Category Archives: Exchanging knowledge & ideas

Anytown – a place near you with a surprisingly fragile infrastructure

Anytown is a place close to you. It has schools, hospitals, a railway station, municipal headquarters and its own radio station. If you like, it can have a TV station, and perhaps a university too.

You’ll have worked out by now, of course, that Anytown is a scenario. It’s used to explore the responses and interdependencies that might emerge with the failure of one or more infrastructure service.

Anytown is an initiative from the London Resilience team and has focused on 4 workshops; two last year, two this year. Anytown brings together representatives from infrastructure (e.g. telecoms providers, transport organisations), emergency services (e.g. A&E departments, fire and rescue service) and relevant others such as policy-makers and academics.

I’ve now attended two Anytown meetings, and while they focus on the ‘disaster response’ end of adaptation, they still provide a useful opportunity to investigate the ripple effect of infrastructure failure. At the most recent meeting, working in groups we considered the impacts of a breakdown of telecoms/data, with a separate session on gas supply failure.

It’s easy to see that infrastructure is very interdependent, with services usually requiring a secure energy supply, sometimes the provision of water and very often reliant on remote sensors and control systems.

But one of the big lessons I’ve taken from the Anytown exercise is that it’s important to look beyond the utilities. As soon as a failure starts to lead to, for example, school closures, then the knock on effects are immense, as parents start to take time off to look after their young children. Similarly, transport disruption means that staff aren’t able to get to their workplaces, and for some organisations that’s a real problem: you can’t change a dressing remotely!

The recent Anytown meeting also offered a more positive vision. We heard from Prof John Preston, Dr Charlotte Chadderton and Kaori Kitagawa from the University of East London who are looking at the community response to critical infrastructure failure. The experiences of people who lived through the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand and the tsunami in Japan, both in 2011, suggests that a the public has a tremendous ability to self-organise and to respond flexibly to the immediate loss of infrastructure. Their research suggests that populations mobilise and share through a variety of communications to identify useful information, direct volunteers and modify behaviour.

Anytown is a great way to think about responses to infrastructure crises, and this can and should help academics, policy makers and practitioners to investigate ways to prepare for and minimise a range of risks.

Making vulnerable voices heard in flood protection decisions

If you talk to anyone who has been affected by a flood, they would no doubt have a long list of questions and complaints about flood defences, prevention and the grim process of cleaning up. Giving vulnerable or disadvantaged people the opportunity to have their say too, and finding an inclusive way to capture their comments is a challenge. Meanwhile, communities deal with the immediate problems, working together and supporting each other. The community strength and togetherness generated by a crisis is very valuable, but can it also be harnessed for long-term planning for future events?

We could learn from the Dutch method of involving communities in decisions about dealing with coastal flooding. These ‘guided conversations’, where everyone listens as much as they talk, gives those affected a ‘voice’ and the opportunity for vulnerable sections of society to get involved. In the UK, we use the public consultation process to discuss planning decisions and design policy. We also have Local Resilience Forums (LRFs) – multi-agency partnerships made up of local representatives from the emergency services, local authorities, the NHS, the Environment Agency and others. They plan and prepare for localised incidents and catastrophic emergencies, working to identify potential risks and produce emergency plans, but they are not dedicated to dealing with flooding. Their remit is to respond to, rather than prevent, such emergencies.

This difference in approach is important: a new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – Climate change and social justice: An evidence review –  found evidence that vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in the UK are less able to be involved in designing and implementing flood policy decisions. Whose voice is heard and responded to matters, particularly when there are winners and losers as a result of a decision.

The report suggests that the design and consultation phase of a project should involve discussions with community organisations, schools, churches and marginalised or vulnerable groups rather than the usual public hearings.

Community-level communication, whether that be a forum where people can share experiences and learn from and support each other, or local schemes to disseminate flood warnings are vital to protect disadvantaged households. Schemes that show tangible local benefits are also more likely to encourage communities to take part.

