Social networks, innovation, and marketing for disaster risk reduction

The above photo was taken at the exhibition space in Cern which has various displays explaining the the origins of the universe. It’s also a poignant question because it helps us: 1) understand where we’re from, and, importantly, 2) gives a starting point to know or define where we’re going. This was what twenty one disaster risk and development specialists came together in April this year to do. While the 2-day meeting at the headquarters of the Latin American Social Science Faculty (FLACSO) in San Jose, Costa Rica may have been a blip on the calendar, this meeting of the minds came to openly debate and discuss the past and future of disaster risk management – something that is gaining more importance on the world stage as populations increase and cities, countries, and communities are increasingly exposed and vulnerable to earthquakes, storms, floods, etc. and, what’s that thing called? Oh yeah, climate change.

The 20-page summary report from the expert consultation is full of insights and historical references to reducing disaster risks, particularly in identifying key challenges and opportunities for effective disaster risk management beyond 2015, when the world’s 10-year framework for disaster risk reduction, the Hyogo Framework for Action, comes to an end.

One of the people who put the paper together, Andrew Maskery, and someone I worked with on the 2013 Global Assessment Report (GAR), presented the paper at a lunch-time seminar with UNISDR staff to gauge people’s reaction especially since they are intimately tied to the subject. The discussion was also to stimulate ideas to further develop the next GAR which will come out in 2015.

My input into the discussions focused on a couple of points the paper pointed out – social networks and innovation, and the use of communication and ‘marketing’.

Social network and innovation

One of the more interesting aspects of development, particularly in developing countries, is the concept of leapfrogging, where development is accelerated by skipping inferior, less efficient, more expensive or more polluting technologies and industries and move directly to more advanced ones. In respect to risk management and reduction, as well as other risk-sensitive investments, this idea could also apply. This is because as more and more infrastructure and communities are exposed to potential disasters, it does not mean this happens in isolation and is fixed. While exposure is increasing, communities, infrastructure, and decisions are adapting – people will find solutions to problems, innovate to address challenges, and readjust the way they do things. Usually this happens at a local level where social bonds or networks are strongest and radiate outwards until innovations reach a tipping point where ideas moves beyond the local – think how a start-up works or how certain types of activism or campaigns catches on – Kony, anyone?.

At the same time with technological advances to support our developing and burgeoning economies, there is also a potential to tap into them. The practical use of information and communication systems can ‘leapfrog’ our ability to address risk. For example, the financial industry are increasingly improving the speed at which they transfer data where there are even discussions on using clocks at the sub-atomic level to calculate data transfer time, which eventually will impact financial transactions. A difference in a millisecond for millions and billions of stock/shares can have significant repercussions for the amount of money lost or gained.

Even though these innovations are taking place, they are still using infrastructure that are at risk not only from human tampering but also from natural events. I asked the author of the article about the transmission towers and he said that there was very little security around them. At the same time, like the map above shows, data transmissions require that towers are located in places that are exposed to the elements such as extreme cold, storms, tornadoes, etc. What if the possibility of transferring data can be done wirelessly? Or that transmission towers are located or designed in a way that absorbs or reduces these risks? These are key questions to ask because they not only help us innovate while tackling disaster risks, but also can have a positive or negative impact on the economy which has repercussions on how our society currently functions – for example, what would be social, economic, or environmental cost if there was a loss of data transmission for any given amount of time?

Could Facebook’s partnership on Internet.org, a global partnership between technology leaders, nonprofits, local communities and experts who are working together to bring the internet to the two thirds of the world’s population that doesn’t have it, be another way we can look at leapfrogging? There are debates as to whether this campaign has ground to stand on, yet the innovative look at bridging the digital divide can potentially have an impact not only on disaster risk reduction activities like early warning, but also in terms of how communities organize, communicate and interact. At the same time, social networks have existed as long as we have had neighbors. Whether these connections are digital or in person, the issue of social connections have always played a role in how we deal with traumatic events like a disaster, or build stronger bonds to address more long-term resilience issues and come up with innovative community-based solutions to risk. For example, Hurricane Sandy jolted people to come together – can this be sustainable to reduce future disaster risks?

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Communication and marketing

Social demand has been used for the last couple of years when we’ve talked about disaster risk reduction (DRR). It has taken some time for the term and concept to gather steam and this is most likely due to DRR not being seen from a communication lens or one that takes behavioral change into account. There is a lot of talk about governance, leadership, and making sure investments are risk-sensitive. Yet what it really comes down to is that when dealing with any type of risk, behaviors are a key component. Why do smokers continue to smoke despite all the warnings and research? How does a gambler weigh their decision before they roll the dice?

We want to target both decision-makers and people at large when we talk about risk reduction, yet we make little investment in terms of understanding how our brains process risk, and more importantly how decisions are made despite having all the right information. We hear terms like “informed” or “evidenced-based” decision-making and it’s something that the development sector pushes for. Yet, even with all the information and evidence, decisions are being made that ignore this. Why? How can behavioral or cognitive science or sociological and applied psychological research be part of how we see disaster risk reduction?

From a more practical level, if the science and evidence is already available on the benefits for disaster risk reduction and management, why isn’t there more widespread acceptance from the government and, particularly, the public? Perhaps, the DRR field can learn from the public health sector, which has made strides in pushing for prevention and mitigation on issues such as smoking, obesity, and HIV/AIDS. There is plenty of research and knowledge base around the techniques used to create “demand” and impact behaviors. For example, this recent journal article on Reducing Earthquake Risk, the author briefly refers to learning from the public health sector for disaster risk reduction. A quick search on public health also reveals that this field is peppered with references to behavior change, social marketing, and attitudinal influence. Another example is Pavlov’s dogs which refers to how we (or animals) are conditioned to responses. This conditioning can be seen from both a marketing perspective, as well as how we deal with or are indifferent to disaster risks.

Other areas such as environment, labour, and government campaigns have also partnered with marketing agencies to run campaigns to change mindsets and, ultimately, behaviors. Here are a few examples from WPP Sustainability Report for 2011/2012.

The idea that of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ risks could be explored more thoroughly since risky behavior can lead to innovative solutions to challenges, despite the fact that risk is typically seen as a negative.

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