Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 11, 2011

Saving vs. Spending

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Futures,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on May 11, 2011

The Political Economy of Homeland Security

The week before U.S. Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden, at least one prominent media outlet took note of an academic paper examining the return on America’s homeland security investments. Although politicians have offered varying opinions in the week since bin Laden’s killing about the ongoing need for such investments, the paper itself has received little additional notice. An event like bin Laden’s death should, however, amplify rather than reduce our interest in assessing where we stand and where we are heading.

The study’s authors, John Mueller of The Ohio State University and Mark G. Stewart of the University of Newcastle, argue that the country’s one trillion dollar investment in homeland security since the 9/11 attacks should be assessed on the basis of risk reduction and cost-benefit returns. Using such techniques, they argue, one would be hard-pressed to justify the massive scope and scale of investments given the miniscule returns achieved.

I am not sure this finding surprises many people reading this blog. Moreover, I am reasonably confident that a at least some of you question whether it even matters.

The homeland security enterprise, like national defense, has rarely considered cost-benefit returns significant criteria for making decisions. To the extent that analysts consider risk reduction, they accept the extremely low short-term probabilities of an attack while assuming something catastrophic (by some measure or another) will occur eventually.

This ensures that debates usually focus on whether or not we are thinking about the right rare event, rather than whether or not our efforts will actually make any difference at all. The opportunity costs of the investments rarely receive any significant attention.

Even if we cannot justify making all homeland security and national defense decisions on the basis of risk-cost-benefit analyses, we should be able to agree that securing should short-term yield from our investments makes sense even if  long-term benefits remain our ultimate concern. Too often, though, the short-term benefit is measured solely in terms of the immediate satisfaction of having mollified critics or addressing the exigencies of whatever crises called our past decisions into question.

As a community concerned with how we prepare future practitioners, these tendencies to focus too much on the moment on one hand and too far into the future on the other should concern us. Most of the techniques we teach new practitioners have very limited efficacy in these situations or have very little evidence to recommend them.

Allied disciplines, like political science, public administration, engineering, economics and policy analysis, employ more robust theoretical frameworks in their analyses. Although homeland security practitioners recognize many if not most of these methods, it seems we rarely use them. Why is this?

As we look to the post-bin Laden future, I suspect we would do well to recognize that most of the investments we made had little impact on the ultimate success of the mission to locate and eliminate the world’s most-wanted terrorist. As we look for ways to address the atomized residue of al Qaeda and its affiliates, we would do well to ask ourselves which investments make the most sense.

We can invest in the development of democratic institutions and the popular expression of the principles of democratic self-governance, including respect for human rights and economic and environmental equity. Or we can continue supporting the status quo ante, which equates stability with subsidies to military-industrial oligarchs and their patrons.

Applying cost-benefit analysis does not in or of itself ensure democratic outcomes. But the absence of any consideration of the economic value of investments in homeland security like anything else ensures that those who have the most to gain enjoy more say in the decision than those who have something to lose.

Building a sustainable homeland security future may not mean ensuring stability in the short-term, especially if it comes at the expense of our economic security. Investing our national wealth — especially our human and social capital — in institutions that promote freedom will generate a more stable long-term future only if we are willing to accept that speed and certainty matter a whole lot less than the price we pay in terms of blood and treasure.

April 6, 2011

Resilient Character

Filed under: Futures,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on April 6, 2011

Last week I noted the grassroots movement to rebuild Christchurch, New Zealand’s earthquake devastated core, and the interest expressed in applying principles sustainable urban development. Phil Palin’s Monday updates to his post on Japan’s transition from response to recovery suggest Japanese leaders also see an opportunity to apply innovative thinking to manage ecological impacts as they rebuild the areas shattered by the Great Tohoku Earthquake of 2011.

I think Phil and I both sought to make cases that such adaptations reflect a certain philosophical consistency or congruence with the principles of resilience that have represented a central theme in many of our respective posts. This should not, however, be taken to suggest that either of us see sustainability and resilience as synonymous or for that matter we see one necessarily leading to the other.

Most conventional definitions of sustainability start with an emphasis on making decisions today in ways that avoid identifiable impacts on future generations. Resilience starts with the same locus of control, but assumes a different outcome.

When we think about sustainability and act with a view toward the future needs of others, we are doing so in the hope, if not the expectation, that the decisions and actions we take can either prevent some future harm or yield some future benefit to others. When we look to the future from the perspective of resilience, we may also be concerned with preventing some specific harm or controlling circumstances that make us vulnerable.

What distinguishes sustainability and resilience, in my mind at least, is the object of these actions. Choices influenced by the ethos of sustainability seek to limit our contribution to phenomena that can do others like us similar harms in the future. Resilience, on the other hand, seeks to manage how we react to the occurrence of these phenomena when the inevitably recur or are replaced by something equally disruptive.

In the aftermath of a disaster, making a commitment to rebuilding sustainably suggests resilience. If people can look beyond the exigencies of their own immediate needs and think about the future they will leave for others then I think we can say with some confidence that they possess a certain degree of resilience.

That said, acting sustainability may be much harder for shattered communities to say they seek than it is for them to achieve in the end. Striving for sustainability suggests a resilient spirit. Achieving sustainable outcomes in the recovery process demonstrates resilient character.

