Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Challenges of Community Resilience

In my last post I discussed collective forms of resilience. I now focus on a particular aspect of this “social resilience”, namely what is largely discussed as Community Resilience.

According to RAND,

“Community resilience is a measure of the sustained ability of a community to utilize available resources to respond to, withstand, and recover from adverse situations. […] Resilient communities withstand and recover from disasters. They also learn from past disasters to strengthen future recovery efforts. The Resilience in Action website offers toolkits, training, multimedia, newsletters, and other resources to help communities build and strengthen their resilience.”
From the above definition we can observe that resilience in this case also includes a community’s ability to learn from the past and become more robust in so doing – a sort of social antifragility.

As important asset to understanding Community Resilience is paper “COMMUNITY RESILIENCE: LESSONS FROM NEW ORLEANS AND HURRICANE KATRINA,” by C. E. Colten, R. W. Kates, and S. B. Laska, research report 3 of the Community and Regional Resilience Institute (CARRI). The three Scholars provide an insightful discussion of several important factors that resulted in the resilience behaviors that emerged during the Hurricane Katrina events. Their definition of resilience is slightly different from RAND’s; it is
“a community or region’s capability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from significant multi-hazard threats with minimum damage to public safety and health, the economy, and national security.”
Accordingly, the authors identify four major “activities” responsible for the emergence of resilience: anticipation of threats; response to threatening events; disaster recovery; and vulnerability reduction.

It is interesting to note that in this case vulnerability reduction is carried out, so to say, “outside” the system: the greater resilience is reached by strengthening the protection and emergence infrastructures, thus it is not a consequence of a system’s learning processes but rather of the processes of the designers and the managers of the system; it is thus more enhancing elasticity rather than achieving antifragility.

After analyzing weaknesses and strengths of New Orleans and discussing the above major activities, the authors discuss anticipation/response/recovery/reduction before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. Ongoing and future action to improve the performance of the above activities is reported. Lessons learned are finally summarized.

A remarkable fact observed by the authors is that the response to the disaster was far from ideal:

“Through extensive media coverage, the world saw remarkably inadequate rescue operations, the failure of complete evacuation, […] What amazed many worldwide was that these extensive failures, often attributed to conditions in developing countries, occurred in the most powerful and wealthiest country in the world.”
This is particularly surprising in that the severity of the situation was well known, as it was also well known how the New Orleans area would have had difficulties in the face of catastrophic events:
“New Orleans was a catastrophe waiting to happen with extensive and repeated warnings from both scientists and the media that the “big one” would eventually hit the city.”
This fact in particular stirred my imagination. I was born in a land rich with seismic and volcanic activity, though considerably less wealthy and powerful, which made it quite obvious to me that it would be preferable to learn about Community Resilience failures in an indirect way.

The major lesson that I derived from this case is that an event like Katrina disrupts several concentric “social layers” at the same time, and that one of the major problems following the event is one of coordination. Multiple concurrent responses are triggered in each of the social layers, including

  • the individual, the family, people sharing the same location, citizens, etc.;
  • pre-existing organizations of the city, the region, the state, the nation;
  • pre-existing organizations for civil protection, defense, order, etc.
A major classification among the above responders is that of Institutional responders (namely the social layers corresponding to the above pre-existing organizations) and informal responders (non-institutional responders, originating in “households, friends and family, neighborhoods, non-governmental and voluntary organizations, businesses, and industry” and corresponding to informal care-givers in ambient assisted living).

Coordination failures derive from a number of reasons, the most important of which are possibly the following ones:

  • Conflicting goals and conflicting actions among the triggered responders. Multiple uncoordinated efforts often result in wasting resources and in some cases they mask each other out.
  • As a simplistic way to avoid or recover from this kind of failures, institutional responders tend to refuse or do not blend their action with that of informal responders.
  • Resources owned by institutional responders are not shared dynamically according to the experienced needs.
The report by Colten, Kates, and Laska provides rich and valuable knowledge, which helps understand how relevant the above reasons were in determining the quality of resilience and the speed of the recovery after Katrina. It also provides us with a major challenge, which the authors enunciate as follows:
“[Responders] would have been able to do more if the tri-level system (city, state, federal) of emergency response was able to effectively use, collaborate with, and coordinate the combined public and private efforts. How to do so, in advance of hazard events, is a central task of enhancing community resilience.
Is it possible to find a satisfactory answer to the above challenge? Which tools, which form of organizations may serve as an effective foundation on top of which community resilience may be built? Let me just focus on the response to the events. The answer, in my humble opinion, should be characterized by the following attributes:
  • Scalable: The building blocks of the response organization should be applicable at all social layers, ranging from micro scale (individual or small groups) up to macro level (national or world-wide institutions).
  • Fractal: The building blocks of the response organizations should be free from the hard restrictions of pure hierarchical organizations. The action and role of each social layer should not be restricted by its hierarchical level into that of a controller or that of a controlled, but rather dynamically defined.
  • Context-driven: The above mentioned action and role should be defined through an assessment of the context and situations at hand, possibly involving multiple collaborating entities and layers.
  • Self-servicing: Forms of mutualistic collaboration should be identified so that common requirements may become mutually satisfactory.
  • Service-oriented: Services and assets should be easily and quickly localizable, shareable, and accountable.
  • Semantic: Services and assets across the social layers should be semantically described in a uniform way allowing for quick service matching.
  • Collaborative: Collaboration among entities in different social layers should be easy to settle and result in the spontaneous emergence of new temporary inter-layered “social responders”. Said “social overlay networks” would combine responders of different scale and different originating social layers and exist until some originating purpose is being reached.
  • Modular: Self-similar collaborative “patterns”, or modules, should be reusable at different scales. A dynamic ranking mechanism should allow the performance of modules in a given context to be tracked.

