining (TTQ) strategy is also being employed as part of the containment strategy.
Starting from June 16, smart lockdowns were implemented through provincially issued orders and regulations. The province of Punjab has announced that it has decided to impose a lockdown in areas with potential COVID-19 hotspots in seven cities of the province namely, the cities of Lahore, Rawalpindi, Faisalabad, Multan, Gujranwala, the UCCRTF city of Sialkot.
The following day, 904 further lockdowns were imposed in Punjab; 26 in Sindh; 572 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; 29 in Azad Kashmir; 10 in Islamabad; and 5 in Gilgit-Baltistan. Around the country, authorities are attempting to ensure compliance with health guidelines, particularly in workplaces and in industrial sector and transport markets and shops.
Although the absolute impact of the improved strategy is not known, there are early signs of improvement in some parts of the country. For instance, in Islamabad 771 cases of coronavirus were reported on June 1st, a number that has since fallen to 25 cases as of the 5th of September 2020. After reporting its first cases on February 26, Pakistan has so far officially registered nearly 213,470 confirmed cases and 4,395 deaths. Of those infected, more than 100,802 have recovered.
Marawi City, capital of the Philippine province of Lanao del Sur, is still recovering from the five-month long armed conflict in 2017 three years onward.
The Battle of Marawi, fought between Philippine Government forces and groups affiliated with Islamic State terrorists, left the city’s critical infrastructure systems in crisis. The city has therefore struggled to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, which struck as its resilience was low. As part of ongoing reconstruction efforts in Marawi, ADB’s Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund (UCCRTF) has delivered patient monitoring and transport vehicles to Marawi City Health Office and Lanao del Sur Integrated Provincial Health Office on 27 February 2020 and 3 April 2020. The timely arrival of the vehicles is expected to strengthen the already weakened local health system to respond to the ongoing pandemic.
Part of ADB’s “Emergency Assistance for Reconstruction and Recover of Marawi (EARRM)”, the initiative saw the ceremonial hand over of the vehicles’ keys at the Center for Health Development Northern Mindanao, Cagayan de Oro City. According to Undersecretary Abdullah B. Dumama Jr., the vehicles will be used to create a more efficient community health service in the province. He added that the Department of Health (DOH) is also due to provide ambulances and mobile health clinics to improve patient access to health care, and strengthen disaster preparedness and response capacity.
The Center for Health Development Northern Mindanao, along with the DOH Project Management Team, is committed to regularly monitoring the usage of these vehicles, making sure they are fulfilling the need that they have been provided for.
The delivery of the medical vehicles – From left to right: Dir. Mar Wynn Bello, Dir. Leonita Gorgolon, Undesecretary Abdullah Dumama Jr., Dr. Ali Dalidig, Dr. Alinader Minalang, Dir. Adriano Suba-an, Dir. David Mendoza
The EARRM Project will also fund the construction of two local health units, with essential medical equipment and supplies, ensuring access to essential health services for the community. “The DOH have been with us since the start of the Marawi Siege,” said Dr. Alinader Minalang, IPHO Lanao del Sur Provincial Health Officer. He added: “They have been providing support to our health care operations, including through managing the fund assistance available from various development partners such as the Asian Development Bank”.
On Thursday, 10th of September, a new documentary was issued on S4C looking at the effects of the current COVID-19 pandemic on the environment. Hosted by Daf Wyn and Steffan Griffiths, the documentary interviewed experts in their field to gain insights into the nexus, including Professor Emeritus Huw Cathan Davies, an Atmospheric Physicist at the Institute for Atmosphere and Climate Science at ETH University, Zurich. Also interviewed was our very own Climate Risk Analyst, Erin Owain, who spoke about various green recovery packages presented by Governments in response to COVID-19. Additionally, Erin spoke about supply chain disruptions and the need to build resilient business models, in conjunction with tackling social and economic inequality in the context of climate justice.
The documentary is available with English subtitles until the 9th of October.
No economy can achieve resilient and climate-smart economic growth without empowered cities. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of cities is greater than ever. Urban areas will be severely impacted by the current crisis, with drastic economic consequences in the medium to long term in addition to the significant human and social losses. Cities have a higher risk of spreading diseases due to high-density population. They also serve as travel hubs, increasing transmission rates and are home for many vulnerable populations, which – particularly in developing countries – often live in informal settlements with little or no access to sanitation and hygiene facilities.