March 30, 2011

Recovery: Selfless Acts of Economy

Filed under: Futures,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on March 30, 2011

When I posted Ruthless Resilience two weeks ago, I had suspected (or maybe hoped) some of you would take issue with my thesis that markets take care of themselves and in doing so exhibit more resilience than almost any other human system. Of course, my thesis relied upon the assumption that the economy, like the planet, will survive the calamities confronting us in some form even if it is not one we find particularly satisfactory.

That this can be said of the macroeconomy also says an awful lot about the sorts of microeconomic choices that confront market participants after disaster strikes. Economies rise and fall on their ability to help us meet our wants and needs. In fact, it is the difficulty the market has with making a distinction between the two (our wants and our needs), or perhaps more accurately the ease with which it utterly ignores the very existence of any meaningful distinction between the two conditions that causes much of the concern about the economic effects of disasters.

As New Zealand and Japan face the daunting tasks of reconstructing their communities, the economic effects of their respective disasters has received considerable attention. But that attention has shed very little light on the values informing market participants’ decisions about their present situations.

Economists like to assume that rational people act in their own self-interest. As such, they would have us believe that people left to their own and confronted with competing choices, will choose the option that yields the most utility. In this sense, utility is best understood as the ability of the chosen option to satisfy one’s notion of his or her interests or expectations. Although these considerations leave plenty of room for people to choose things that make them feel good by appealing to altruism or compassion rather than one’s own temporal concerns with safety and security,  such choices afford them little immediate advantage and almost always leave economists puzzled.

We have many examples of economic transactions in which people behave in ways that leave them less well off and others better off without any tangible evidence that those giving receive anything in return but the warm feeling of having done something nice for someone else. Perhaps the most common and tangible example is the tendency to tip service workers even when we have no reasonable expectation of ever seeing or interacting with them again. We have already benefited from their services and have nothing to more to gain by being generous rather than stingy. But we still choose to follow conventions that reward those who serve us knowing that it is the right or just thing to do.

Maybe this sentiment helps explain why the leading suggestions for how to rebuild Christchurch’s shattered central city precincts emphasize principles of sustainable design. The leading citizen-submitted suggestions for the future of Christchurch rated by visitors to the Re-imagine Christchurch website recommend steps to make the resurrected city the best example of sustainable urban design on the planet.

Such sentiments are not without precedent. After the devastating 1931 Hawke’s Bay Earthquake, the residents of Napier rebuilt that city in a way that has made it one of the best examples of Art Deco design in the world.

Christchurch’s residents seem inclined to leverage the city’s pre-quake identity as the Garden City to green their community even further. Some even seem willing to relegate cars to the dust-bin of history and rebuild in ways that make the relatively flat cityscape even easier to transit by walking, biking or riding buses, trains or other modes of mass transit than it already is.

This would be interesting enough even if it were not accompanied by some suggestions that emphasize efforts to retain some slightly quirky urban design characteristics, like those one contributor refers to as “secret spaces.”

Economists might have us believe that such suggestions reflect the interests of Christchurch’s residents in encouraging tourism, which does constitute a significant portion of the local export economy. But I would like to believe that the aspirations reflected in these suggestions indicate a higher sense of value and a commitment to future generations’ enjoyment of a place that has inspired and sustained many generations already.

In the end, those making the decisions about how to rebuild may neither have much to gain from these choices nor much more to lose than that which has already been sacrificed. If economists’ efforts to work out the puzzling ways in which our values influence our decisions are right in assuming that we value present losses more highly than future gains, then there has never been a better to time act selflessly than right now.

January 26, 2011

New Rules or New Game?

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Futures,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on January 26, 2011

In his State of the Union Address tonight, President Barack Obama acknowledged that the rules governing our society and our place in the world have changed. Many Americans, he said, have experienced the impact of these changes in lost opportunities, diminished outlook and a dashed sense of optimism if not outright despair. Nevertheless, the President challenged us to see the future as ours to shape, and he outlined a four-point plan to renew American confidence in our competence, our creativity and our ability to make the world a better place by collaborating and competing.

The four elements of the President’s plan — innovation, education, building the nation, and managing the debt — seem sound but strike me as not enough to meet the challenges we face. If what we confront, as the President himself proposed, is a “Sputnik moment,” we have less need for new rules than we do for a whole new game.

As the President himself noted in examples sprinkled throughout his speech, the greatest changes have arisen from people seeing in past crises opportunities dressed up as challenges. The nation itself, he noted, was founded on just such a radical idea. The notion that the nation’s existence reflects a quest to promote an idea — securing the common good by protecting individual liberty — was itself a radical innovation in its day, and one we are in danger of taking for granted.

In what struck me as burying the lede, the President made few if any bold policy pronouncements or proposals until he mentioned his administration’s plan to present a proposal to reorganize executive branch departments and agencies to reflect his agenda. He gave few hints at what this might look like beyond offering an amusing anecdote about the conflicted way in which our government regulates and protects salmon, smoked and otherwise.