My next post will describe an organization matching the above attributes – the fractal social organization.

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The Challenges of Community Resilience by Vincenzo De Florio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Need for Collective Forms of Resilience

It is remarkable how, in the course of its history, mankind has time and again locked in on biases and privileged directions that confine its progress and welfare. A classic example is given by the geocentric model of the Ptolemaic system. Two other examples of such lock-ins are represented by the concepts of individualism and competition, both of them eloquently captured in Hobbes’ definition of the “natural state of things” as “the war of every one against everybody”. In fact the individual-centric and purely competitive models became heavy cornerstones of our societies and were celebrated in many an important work. Examples of this may be found in Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1689) and Smith’s conjecture of the “Invisible Hand”, which influenced and reverberated for centuries in the work of many scholars and philosophers.

A strong argument against any theory only considering individualism and competition was issued by Darwin, whose principle of mutual struggle appeared to bring irrefutable scientific evidence to the supremacy of the concepts of competition and the individual.As a matter of fact, Darwin himself was well aware that competition and mutual struggle are an important strategy though not the only one, and that in nature in certain cases it is collective cooperation rather than individualistic struggle that results in the winning strategy. In fact in his “Descent of Man” Darwin refers to the "power of sympathy" and states that

"those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring".
Among the first ones to highlight that both cooperation and competition coexisted in Darwin’s treatises was probably P√ętr A. Kropotkin. In his work "Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution" Kropotkin raised an important question:
"Who are the fittest? Are those organisms the fittest which are constantly waging a war of extermination against every other organism in the struggle for existence, or, are those the fittest which cooperate with each other in the preservation of the common life of all?"
Kropotkin’s answer is the same as Darwin’s: through several examples in the societies of animals and men he remarks how both competition and collaboration are important strategies towards survival and welfare of animal species and societies:
It is evident that no review of evolution can be complete unless these two dominant currents are analyzed [...] The struggle between these two forces make, in fact, the substance of history.

More recently, the limitations of the pure individual-centric, competitive-oriented model—especially when the environment becomes resource-scarce and turbulent—were masterfully discussed by Hardin in his “Tragedy of the Commons”. In that celebrated treatise the great scholar remarks how such model, coupled with an ever increasing overpopulation, results in the rapid exhaustion and pollution of earth resources and is introducing unprecedented turbulent and chaotic scenarios in our global ecosystem.

In more recent times the necessity to extend the purely individualistic and competitive model so as to include other forms of interaction emerged in several domains. Ecology, biology, mathematics, computer science, sociology, and economy, are examples of disciplines that time and again put to the foreground the efficacy of other forms of interaction in systems ranging from bacteria to business ecosystems. As an example, beginning with the 1980s economy and management science experienced a crisis of the traditional concept of organization- environment relations: The classic model of a so-called focal organization taking individual actions to capture value under a system of pure competition revealed intrinsic weaknesses when facing ever more complex and turbulent environments. The awareness of the need to go beyond the purely individual models of organization and strategic choice and of pure competition initiated a process of rethinking that led to the emergence of concepts such as collective strategies, co-opetition, and business ecosystems.

Collective resilience strategies are not new; they are the default strategy used in nature to protect the individual and the species. Individuals unite either to become a social predator or a social prey; the unite to augment artificially their perception; to benefit from different features in different contexts, and so on. It is only through collaboration that the individual and the species compensate for the very slow speed of evolution with respect to the onset of change. Thus I believe an important requirement for the resilience of future cyber-physical societies will be the ability to learn from both nature and practice how to establish dynamically mutualistic relationships as exemplified, e.g. in the Canary Agent and Miner Agent scenario discussed here.

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The Need for Collective Forms of Resilience by Vincenzo De Florio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at mailto:vincenzo.deflorio@gmail.com.