Despite this, cities cannot lose momentum in addressing the global threat of climate change, which could have an even greater impact on the economy in the long term. Before COVID-19, cities were already in need of more investment to face the climate emergency, and now they are losing substantial revenues from locally generated sources and are needing to divert funds elsewhere. Cities need urgent access to credit, and National Development Banks (NDBs) can help.
NDBs are an important development tool during economic crises. Historically, NDBs were created to fund post-war reconstruction in Europe (e.g. KfW in Germany) or to boost industrialization in developing economies (e.g. BNDES in Brazil). They all share the same principle of supporting national governments to counteract the pro-cyclical nature of the private financial system. Throughout the 2007/08 economic crisis, NDBs played a vital role when commercial bankers rationed credit and reduced global investments.
Although NDBs vary in size, performance, and objectives, they often have a unique capacity to reach sectors not sufficiently funded by private financial institutions, such as green infrastructure, renewable energy, and energy efficiency. This makes them a relevant actor in the global development agenda. Taking into account the increasingly central role of cities as drivers of economic growth and as part of the global response to climate change, NDBs should substantially increase their investment in projects led by cities.
According to the recent think piece published by the Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance about the role of NDBs in city-level climate finance, NDBs have potential to unlock needed investment into cities as they: (1) have a generally singular domestic focus with a deep understanding of national and regional investment challenges and opportunities; (2) can utilize public and private funding sources, providing state guarantees to cheaper access to markets; (3) have the advantage of financing in local currency; (4) can pool different types of funding in blended finance structures and catalyze private sector investment.
So, why are NDBs not doing more to address cities’ needs?
NDBs are not a viable option for every city. Even estimating the number of NDBs is a difficult endeavour. Yet, most of the approximately 250 existing NDBs worldwide are found in middle-income countries (60%), while only 8% are located in low-income countries, and around 30% in high-income countries. Likewise, most NDBs are small, except for the ones in China, Germany, Brazil, India, and South Africa, which hold approximately three-fifths of the USD 5 trillion in assets estimated as being held by NDBs (considerably more than the just under USD 1 trillion held by Multilateral Development Banks [MDBs).
The structure of an NDB can also vary greatly. Some are fully owned by national governments, while others are semi-private; some have wide mandates, while some are specialized in one sector; and some NDBs are more or less independent from government-controlled boards. All of these factors influence how NDBs establish their mandates, most not having clear programs to promote and identify climate-resilient infrastructure projects, let alone urban-related ones. Also, legal constraints and political disputes might disengage municipal governments from using these funding sources.
Yet, there are good reasons to think that NDBs should provide critical support to cities. For that to happen, some actions must be taken to increase the role of NDBs in urban-resilient and climate-smart investment.
NDBs can start by addressing climate-related investments in their mandates and/or strategies, including for climate-smart urban infrastructure. Reviewing mandates and setting climate and resilient urban targets will not necessarily generate an instantaneous change, but it will certainly support the translation of plans into concrete project pipelines. National governments must make sure the regulatory framework conditions are in place to allow subnational entities to access NDBs. The collaboration between NDBs and their relevant national and local governments is the key to success.
Cities must have access to project preparation facilities that can assist in building feasibility studies and scaling the needed finance. By investing in project preparation assistance and risk mitigation instruments, NDBs can be an important partner for increasing the number of bankable projects, which would help to respond to the COVID-19 economic crisis.
Another solution: NDBs should increase their access to concessional development finance by seeking accreditation and support from Multilateral Development Banks. This would allow NDBs to provide cities with the needed grants for technical assistance in project preparation and guarantees, and to lend at concessional rates and for longer durations.
Cities will face one of the biggest challenges of the century in the coming months and years: they will have to repair their economies while fighting for the health of their people and climate. While all actors in this equation will be essential, NDBs will have a large role to play as key city-level support.
The think piece on “Enhancing the Role of National Development Banks in Supporting Climate-Smart Urban Infrastructure” released by the Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance can be read here.
Aida Esteban Millat is the Senior Director for Urban Mobility and Smart Cities for Visa Latin America and the Caribbean. Aida leads the Urban Mobility and Smart Cities initiatives and is responsible for defining the product strategy and expansion of mass transit capabilities throughout the region’s markets. As a passionate advocate promoting cities as hubs for innovation through technology, design and entrepreneurship. Her international experience includes the development of new methods to approach urban challenges that are now used by more than 100 governments and their stakeholders around the world in cities like Barcelona, London, San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico and Cape Town.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposes weaknesses in the supply chain when countries go into lockdown. Some are small, such as the toilet paper shortages early on, that, while annoying, were eventually resolved. But what happens when the effects of the pandemic reach the food systems of countries highly reliant on food imports and income from abroad, and commerce slows to a halt?