Incremental changes in government administration, tax policy and fiscal management will not fix the problems facing our country or renew the promise of its founding documents or the potential of its citizens. The President admitted as much himself, but he offered few if any tangible insights into how we might restore the vitality of the institutions touched by the agenda he proposed. I for one hope that the relative position of comments concerning reorganization of executive branch functions in his remarks does not reflect the true priority of this initiative. If it does, the other planks of the platform he outlined may be doomed.

Finally, unless you count his goal of increasing the percentage of energy we produce from renewable sources to 80 percent by 2035, his remarks barely touched on homeland security. When he turned to foreign policy concerns near the end of his address, he relied almost entirely on boilerplate plaudits. While renewing promises that al Qaeda, its affiliates and supporters will have no safe haven while he occupies the Oval Office, he made the point that renewed focus on domestic issues does not mean abandoning our commitments abroad or seeing those beyond our borders solely as consumers or competitors.

With all of this said, I wonder whether you see the President’s remarks as new rules, a new game or neither? Either way, what would you like to see come of each of the four policy planks he proposed? How will actions to implement policies in each of the four areas — innovation, education, infrastructure and debt — help us build a stronger, safer nation?

December 29, 2010

What I Learned in 2010

The end of one year and the beginning of another gives one pause. New beginnings are a chance to start over. If we’re honest with ourselves, a bit of reflection can help us enter the knew year equipped with insights that help us avoid or at least reduce the impact of new calamities like those that confronted us in the year before. As I look back at 2010 for lessons, here are the top five things I saw that make me wonder what the year ahead holds in store:

We still don’t know security when we see it. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously quipped in a landmark First Amendment case that he knew hard-core pornography when he saw it. Unfortunately, the naked truth about homeland security is we still know know what it is when we see it. Full body scanners and aggressive pat downs to search airline passengers have, however, hinted at the limits of public support for security theater. That said, we still have few clear hints how we should balance the competing interests of civil liberties like privacy and security.

We may be smarter, more successful and skillful than our adversaries, but that ain’t saying all that much; or, maybe it’s just hard to find good help these days. Most of the homeland security successes we witnessed this year, seem more like lucky strikes than genuinely skillful performances by our security services. Maybe that’s because our adversaries have had less success recruiting skilled operatives than we might have imagined. This makes me wonder: with unemployment still running nearly 10 percent nationally (and much higher in some minority communities) why is it so hard to find skilled help? What’s more, as local and state governments find themselves in the death grip of fiscal austerity, how will they meet public expectations of them for safety and security? Judging by public criticism of the response to severe weather events as we end the year, not well at all.

It’s the economy, stupid. Before we had even managed to stop writing or typing 2009 when we meant 2010, Haiti experienced a devastating earthquake that some estimates suggest killed more than 250,000 people and left millions more homeless. As the year came to a close, the country languished in the grip of a cholera epidemic and a presidential succession crisis. The flow of aid lagged far behind pledges from international donors, leaving the impoverished country barely clinging to life. If we ever had any reason to doubt the fact, Haiti confirmed that poverty is any adversary or calamity’s best friend. The corollary to that observation is equally clear and simple: Resilience is about resources. The fungibility of capital — that is the ability of any individual or group to apply their stores of human, social or political capital to conduct transactions that transform natural, economic or material resources to their own or others’ benefit — depends on both the sufficiency and diversity of those hard assets as much or more than any degree of cleverness or incentive to apply themselves. Necessity is the mother of chaos, not invention. In the absence of resources, don’t expect that to change unless you are willing to watch things get worse not better.

Victory (sometimes) favors the unprepared. The benefits of diverse stores of all forms of hard and soft capital was aptly illustrated by the New Zealand response to September’s earthquake in Christchurch and the numerous and still ongoing aftershocks. People there weren’t all that well prepared (especially for the specific event that occurred), but they knew how to use what they had to take care of what they needed. As such, they fared much better than the Haitians and required no outside assistance. The Chileans too, although better prepared than either the New Zealanders or Haitians, demonstrated that was all the more true when a society’s resources and mindsets are both well-adapted to the environment they inhabit.

Casting oil on the water sometimes makes waves. Rather than calming turbulent seas, the explosive destruction of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico and the resulting release of millions of gallons of crude oil into the sea made waves for months. Rather than crystallizing public opinion on energy policy and the need to invest in alternatives to petroleum, the federal response — both on a regulatory level and an operational level — came under intense criticism for ignoring the needs of local citizens who depended upon the Gulf of Mexico for their livelihood. Never mind that some depended upon industries that posed a risk to these ecosystems while others depended on the ecosystem itself, the debate never fully confronted the difficult policy choices facing the country now or in the future. As the federal government continues its work with Gulf Coast states on a recovery plan we should be looking forward not backward for answers about the future.

Clearly, many more things happened in 2010 than I have covered here. What were your top lessons learned from 2010? And what are your hopes for the year ahead?

November 16, 2010

Getting by Giving

Filed under: Futures,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on November 16, 2010

Today I am starting a new job as a deputy fire chief in a fire district near Seattle. As such, I have been pretty consumed with the details of moving and starting a new job rather than keeping up with my homeland security reading and preparing this week’s post. Nevertheless, it strikes me that the odyssey upon which I am embarking offers a new prism through which to observe what’s happening in our field at the state and local levels.

