Failure to Change Kills Resilience

Here in the UK we are suffering from some quite serious coastal and inland flooding which is causing infrastructure damage, danger to life and will have significant long and short-term effects. The British are sometimes thought of as arrogant (I don’t think we are) but the arrogance of failing to change, and to accept that the failure to change will have an impact, is quite staggering when looking at what has happened here.

Failure to change 1: regardless of the cause, it is quite clear that weather patterns are changing; we have had more cases of flooding in the past 10 years than in recorded memory. So why have our infrastructure management systems been unable to cope with the effects of these floods? Because there has been little effective contingency planning. Such planning, to be effective, needs to include the self and wider analysis that truly recognises what happened previously and then allocates time, effort, money and personnel to the preparation of a flexible and deliverable civil protection and resilience plan. Our emergency response systems appear to be unable to manage and cope with the overall effect of these floods. Clarity of hindsight is a luxury; however the current planning processes and structures will need to change to manage the inevitable ‘next time’.

Failure to change 2: the last major flood events taught us something significant: if you live near to a river or exposed coastlines; you will be vulnerable. Of course, populations cannot move wholesale and towns and villages cannot be moved out of the way. However, there is something in the general psyche that perhaps refuses to believe that the worst can happen. So we see people cut off without food and supplies in flooded homes – and perhaps only a few miles or kilometres from plentiful resources. There needs to be change – centrally funded provision of significant and usable home flood defences; redesign of protection for vulnerable locations and perhaps the prelocation of stocks of non-perishable food. Our current UK food distribution systems are about hubs and delivery to major outlets, constant and computer controlled along JIT lines – when the JIT process is interrupted the supplies dry up – quickly – and alternatives need to be considered.

Failure to change 3: despite all of the interconnection that we do have, our communication is poor. Flood warnings were issued; but along with that there needs to be some precise instruction that is directed and gives more detail. Our warnings are general; and I look at that is done in the US for example, where extreme weather is more of an issue (or has been) and there seems to be an overwhelming amount of guidance. It’s my view that too much is preferable to too little, and preferable to being physically overwhelmed. Our talent for understatement is all-encompassing and I think back to the civil protection guidance that was offered to protect us in the event of nuclear war. Despite the fact that it was unworkable in every respect, no one really took notice. Has anything changed, really?

Failure to change 4: cost/risk benefit understanding should improve. Of course, preparation is expensive and takes time and effort. However, the cost of this phase of unusual weather will be felt for some time – and as this may become an annual occurrence, investment will pay off in the medium term.

Failure to change 5: we could really benefit from changing our propensity for blame. Climate change caused by emissions? Could be – but there is not much use blaming the current government, or the one before that, or even the one before that. We have been poisoning the planet since the Industrial Revolution. Our infrastructure is now exposed because when it was built (in the case of railways (Victorian) and roads (since humans lived here and more formally since the Romans occupied Britain) the climate was different. The Victorians and the Romans were generally held to be quite smart and would not have put their infrastructure in the way of harm. It is now but we can’t blame them; we can’t blame nature – change has outpaced our perception and the reality.

Organisational resilience is about understanding factors, anticipation, response and recovery. Real resilience is about mindsets and approach. Resources and planning, good intentions and blame are immaterial when the test proves that there are multiple failings in recognising and dealing with criticality, cause, effect and impact. So, planners: in the inevitable and necessary post-mortem and analysis of the current devastation, we should do the self analysis thing and start to consider the wider issues that make all of this much worse than it should be. This is root and branch, brutal and honest, and necessarily far-reaching. But the worst failing would be to refuse to recognise the back to zero change requirements that will give us and future generations a chance to live in a new geographical and meteorological landscape. It is quite clear that change is here to stay.

Phil Wood is Head of the Department of Security and Resilience at Buckinghamshire New University. His forthcoming book ‘The Future of Resilience’ is well under way. His last book ‘Resilient Thinking – Protecting Organisations in the 21st Century’ is out now.

If you would like to discuss this issue, or are interested in Buckinghamshire New University’s Organisational Resilience, Security, Business Continuity, Crowd Management and Policing and Criminology programmes then please contact Phil at pwood01@bucks.ac.uk

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