UC Santa Barbara marine conservationist Jacob Eurich and collaborators watched this very situation unfold in the Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs) — the island nations scattered in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, from New Zealand to French Polynesia, and including the Marshall Islands to Papua New Guinea. While infection with SARS-CoV-2 has been slow there relative to other parts of the world, the global lockdown can have outsized effects on their food systems.
“One of the key messages from the research is to rely less on global food supply chains,” said Eurich, a co-author on a paper that appears in the journal Food Security. While this study was specific to the PICT region, areas with few domestic alternatives to global supply chains, he noted, are vulnerable to similar threats to food security when shocks to the system occur.
With their remote locations, lack of arable land and economies dependent on tourism and need for food imports, the PICTs have become reliant on movement in and out of the region for much of the food they consume and also for the money to purchase that food.
But even with commerce slowing down, these countries and territories need not suffer food scarcity and malnutrition, the researchers said. The PICTs are home to large networks of coral reefs that host a diverse array of fish and other seafood.
“Coral reefs should operate as biodiverse, living refrigerators for coastal communities, sourcing replenishable, nutritious food,” Eurich said. “Coastal communities can and should be able to depend on traditionally-sourced diets if the resource is healthy.”
In fact, the time is ripe to reconsider the role of local production in the region’s food systems, according to the researchers. For instance, some areas with farmland could benefit by reinvigorating their production of root crops, which would not only decrease reliance on the global supply chain, but also provide healthy alternatives to imported processed foods.
“Bolstering local production and intraregional trade strengthens the food system,” he said. “Consuming more locally produced fresh foods and less non-perishable shelf-stable foods is a step in the right direction.”
Meanwhile, a shortening of the supply chain via strong intraregional trade could strengthen the regional economy while also protecting against food insecurity. Significant local processing and storage challenges must be overcome, according to the paper, and intra-island transport and food distribution strengthened. Particularly in the PICT region, where large scale local fish storage is currently inadequate, it helps to prioritize production of less perishable foods (like root crops) over fish, Eurich said.
It’s not just about pandemic planning. The same principles for resilient food systems in the face of climate change and natural disaster — both of which the PICTs have been facing — could serve as a basis for response to other COVID-19-type scenarios, according to the researchers.
“Climate change and natural disasters can be considered shocks to the system,” Eurich said. “The pandemic, while there was time to prepare, was still a shock. We have learned that enhancing storage, production and distribution through coordination and increasing regional transparency are keys of a resilient supply chain when these unexpected changes occur.”
Research on this paper was conducted also by Penny Farrell (lead author), Anne Marie Thow, Helen Trevena and Georgina Mulcahy at The University of Sydney; Jillian Tuto Wate at Worldfish; Nichol Nonga, Penina Vatucawaqa and Itziar Gonzalez at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); Tom Brewer, Michael K. Sharp, Anna Farmery, Hampus Eriksson and Neil L. Andrew at the University of Wollongong; and Erica Reeve at Deakin University.
The COVID-19 outbreak has dramatically changed the shape of daily life in cities around the world. The cities in which the Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund (UCCRTF) operates are no exception.
Economic activity has slowed considerably during lockdown and the planning and construction of infrastructure projects face delays as municipal governments tackle the immediate health crisis. So, what has life been like inside cities supported by UCCRTF? What lessons might the response to the COVID-19 crisis hold for building resilience to other shocks and stresses such as climate change?
The city resilience officers of UCCRTF, who have been working on climate change resilience projects in many secondary cities across South and Southeast Asia, share how the pandemic has impacted their cities
Summer season has arrived in Viet Nam and temperatures are rising. Reflecting on recent months, Hanoi citizens are very proud of what has been done to combat COVID-19. By the end of April, the Vietnamese Government recorded only 270 confirmed cases, of which 223 have recovered and returned home. Since that time there have been no further deaths, as of June 17th 2020.
The relatively low number compared to neighboring countries is largely due to the swift and effective prevention and control measures that the government put in place since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in January and cases in Hanoi in early March.