Over the past several months, I have commented often about the importance of leadership in dealing with the challenges we face. As such, it should come as no surprise that I was attracted to my new position by a charismatic fire chief with a reputation for innovation and integrity. During the interview process, his commitment to these ideals became more than evident.

The commitment of the community and the firefighters to his success was also evident. This is not to say he has enjoyed a smooth tenure since taking up the position a bit less than a year ago. Indeed, the burgeoning fiscal crisis, the annexation of a portion of his district by a neighboring city and a campaign by the union local representing firefighters from his last department to pass a vote of no-confidence in his leadership have presented personal and professional challenges. Fully aware of these issues when I applied, it was was his pleasant (cheerful really) demeanor and ability to see the opportunities in these challenges that convinced me to join his team.

From what I can see so far, the community, the elected fire commission and the firefighters themselves see in their chief the hope of a better future despite the challenges they face as well. His ability to articulate a clear and shared vision, involve others in charting a way forward, give the work back and manage the pace of change so the challenges remain manageable have given people tangible evidence of his commitment to their welfare as well as that of the organization and the community.

One of the things that seems to distinguish the agency I am joining from some of its peers is its commitment to learning. My role comes with an unusual and unexpected title for a fire department: chief learning officer. Besides overseeing training, I am responsible for the fire district’s emergency management, risk management, research and development, and safety and wellness programs. The combination of these portfolios reflects an appreciation of the changing nature of fire and rescue services and a desire to shape the service in ways that reflect the relative shift in emphasis away from fire-related services to other activities that address risks arising from natural and technological hazards.

I have a lot to learn about my new community, the fire district, my new colleagues and my new role. In the process of getting settled, I will undoubtedly learn a great deal about myself and my capacity to endure change. One of the most important things I have learned from past moves is the importance of accepting both my limitations and the assistance of others. In the process I have become much more aware that when I recognize and maximize others’ strengths by asking for their help we both get something valuable in return.

What are the most important lessons you have learned from the experience of taking a new job or assuming a new role in homeland security? How have you shared these lessons with others and how did you benefit from that experience? How can we maximize the strengths of others to benefit the whole of the homeland security enterprise?

October 27, 2010

Beyond 72 hours

Filed under: Futures,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on October 27, 2010

I had an interesting conversation with a new colleague today. The new public information officer in our office asked me how emergency managers settled on 72-hours as the threshold value for disaster kits. Why, she wondered, was 72-hours the magic number for determining how much water, food, medicine, cash, and other supplies we should stockpile to prepare ourselves and our families for an emergency. Many emergency managers have asked a similar question in recent years, which has caused some to urge the public to prepare to fend for themselves for even longer periods without outside help.

As we discussed the basis for this guidance — in particular the lack of hard evidence or specific and explicit assumptions to support these recommendations — we concluded that the form and specificity of this suggestion probably had something to do with the fact that so many people still feel anxious even after they follow our advice. Does the emphasis on material preparedness and the connection to specific time periods reinforce public expectations about officialdom and its obligation to respond to our needs? Does it simultaneously discourage resilience while encouraging preparedness?

Today’s nationally-syndicated WBUR radio program, Here and Now, included a segment on disaster preparedness and resilience featuring Irwin Redlener, author of Americans at Risk and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. In the interview, Redlener reiterated his assertion that America remains unprepared for a catastrophic disaster largely because of paralyzing bureaucracy and widespread incompetence. Redlener was particularly critical of the lack of a clearly articulated national preparedness goal that encourages simultaneous efforts to improve coordination between top-down and bottom-up approaches to preparedness.

When Redlener’s book was first published in 2006, memories of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were still fresh in the minds of nearly every American and his voice was one among many calling for comprehensive reform of the federal system of preparing for, responding to, and recovering from disasters. Today, images of Haiti and news of the recent outbreak of cholera in refugee camps housing survivors who relocated from the quake devastated capitol of Port-au-Prince haunt us.

As we approach the midterm election next week, this argument resonates among many segments of an electorate that find the current economic and social situation unacceptable and desperately want someone to accept responsibility for the “slow motion disaster” many are calling the Great Recession. As I listened to the broadcast, which included discussion of the effects of the fiscal crisis on local and state emergency managers’ and public health officers’ budgets, I had to wonder whether we can responsibly draw any meaningful connections between the situation unsettling most Americans as they head to the ballot box and our nation’s state of disaster readiness.

I am not alone in questioning whether Redlener’s got it all right. This week, the FEMA Local, State, Tribal, and Federal Preparedness Task Force issued its final report, Perspective on Preparedness: Taking Stock Since 9/11. Although I doubt they had Redlener’s book specifically in mind, the task force concluded that notwithstanding a lack of clarity or consistency over time about how we define preparedness in the United States, the nation is better prepared now than we were a decade ago but still lacks a coherent and shared strategic direction.

The task force highlighted the important contributions of the federal government to preparedness in the form of policy guidance, capability assessment tools, and grant funds, but saw important opportunities to strengthen the gains made in all three areas by adding a fourth emphasis on strategic investments. In particular, the task force recommended steps to foster a culture of preparedness by creating incentives for preparedness and strengthening connections among existing networks to help the nation identify and prepare for emerging threats.

