Skip to main content
Blog Post

Moving from ‘just in time’ to ‘just in case’ societies

Climate Quantified|Credit, Political Risk and Terrorism|Willis Research Network
N/A

By Hélène Galy | March 5, 2021

Being prepared is the motto of the Scouts, but organizations, businesses and governments could benefit from the idea too.

Founded in 1908 by Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the Scout Movement now counts over 50 million members across the world. Given the Scout’s motto “Be prepared,” it would be interesting to see whether a country with a high Scouting base (for example, Indonesia, which has 7.2% of the population identifying as Scouts) responds better to a crisis, compared to the movement’s birthplace (only 1.6% of the U.K. population).

Of course, there are other ways to promote societal preparedness: Sweden’s Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency has for years taken steps to brief the whole population on how to respond “if crisis or war comes.”1

In truth, there is no simple metric to indicate that a country (or even an organization) is well-prepared to face the unexpected. Understanding how preparedness can be measured, benchmarked and improved is among the ambitious and timely objectives of the new National Preparedness Commission launched in the U.K. and chaired by Lord Toby Harris2.

The commission ’s work is expected to shed some light on how resilience can be designed in the fabric of society to better prepare nations and organizations for what appears on our risk registers and the unthinkable.

As I joined the commission in November, three overarching themes struck me, which are more about culture and mindset than about technical knowledge.

  1. The importance of diversity of thought
  2. The critical, yet humble role of science
  3. And finally acknowledging that we are only human, the need to stress-test preparedness

Cognitive diversity: Where are today’s jesters and devil’s advocates?

The first National Preparedness Commission roundtable in November 2020 was an excellent start, not only because of the vast expertise of the commissioners, but thanks to the carefully designed multidisciplinary background of the commission: policy makers, business leaders, academics and a bishop. If all organizations had boards as diverse, their risk review would be enriched.

A litmus test of our acceptance of diversity of thought is the place reserved to devil’s advocates. The role was initially created by the Catholic Church, and it still has a formal process to interview atheists before any canonization. During the medieval period, kings had jesters, who beyond entertaining were often useful advisers and critics, able to deliver truths unfiltered. Who holds this role in our governments or business world?

There is a role for credible experts who can cry wolf at extreme but plausible risks so that we can be better prepared for the next crisis.

There is a role for credible experts who can cry wolf at extreme but plausible risks so that we can be better prepared for the next crisis. Too often, “group think” leads to statements such as “impossible to predict” or that mythical “black swan.” This is where a review of risk registers by external advisors can be a good idea, as it can bring fresh perspectives, including learnings from other industries.

This maximum situational awareness can propel organizations from passive to active resilience, not only responding to challenges and crises but turning an increasingly ambiguous and fast-moving world to their advantage.

You can’t just ‘follow the science’

Science is an input to decision-making, but doesn’t take its place. The current pandemic has made science more accessible and interesting to a wider public: Rarely have we paid so much attention to daily briefings by scientists, let alone epidemiologists.

In the last few years, we’ve also seen this trend within climate risks. Recognition of the climate crisis has also boosted the visibility of climate and economic modelers, and in Jeremy Rifkin’s case, getting his own documentary on the Third Industrial Revolution on VICE (5.1m views and counting).

For the last 21 years, the Edelman Trust Barometer has charted the trust and credibility of the world’s four major institutions: government, business, media and non-government organizations. In its 2020 report, academics ranked first in their ability to “meet the demands placed on them by the pandemic,” ahead of governments, journalists and CEOs.

"Follow the science” is a regular comment heard from politicians, but it implies that science makes policy decisions clear. Sadly, it doesn’t.

“Follow the science” is a regular comment heard from politicians, but it implies that science makes policy decisions clear. Sadly, it doesn’t. Science is essential to making good and rational decisions, but scientists are usually the first to stress the limitations or uncertainties of their models.

Especially when dealing with complex situations, we need to combine science with social and behavioral sciences. Many problems don’t have perfect solutions, but need trade-offs, and these compromises, which involve value judgments and prioritizations, affect the social contract and are decisions for policy makers and business leaders.