Viet Nam suspended entry of all foreigners from 22 March and mandatory health declarations became required at all international borders for Vietnamese nationals arriving from abroad. Authorities also suspended schools and canceled festivals nationwide. The most challenging time for many was the 22 days of lockdown from April 1 to 22. Everyone was asked to stay at home and stop all unessential activities.
People remain worried about the possibility of the virus spreading through the poorer areas of the cities, where living conditions are crowded. In Hue and Hoi An City, most people rely on tourism and other related business activities. They work in restaurants, hotels, tourism services, or small businesses such as street vendors or lottery ticket sellers. During the lockdown, the ban on gatherings meant many businesses had to close, many people lost their income and jobs.
To support these vulnerable groups, the government provided a support package of about VND 62 trillion ($2.7 billion) for around 20 million severely affected people for three months between April and June. In addition, free rice distribution centers were set up in Hanoi, HCMC, Danang, Hue, and other provinces to help poor people and those affected by the coronavirus.
While the country works toward a socioeconomic recovery, the immediate response to the crisis will focus on food production and manufacturing to support labor markets. As early as 4 May, tens of millions of students from preschool to high school in 63 provinces and cities returned to school, taking another step towards returning to some semblance of normal life.
The whole country has been declared as an ‘Infection Risk Area’ under Section 11 of the Bangladesh Infectious Disease (Prevention, Control and Elimination) Act, 2018. As of 17th June, 98,489 cases of COVID-19 have been identified and the number of deaths has risen to 1,305. The highest number of COVID-19 cases is recorded in the older parts of Dhaka City.
All offices remain closed to prevent the spread of the disease. The army is currently carrying out street campaigns to enforce social distancing. People in infected areas must stay at home unless absolutely necessary. A daily curfew is enforced from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.
The office of the Prime Minister issued an order assigning officials to each of the 64 districts in the country to supervise and coordinate a large-scale relief distribution program for vulnerable citizens.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) approved an emergency grant of $300,000 to the Bangladesh Government to help respond to the crisis. In collaboration with Directorate General of Health Services, this grant will be used to procure personal protective equipment such as face masks, safety googles, aprons, thermometers, and biohazard bags.
All the UCCRTF-funded cities remain under partial or complete lockdown, which is delaying progress on urban development, planning, and infrastructure programs. More importantly, cities are facing an additional challenge as the country approaches cyclone season. The combined COVID-19 and large-scale climate impacts will be difficult to manage as the responses to COVID (such as to stay inside and to maintain social distancing) are in contrast to the recommended response to cyclones, which may require people to leave their homes or congregate together in protective shelters.
Recently, on 20 May, Bangladesh faced Super Cyclone Amphan, which made landfall in the southwestern part of the country causing serious damage to property. The UCCRTF-supported city of Patuakhali was badly affected. The government evacuated an estimated 2.4 million people from coastal districts, although observing social distancing was challenging. As an immediate measure, schools were used for more space in addition to regular cyclone shelters.
A 3- to 4-meter tidal surge that accompanied the cyclone, however, destroyed crops and sources of drinking water.
Relief efforts are currently underway in coordination with local administrations. According to the Bagerhat district administration, Amphan caused $50 million in direct damages with around 349 houses partially damaged and 374 houses completely destroyed. The total number of people affected by the cyclone in Bangladesh is estimated at 5,331.
At present, only emergency services are available in all public and private hospitals, which have recently re-opened after being closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Schools are still closed and only some offer classes online. There are also severe travel restrictions. The lockdown has affected every part of life in Pakistan’s cities.
The huge reduction in traffic has led to big improvements in air quality in major cities. While there is no data covering small cities backed by UCCRTF, the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency has reported that the air quality index in Lahore has fallen from 496 parts per million (ppm) in January to 37 ppm in April. Similarly, for Islamabad, average concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide are below the permissible limits of National Environmental Quality Standards, and concentrations of fine particulates (PM2.5) are also within permissible limits.
Currently, the UCCTRF-supported cities in Pakistan are not coping with other shocks and stresses from natural or human-induced hazards. However, since the cities are vulnerable to urban flooding and earthquakes, they are still at risk. The monsoon season is also drawing near (expected to start in July), which could compound the challenges faced by the cities. They will have to cope with flood management alongside COVID-19. While government officials, including national, provincial, and district disaster management authorities, are focused on COVID-19 response, this may well mean that there is less capacity to prepare for the upcoming flooding season.
“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.