These recommendations seem sound enough on the surface. But taking up Redlener’s point of view, the goal is not the only problem. It’s also about how we develop and execute our plans to achieve it.

Reading the other task force recommendations, I can see why Redlener is so critical of the federal approach and have to wonder what he thinks about the task force’s recommendations. It is not too hard to imagine myriad new federal strings being attached to the dollars flowing from federal coffers to state, local, and tribal authorities. Previous investments that sought to promote material improvements in preparedness will likely be replaced by new process-oriented requirements without achieving the desired alignment or shared sense of purpose.

With so many fingers in the proverbial pie and so much dependence on federal support for state, local, and tribal preparedness programs, it is easy to see why Redlener is so skeptical (or perhaps cynical). Technical, political, and legal interventions offer little promise of ensuring social and cultural change if the funding priorities remain driven from the top-down.

The United Nations — an institution renowned by many in the United States as the epitome of bureaucratic incompetence — has taken a somewhat broader and in many ways more pragmatic approach than the FEMA task force. In the Hyogo Framework for Action, the International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction emphasizes efforts to address the underlying problems associated with disaster vulnerability: poverty, climate change , and social justice. These priorities drive a different sort of strategic investment than that proposed by the FEMA task force, one that encourages human development through education, gender equity, shared decision-making among diverse communities, and sustainable urban development.

The difference in strategic approach, although probably too subtle for some, yields, I would imagine, very different tactics in some important instances. The FEMA task force approach is more likely to produce interventions in primary schools aimed at practicing “drop, cover, and hold on drills” and teaching kids to prepare disaster kits for their homes. The UNISDR approach, on the other hand, would seem to favor improved offerings in ecology, geography, geology, and sociology that improve understanding of natural hazards and the connections between human and natural systems.

The big difference between the UNISDR and FEMA approaches lies not in the specifics of their recommendations though, but rather in their assumptions about how programs will be put into action. The UNISDR approach emphasizes efforts to reinforce economic, social, and cultural progress by fostering collaboration, education, and engagement. The FEMA approach relies on the assumption that it’s all about protecting the gains we have already made by ensuring people have access to the financial, technical, and administrative resources they need to achieve their goals.

Going beyond 72-hours requires us to think differently about how we define preparedness as well as how we help our communities prepare for disasters. Any new emphasis on process should recognize the importance of fostering diverse participation, promoting social equity, encouraging reflection, and stimulating growth rather than preserving the status quo ante.

September 15, 2010

Local, Simple, Varied, Connected

Filed under: Futures,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on September 15, 2010

Predicting the future is always risky. That is if you expect to get it right.

Thinking about the future and the varied forms it might take usually takes one of two forms. The first involves preparing for the alternatives. This approach emphasizes the uncertainties. The second involves deciding how to influence factors within our control. This approach focuses on the drivers of change. Successful strategists cannot afford to overlook or emphasize either approach or dimension of change over the other.

Recently, I was asked to prepare a forecast for the next 10 years. The objective was to identify key trends that would shape emergency services in the coming decade.

Before attempting to imagine what the future would look like, I had to ask myself, how has the past shaped where we are today? This is very different from looking to the past as evidence of how the future might unfold. Instead, it asks what story arcs present in our current narrative are likely to project themselves into the medium-term future.

If these arcs or trends represent recurrent themes in human history, it may be worthwhile to look to the past to see how they play themselves out over time. This is not the same as looking to the past as a predictor of the future, which is what most of us are inclined to do. Thinking about why things happened as they did is quite different from asking how they turned out and expecting them same to happen again.

Much of the concern about the future these days focuses on what the world will look like if trends like climate change, urbanization, globalization, and radicalization continue to play out the same way they have over the past decade. Concerns about resource scarcity, especially petroleum and water, only compound anxiety about alternative future scenarios and the instability the factors driving them seem to suggest.

Could it be though that enough of us have already recognized and begun responding to these factors in ways that alter our future trajectory for the better? How will we discern this, especially if some of the undesired things we fear come to pass? A positive view of the future may not be widely recognized or reported in the popular press, but it has gained currency in many quarters as evidence of small, dispersed and very committed efforts to remake life beyond the current Industrial Era have begun to emerge with increasing frequency, urgency and intensity.

Many enterprises in the public, private and non-profit sectors have adopted triple-bottom line methods to measure their performance. This approach asks organizations to consider their environmental and social performance alongside their fiscal results. Looking at these three factors to the exclusion of technological and political developments is somewhat intentional. This approach assumes that these developments are in large measure artefacts of the other three. As such, the rise of radicalism, globalization and so on are directly related to how people experience and express (respond to) these underlying conditions.

Looking at the future through this lens, if only to align it with the way many organizations and institutions are now assessing themselves, therefore seems appropriate. Looking at economic, environmental and social performance provides us with a prism through which we can shed light on the political and technological changes we might experience.

Alongside these variables, I see four larger trends, which we might consider drivers, that will influence how we experience effects in each of these areas: I refer to them as local, simple, varied and connected. You might see other drivers in play, but I consider these four for the value they offer in looking at how individuals relate to communities and how communities relate to one another.

