New Column: Jamais Cascio on Awareness Windows

This week, Jamais Cascio returns to Futurismic for his monthly column. This latest essay concerns disaster recovery programs, forward planning, and ‘awareness windows’ – the periods immediately after major disasters when people are most open to changes in policy and approach to mitigation.

The coincidental overlap of the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the five-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks offers us an opportunity to think broadly about how we handle disasters and other crises.

In many ways, disasters pose the classic foresight problem: they’re predictable in general form, but surprising in their specifics of time and location; they force us to balance costs of preparation against costs of recovery; and they tend to be big enough to change our ways of thinking, at least in the short term. Disaster management specialists refer to the period in which we are open to changed behavior and plans as the “awareness window.” This window, typically lasting a few years, gives us a chance to implement improved systems and designs, but can have the drawback of an overly-narrow focus — we rarely use the window to see how our new ideas might play out in other, seemingly unrelated, areas. But the big picture matters. The more wisely we take advantage of this awareness window, the better-off we’ll be when the next disaster strikes.

The term for solutions that can work across multiple issues, especially those which would be less costly (economically or otherwise) than individual solutions, is economies of scope. Most of us are familiar with economies of scale, where mass solutions are less costly than point solutions (a factory-made automobile as compared to a hand-crafted car, for example). Economies of scope can be found in those ideas that, when implemented, solve problems or offer improvements to differing, apparently unrelated, problems. A relevant example would be the seismic and hydro-acoustic monitor stations built to monitor global compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In December 2004, researchers noted that the massive quake and resulting tsunami in South Asia had unique signatures, and within the year had proposed that the CTBT monitoring stations take on double-duty as an undersea seismic and tsunami event early warning system.

Such a dual-use of environmental monitors may have been unintended, but economies of scope can be designed into systems — and, perhaps more importantly, technologies and strategies can be designed to make happy accidents like the CTBT/tsunami monitoring system more likely.

Good “economy of scope” disaster-planning can be quite practical. Security specialist W. David Stephenson recently posted a list of “Ten 21st Century Disaster Preparation Tips You Won’t Hear From Officials,” aimed at individuals and communities, and demonstrating the value of collaborative, networked technologies as a tool for more than dating and software development. His suggestions include saving family medical data on a cheap USB “thumb drive” on one’s keychain, learning to use family-radio (FRS) walkie-talkies, and buying a solar charger for your laptop. All but one of his tips would apply equally as well to an earthquake, a hurricane, or a human-triggered disaster.

Last year, shortly after Katrina, I wrote a piece for WorldChanging discussing “design for disaster,” the broad principles that should be found in good disaster response and recovery systems. I won’t rehash the entire list, but three major themes running through the discussion are worth reexamining.

Decentralization, with a strong emphasis on public collaboration. Time and again, we’ve found that the public on the scene of disasters are the real first-responders, and disaster response tools and rules should be available and open to public use. Moreover, recognizing that catastrophes can disrupt or destroy centralized facilities, tools that take advantage of distributed or ad hoc structures are more likely to be survivable.

Redundancy, not in terms of system monocultures (where all tools are identical) but in terms of overlapping diversity. Not every solution or strategy will be equally as effective for every kind of emergency, but tools that do lots of jobs fairly well are, ultimately, of greater value than tools that do a single job perfectly. After a disaster, some systems and strategies may no longer be available — make sure you always have ways to route around damage.

Transparency, in terms of how systems operate, when systems are broken, and ways of keeping abreast of environmental changes. In the event of a disaster, many of the people able to be first responders will have received little training in emergency practices. Simple and obvious is more useful than powerful but obscure — and simple systems that can become powerful in the hands of experts are best of all. Just as importantly, people recovering from a disaster need ways to be aware of when conditions have changed, especially when new problems have arisen.

Decentralization. Redundancy. Transparency. These are core design principles not just for emergency systems, but for any tool or strategy meant to deal with an uncertain future. Empower all participants. Ensure multiple pathways to success. Make visible the processes and conditions of the world around us that otherwise would be largely imperceptible.

Students of military history are familiar with the axiom that “Generals always prepare for the last war” — that plans too centered on the last major crisis may fail when confronted by the next, usually quite different, crisis. This is often a manifestation of “triage” thinking, of only being able to focus on the crisis at hand. The goal of foresight, of futurism, is to provide a distant, early warning of how the next crisis — or opportunity — will differ from the last. Opening the awareness window means avoiding this “last war” trap, avoiding the triage mentality, and seeking out solutions with the breadth and scope best able to succeed in an uncertain future.