We need a radical change in the way that communities are involved in decision-making for policy, moving away from public consultation to one that recognises community strengths and captures the voices of the vulnerable in a more collaborative planning process.

We also need to move beyond emergency response and build institutions and infrastructure to create enduring resilience across all social groups. This means engaging all parts of society when there is not a flood (a tough challenge) and improving communication between agencies and at-risk communities. It requires clearer definitions of roles, including supporting communities to help themselves. The legacy of the 2014 floods must be more resilient, cohesive communities and agencies who understand local concerns and are prepared for the next deluge.

Knowledge exchange will help build the case for adaptation

Climate change adaptation is increasingly as much about changes to behaviour as it is about technological responses such as building flood defences or planting drought-resistent crops. We need a stronger integration of our knowledge about adaptation solutions that includes our knowledge of how individuals and communities embrace new systems, technologies and social norms.

UKCIP strongly believes that its continuing focus on knowledge exchange will provide a route forward. Knowledge exchange works best by bringing together researchers, policy-makers and practitioners to share their knowledge and experiences, and to develop innovative and well-informed ways to deliver services and outcomes in world (and a climate) that is changing.

In a shared adaptation space, participants can all bring their knowledge to bear on a common problem, and find benefits in understanding each others’ constraints and perspectives.

It’s also an opportunity to build consensus around the need for adaptation, at a time when the ‘age of austerity’ remains the dominant mantra. Issues associated with climate change have become less of a public priority in recent years, and adaptation – so often lost in the call for mitigation – is now often at the margins of policy and action. It sometimes seems as if only flood risk (understandably headline-grabbing) remains a serious issue for discussion.

UKCIP’s work is helping to revise the case for adaptation, and we believe that by engaging research, policy and practice, together we can develop a richer understanding of the need for, and the opportunities and constraints that surround our adaptation choices. We want to extend the adaptation vocabulary beyond ‘resilience’ to find positive approaches consistent with the challenges we face. Adaptation research should incorporate the creativity to embrace and experiment with well-informed and innovative ideas that can also get public support and will provide good adaptation solutions for our communities.

Any fool can know…

Albert Einstein once wrote, “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” So when it comes to exchanging knowledge about climate change adaptation, how much are we knowing and how much are we understanding? Well, I will put my hand up and admit I am one of the fools that Einstein speaks of, but fool aspiring to understand!

Wicked problems such as climate change adaptation are by their very nature problematic, and so how we share knowledge that can lead to understanding that in turns leads to constructive action is also problematic where there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Whilst we would not claim to have all the answers to good knowledge exchange, the broad experience that UKCIP has in the field has given us a certain awareness of some of the principles of good practice. Anyone who has an understanding of what it means to be a good teacher will recognise many of these principles.

No one can ever know everything about adaptation, yet many people try to claim they do. In UKCIP’s experience, knowing that we have a good awareness of the concepts and that other people have the expertise is the starting point of good knowledge exchange. After all, no one knows carrot farming like a carrot farmer. Perhaps though, there are people out there who could help the carrot farmer with information on future weather and climate, or how infrastructure changes could have an impact on their business. So even though you may be an expert in your field, excuse the pun, there are always others who can help. This then brings us to the creation of networks of people, sharing knowledge of a problem. But knowledge as we know does not mean understanding so how does this transformation happen?

Sustained dialogue within these networks is critical, though what is just as critical is the opportunity to reflect on the knowledge being shared and to help each other make the links that can be applied to an individual context. As an organisation’s understanding develops they will need new members of the network to bring in new ideas that necessitates an organic, fluid movement of people and ideas within the network. The expert you needed at the start is not always going to be the expert you need throughout.

The practicalities of how we have gone about facilitating the creation of these dynamic networks will be the work of future blogs. But for now let us recognise that being a fool is not going to help any organisation adapt to a changing climate, but understanding could.