In each instance, we have to admit the uncertainty of arriving at any single, definable end-point associated with any dimension or variable. Looking at the extremes gives us a chance to consider the full range of plausible scenarios for each.

In most instances, individuals and communities will prefer a value somewhere between the two extremes represented by each diagonally opposite pairing presented in the matrix above. To the extent that this is true, the challenges to shaping the future to arrive at such conclusions are many. Not the least of these is our tendency to look to the past for answers rather than looking for new options and consulting others.

When I look at this table for opportunities to leverage key strengths of emergency services that can shape the future for the better, I see many opportunities. Thinking about the strengths emergency services bring into this environment — adaptability, tolerance for ambiguity, commitment to service — I see opportunities to approach problems with greater creativity and collaboration.

What does this analysis suggest to you? For which alternative futures should we prepare? How do you view our capacity to shape the future?

September 14, 2010

In Panopticon We Trust

Filed under: Futures,Privacy and Security — by Christopher Bellavita on September 14, 2010

In the late 18th century, Jeremy Bentham (of “greatest good for the greatest number” fame) wrote about the “panopticon”  –

“PANOPTICON; OR THE INSPECTION-HOUSE: CONTAINING THE IDEA OF A NEW PRINCIPLE OF CONSTRUCTION APPLICABLE TO ANY SORT OF ESTABLISHMENT, IN WHICH PERSONS OF ANY DESCRIPTION ARE TO BE KEPT UNDER INSPECTION….”

According to the Bentham scholars at wikipedia:

The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the incarcerated being able to tell whether they are being watched, thereby conveying what one architect [Silke Berit Lang] has called the “sentiment of an invisible omniscience.” Bentham … described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

[The panopticon] design was invoked by Michel Foucault [in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison] as [a] metaphor for modern “disciplinary” societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and [normalize]. Foucault proposes that not only prisons but all hierarchical structures like the army, schools, hospitals and factories have evolved through history to resemble Bentham’s Panopticon.”

The homeland security debate about privacy versus liberty focuses almost exclusively on how government erodes privacy rights.

Less emphasized (at least in my reading) is the role the private sector plays in privacy intrusions.  Maybe because many people voluntarily surrender privacy to the private sector, under the guise of increased efficiency, convenience, and choice — to say nothing of the difficulty determining what privacy you actually surrender if you have an account on Facebook or Google.

What will the future be like in this domain?  Will big brother arrive not with a government ID card, but with a cents-off coupon promise to make life better through interoperable data bases?

——————-

My colleague, Richard Bergin, brought the brief videos (below) to my attention.

The first (about 2 minutes long) is about ordering a pizza in the future.  Most of the information (in the scenario) comes from private sector data bases.

The second video (less than a minute) is a story about how radio frequency ID (RFID) will make life at the grocery store better for all of us.

The last video (around a minute) shows why every right thinking family man or woman would want to have one of these things implanted, as soon as possible.

Ordering pizza in the future

Shopping in the future

Making sure the health information needs of you and your loved ones are taken care of


August 12, 2010

Fire, flood, and famine are white swans

Filed under: Catastrophes,Futures,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 12, 2010

A persistent drought and intense heat has brought huge wildfires to the Moscow region, killing off  twenty percent or more of the Russian wheat harvest.  The international price of wheat doubled between late June and last week. (This week the market is a bit confused).

A super-flood has inundated the breadbasket of Pakistan directly affecting 14 million people. According to Al-Jazeera, “The prices of basic items such as tomatoes, onions, potatoes and squash have in some cases quadrupled in recent days, putting them out of reach for many Pakistanis.”

China has experienced significant flooding in several regions since late May, and more heavy rain is predicted.  In July Chinese food costs increased 6.8 percent as a result of flood-related supply problems. The floods have also worsened conditions in already hungry North Korea. The geopolitical and broader economic consequences remain to be seen.

These extreme events — plus the earthquake in Haiti and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — are sometimes categorized as “low probability, high consequence” events.  That’s not quite right.  More accurately these are “low frequency, high consequence” events.

8.0 earthquakes are infrequent. But in any given year on a global basis such earthquakes are highly probable.  The probability of such an earthquake devastating California increases slightly each day.  

In homeland security — and other disciplines – we are helpfully encouraged to consider what Nassim Nicholas Taleb has tagged as Black Swan events.  Mr. Taleb explains a Black Swan has three attributes:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

What is happening in the Indus River valley has also happened in the Yellow River valley and will recur in other river valleys.  Last night flooding in Iowa killed one and displaced hundreds. What is happening outside Moscow occurs each year outside (occasionally inside) San Diego and Melbourne.  Earlier this week California firefighters contained a large fire near Banning.

Such disasters should be a regular expectation because historical events convincingly point to their recurrence.   Unfortunately, our sense of history seems to have a half-life of about ten days.  As a result, we are perpetually surprised.

In a new history, Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, the authors outline three fundamental policy errors that recur in history, across several civilizations, and which may characterize our contemporary situation:

In the modern world, we’ve made the same three mistakes that the Romans made and the Mayans made. And that first mistake is that we, too, have come to depend on fertile topsoil. And we have ignored the fact that the topsoil is eroding. Now, we’ve masked our problems with topsoil with chemical fertilizer, but that just swaps one dependency for another.

