Posts in Gov2.0
Economics & Empathy - Disaster Recovery

I've been infatuated with disaster recovery for quite some time. I've spoken to numerous survivors - gathering their stories in part with the Field Innovation Team. I've spoken with responders, contractors and funding agencies. I've analyzed the nature of neighborhood and whole community recovery through numerous events. I've even presented to gatherings of fellow emergency managers on building resilience that may lead to a more rapid recovery.

And I've noticed something - recovery, the successful kind, is an artful blend of economics and empathy.

Yes, a community needs financial support, information and an opportunity to meet their fundamental survival needs. But beyond that, in order to engage their own resilience, a community struck by disaster needs empathy. An understanding that, growth, safety and trust begins when, and only when, an ability to comprehend their own needs and a willingness to meet them exists.

Governments long to build resilience, to listen to community, to support and grow community capacity to meet their own needs. But I've yet to see a successful example of that philosophy instigated in a community. Government rarely listens and even more rarely asks communities to share what recovery means to them. We have a tendency to send the well-meaning among us out to communities to gather information, but those representatives are under-equipped and often speak more than they listen to those they aim to support.

Emergency Managers say - the goal of recovery is to "build it back, better" but what does that mean to the communities which they serve? Better means something different to every neighborhood, business district and non-governmental support capability. The under-served in one neighborhood will respond differently to disaster than a similar, but different neighborhood, despite having similar capacity to withstand trauma. No two people and thus no two neighborhoods are the same. Therefore, the very nature of recovery must be sought from those directly impacted by the decisions made on their behalf. 

It must be sought in empathetic, systematic, deliberate ways. By humans (and technology) eager to learn and less eager to disseminate the "solutions" their employers offer. A story must be shared and equally told by connecting with the needs, capabilities and desires of a community to build their own future.

For it is their future that will rebuild our community.

why not: create a crisis lab
Think about now what you can do, but about what can be done. - Mac Premo

Some time ago I was lucky to attend a discussion on social technology and disasters. It was the kind of event that included Facebook, Google and the like. We chatted about how technology is now and should be considered infrastructure during a disaster. Let's be clear - I love this topic. I love exploring how technology unites disaster survivors and service providers. It's why I continue to do what I do - especially here in San Francisco.

But each time I sit down and listen to organizations talk about this topic I realize something - innovation is slow. What I mean is this... the nature of innovation is usually rapid and quick, but in a disaster, innovation is not quite as fast. Why? I've thought a lot about that - why is it so difficult to create and iterate new tools and capabilities for events that impact large portions of population? Isn't that the point of things like iteration, design thinking and user testing?


My conclusion

There is no safe space to create and iterate pre-disaster so a disaster tech debut is well received. If an organization launches a solution in an event you want that solution to be successful and used.... but that means you need to launch something proved and tested. As it stands, there is no safe space to launch. It's hard to test what might work in a situation when you lack an opportunity to create those circumstances prior to the real thing.


A Proposed Solution

What if a research and development lab - a Crisis Lab, so to speak - was developed to experiment on how technologies (multiple types and sectors - belonging to different companies) might help disaster survivors and responders? Could startups and old giants alike learn in a space designed to test assumptions and mimic someone's worst day? Could a Crisis Lab make a better product before it's needed?

What's more - could this Crisis Lab develop a better, more robust, useable product that could benefit the bottom line? And could this same lab educate and prepare non-profits and governments on how to best deploy and understand technology's capabilities?

The conversation is valuable (I'm looking forward to participating in the next one), but being able to go beyond words is how change is accomplished. If we want to create a survivor-centric resilient community we need to leverage our experiences and growth more fully. We've got to go beyond the conversation.


Which leads to one last question - how and who might create such a place?

Beginner's Mind: Teens & Tech

As adults, we so rarely approach problems with a beginner's mindset. It's difficult, to be sure, to suspend the things we believe to be true, in order to find solutions we did not know were right in front of us.

Chatting with youth about what it means to feel scared in the face of disaster and how might technology may help one become more resilient in the face of a tragedy was eye opening to me. It brought out my beginner's mind in a way I had not expected. Just a few weeks ago, Teen Tech SF gave me a great opportunity to mentor young technologists through a hackathon where one of the challenges was centered around disaster resilience.

Just a few days after the Paris attacks, I thought the youth might be afraid to dig deep about the fear a disaster presents. (I know I was.) Or that they might be unable to see the possibilities technology could provide to helping a community unite. (Back again to beginner's mind.) But they were having none of that. They dug deeper than most adults when faced with the topic: "How might we calm fear and encourage resilience, post-disaster."

Two young women with no coding experience, but with great artistry and imagination, scoped an application that united people, shared information and provided safe passage to those in need. Their depth of understanding the needs of those in fear and their beginner's mind approach to combining existing technology solutions to meet community needs was powerful and smart.

A vital reminder that one does not need to be an "expert" to provide a valuable, capable and strong solution to the problem. A valuable lesson that being a beginner is powerful, powerful indeed. 

Gov2.0Alicia Johnson