The second mistake we’ve made is the fact that we’ve come to depend on harvests, which we get from relatively nice climates. And the late 20th century was pretty good, generally speaking, for growing season – say, between 1930 and 1990, there were no major climatic shocks in the world’s bread baskets. Things are likely, however, to change.

The third mistake we’ve made in the modern age, which also echoes the historic antecedents, is that we have caused our farmers to grow economically efficient by specializing in one or two products. And while this makes wonderful economic sense, it’s terrible ecology. (August 7 NPR interview)

Patterns are perceived over time and space.  The scope of time and space available to us is key to the accuracy of our perceptions.   But… regardless of this scope, we are strongly inclined to favor direct over indirect perception.  It requires unusual effort to apply indirect knowledge as vigorously as direct experience.

I have only seen one black swan.  From a distance it was an beguiling creature.  I have  had, in contrast, several unhappy encounters with white swans. They are aggressive, mean, and smelly animals.  I understand — and accept — Mr. Taleb’s conceptual distinction.  But in the flesh, a white swan may not be so different from a black swan. 

If I am attentive and as well-prepared as possible to meet a white swan – or a flock of white swans — I should be a bit better prepared for the black swan as well.

For further consideration:

Is another food crisis coming? (Time)

Chinese economy slows (China People’s Daily) and related: US stocks fall (Wall Street Journal)

Russian fires, Pakistan floods may be linked (National Geographic)

Pakistan floods: An emergency for the West (The Telegraph)

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You should have Seen Coming and How to Prevent Them

Friday Update:

Floods likely to have destroyed crops worth $1 billion (DAWN) (Pakistan)

Devastating power of China floods (BBC)

Ames faces water crisis (Des Moines Register)

Russia’s peatland fires seen burning for months (Reuters)

Sunday Update:

In weather chaos: A case for global warning (Front Page of Sunday New York Times)

 

August 3, 2010

Lee Clarke’s 9 Future Catastrophes

Filed under: Futures — by Christopher Bellavita on August 3, 2010

I learned about Lee Clarke’s 2005 book, “Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination,” through a post on the Emergency Management Strategic Foresight Initiative website [registration required].

There is an engaging interview with Dr. Clarke on the University of Chicago Press website.  That site includes links to Clarke’s list of the top 11 worst case disasters that have already happened, and (reprinted below) his list of 9 worst case future disasters:
———

Worst Case Disasters of the Future

Everything in these scenarios is possible. Many have been discussed in esoteric, scientific literatures. These are certainly scenarios, but they are not fanciful.

Chicago Catastrophe
A train carrying four ninety-ton carloads of chlorine careens toward Chicago. It’s out of control because a fire on the train has disabled the speed controls and incapacitated the conductor. No one ever thought that was possible. It slams into another train at the Chicago Clearing Yard, catches fire, and three of the four chlorine cars burst open. The resulting death cloud kills 2 million people. Luckily, it’s the middle of a snowstorm on Sunday, so a lot of people are home. Otherwise the carnage would have been worse.

Miami Destroyed
A category 5 hurricane slides up the Florida Keys, wreaking havoc and destruction along the way. Just north of the Keys it stalls over the Turkey Point nuclear power station. The cooling pools that hold its waste are destroyed, releasing a lot of dangerous radiation. Worse, the hurricane reveals that there has been a hitherto unnoticed weakness in the reactors’ containment shells. Workers try valiantly to shut down the reactors in the middle of the hurricane but fail, as do both shells. The hurricane moves into the Atlantic Ocean, regains strength, and loops back onto the city of Miami, creating a storm surge that destroys Miami Beach. Emergency planners say, “Who would have thought that a natural disaster and a technological disaster could happen at the same time?”

Northeastern Seaboard Inundation
Scientists have been warning for years that a piece of the outer continental shelf could break off, triggering a tsunami on America’s East Coast. “Stop being so pessimistic,” said the academics, “the chance of that happening is vanishingly small.” But one worst-case day it happens, just as the scientists said, and as a seventy-five-foot wall of water moving at five hundred miles an hour kills millions of people up and down the northeastern seaboard.

Avian Flu Decimation
Flu kills a lot of people on a regular basis. The Z+ strain of H5N1 (a kind of bird flu) is a monster. The question is not if, but when. When it finally happens, 1 billion people fall ill, vastly eclipsing previous predictions. Poor countries are written off. The American public health service, operating on wrong assumptions, vaccinates the very young and the very old. But the Sickness, as it is called, slams young adults and the middle aged, as happened with the 1918 pandemic. Governments shut their borders, because decision makers often panic, which is catastrophic for the United States because very little flu vaccine is actually produced there. With travel shut down, airlines throughout the world go bankrupt, in the early steps of a string of events that bring the world’s economy to a standstill. In the United States, the rich, and high-level government officials, hoard what vaccine they can get, while military officials–understanding that the 1918 flu shaped military operations–consider overthrowing the government so they can secure the vaccine for their soldiers.

Power Grid Goes Down for Three Months
The U.S. power grid suffers a series of breakdowns and terror attacks. There is no electricity anywhere in the country for three months, starting at the end of November. People flee the cities, because there is no food or water there. They leave the sick and old behind. Government decision makers move to Europe, and the country devolves to the early 1800s. Small farms survive, but large ones struggle mightily. People also flee the north, trying to find warm weather. After the country finally recovers, two-thirds of its population has died and the world is locked in economic depression. The United States becomes yet another a third world country with nuclear weapons.

Manhattan Not Worth $24
In Manhattan most of the buildings are unreinforced masonry, exactly the kind of buildings that fall down when earthquakes happen. New York City didn’t require builders to use earthquake codes until 1996. Geologists have no idea why earthquakes happen in places that don’t have big faults. Imagine that a magnitude 7 earthquake shakes Manhattan to pieces in 2050. Five million people are living on the island, and 2 million are killed as buildings collapse. Among the buildings are the city’s old firehouses, although there is so much debris in the roads that fire trucks can’t get to the raging fires anyway. During the week following the New Great Earthquake, the fires consume most of the city and render it uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. The tunnels are flooded and structurally unsound. Engineers don’t trust the footings of the bridges. Although a lot of buildings on Wall Street are still standing, bankers are talking about moving all operations out of New York.

Yellowstone Eruption Kills the Northern Hemisphere
Yellowstone National Park sits on one of the largest volcanoes in the world. A supervolcano. The last time it blew in a big way it spewed eight thousand times more ash into the air than Mt. Saint Helens did in 1980. The probability that it will erupt is low, as it is with most worst cases. In 2200 the unlikely happens, and Yellowstone erupts and throws so much magma into the atmosphere that it obliterates sunlight over the Northern Hemisphere. Cities depopulate. Agriculture collapses. South American countries become the new superpowers.

The New Jersey Graveyard
For years the chemical industry has claimed it can safely self-regulate. This, notwithstanding numerous security breeches over the years. There are a handful of facilities in New Jersey that store some of the most dangerous chemicals you could imagine. Terrorists can imagine them just fine, of course, because they think in terms of worst cases. One day they mount multiple attacks on major facilities in the state. Only one succeeds, however, because a furniture-truck driver notices something suspicious on the turnpike and interferes with the plot. Still, the one place where they do succeed puts 12 million people at risk of death or injury. What is the worst that can happen? Only the imagination can limit that.

Asteroid Explosion over Pakistan
Astronomers tracked the killer asteroid for a long time, but then lost sight of it because Congress cut funding for the Program to Avoid Near-earth object Impactor Collisions—PANIC, as politicians derisively referred to it. Few people, other than worst-case thinkers, worried about the object, however, because even if it struck the earth it would most likely fall into an ocean. But it explodes over Karachi, with the force of a five-megaton nuclear weapon. Five million people disappear in the blink of an eye. Since they were in the middle of yet another dispute with India over Kashmir, Pakistani military officers think that India has launched nuclear weapons against them. Millions of people are incinerated in the ensuing five-minute war.

July 6, 2010

Sign up to envision the future

Filed under: Futures — by Christopher Bellavita on July 6, 2010

In April, I wrote about FEMA’s  Strategic Foresight Initiative (SFI), a program designed:

to seek to understand how the world around us is changing, and how those changes may affect the future of emergency management and our community.

By “our community” I am including homeland security (recognizing different views persist about the relationship between emergency management and homeland security).

If the Strategic Foresight Initiative produces material of value — notwithstanding its quasi-homophonic SciFi acronym — one hopes it will benefit everyone within the homeland security enterprise.

The three central questions guiding the initiative are:

(1)   What are the drivers of change (e.g., demographics, climate change) that may “dial up” or “dial down” systemic risk in the future?

(2)   What has the potential to transform emergency management in the future?

(3)   What should we do now to better align our missions and capabilities to our future needs?

———————–

As I described in April, there are three opportunities to participate in this Strategic Foresight Initiative.  The first activity was a meeting to identify “the most important drivers [participants] believe could impact emergency management over the next 20 years.”

The second opportunity — based on the work done at the initial SFI meeting — started a few days ago, and you are invited to participate:

FEMA has launched a broader community engagement effort to attract diverse participants from many disciplines and fields to join in moderated discussion.  An easy-to-access, easy-to-use online tool, OMB-Max, will promote dialogue to better understand emerging trends and future directions in key issue areas, as well as the potential implications for emergency management.

If you are interested in participating in this effort, please send an email request to:

FEMA-OPPA-SFI[at]fema.gov  ( remember to turn the [at] into the @ sign).

Once you receive your invitation and sign on to the SFI site, you will find detailed information about the Initiative.

———————–

I wish this activity well, and I intend to participate in it.  But I remain agnostic about the usefulness of spending much quality time looking at the drivers of the future.

Like any good agnostic, however, there’s a place inside me that wants to have faith, that wants to believe there can be a direct relationship between a knowledge of what’s coming toward homeland security and taking right action based on that knowledge.

I continue to look for evidence that the systematic study of the future is anything more than (as George Bernard Shaw wrote about Chess) “a foolish expedient for making idle people believe they are doing something very clever when they are only wasting their time.”

Hope springs eternal, however, even as we move through a northern hemisphere summer into a future that will surely surprise.

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