Consider climate and pandemic models:

  • Climate models are a good example. There isn’t one model, but multiple models, and we use ensembles (sets) to represent possible futures. These models are not perfect (e.g., Global Circulation Models do not yet have the resolution needed to model the intensity of tropical cyclones in future climates, so they need to be supplemented by other techniques) and there is uncertainty about a range of tipping points3 that could make matters much worse.
  • Pandemic modeling is another area where it has become obvious that epidemiological models need to be complemented by social sciences and need to include the impacts of political decisions and human behavior. Once an earthquake strikes, you can’t do much to lessen the damage; but that is not so for more continuous crises such as a pandemic or climate change.

In a recent conversation with a diverse group of climate scientists from the Willis Research Network, many of the concerns voiced by academics were more about communicating complex scientific ideas to a less technical audience (especially decision and policy makers) and less about the state of the science, which is steadily progressing. At times it can feel like another language, which is why establishing shared understanding is key and an open dialogue is part of that.

Beyond risk registers

There is a growing sense that the value of risk registers and business continuity plans are undermined unless they are stress-tested properly. A memorable 2020 reminded us that even in high-tech societies, we are only human, very vulnerable and prisoners of our biology.

So, it may be a good time to draw some lessons from evolutionary biology and understand how our ability to manage risks is constrained by our biology. In truth, our social and technological evolution has outpaced our biological evolution: Our brains are stuck with heuristics (stereotypes and biases) that are better suited to living in primitive and small family groups.

The economist and Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman talks about our two separate cognitive systems. One is based on intuition, and one on reason: the amygdala for fast, automatic, emotional response, located in an old part of the brain (going back to early fishes) and the analytical part of our brain (neocortex) more recent, and still in beta testing. Both are useful, but for effective preparedness planning we need to recognize that they are inseparable and sometimes contradictory.

Most organizations have neocortex-designed risk registers (probably in Microsoft Excel) and business continuity plans (BCP) (probably saved on a network that could easily become inaccessible, although some may have printed version at home).

One particular weakness of risk registers is that they treat different risks as independent, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

One particular weakness of risk registers is that they treat different risks as independent, which couldn’t be further from the truth, especially in our modern, globalized societies that are highly dependent on networks, where failures can easily propagate through critical infrastructure and supply chains, affecting multiple sectors and geographies. Realistic disaster scenarios need to involve interconnected and cascading events. As good as these risk registers and BCPs are, they still need to be regularly stress-tested and revised, to breathe a bit more realism into the and see how real humans (with an amygdala and a neocortex) perform in those plans.

One such tabletop exercise was Event 201, a pandemic exercise co-hosted in October 2019 by the John Hopkins Center for Health Security, the World Economic Forum and the Gates Foundation. It highlighted several important gaps in pandemic preparedness and some recommendations for the public and private sectors. However, even now, only a few people know about this exercise. We need regular drills to complement risk registers and BCPs, so that preparedness can be improved, updated and adapted to the next crisis.

Importantly, we also need to share lessons learned more widely to reinforce the idea that everyone has role to play in resilience. Even a military organization such as North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) recognizes the importance of civil society and the private sector. NATO’s article three (focused on resilience) overshadowed by article five (collective defense) is now getting more attention4. In October 2020, its secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, highlighted that given the broader range of challenges faced by our world, “our military cannot be strong if our societies are weak; so, our first line of defense must be strong societies able to prevent, endure, adapt and bounce back from whatever happens.”

Investment in resilience requires a mindset and cultural change (e.g., “just in case” rather than “just in time”), rather than an activity separate from everyday life. The Scouts teach this from the start. As does national service: This is one of the key reasons why the United Arab Emirates introduced national service in 2014 – not to fight wars but to help make their young population resilient. Nordic countries do this well too, and their experience supports a compelling case for national resilience training for teenagers, investing in our future leaders, as advocated by the Modern Deterrence project sponsored by the Willis Research Network at RUSI5.

The U.K. government published an updated National Risk Register on December 18, 2020, but this did not make the headlines. Let’s hope that with the work of the National Preparedness Commission, a National Resilience Register can emerge and provide a better, newsworthy measure of a country’s preparedness6.

Footnotes

1 “If Crisis or War Comes,” Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, May 2018 https://www.dinsakerhet.se/siteassets/dinsakerhet.se/broschyren-om-krisen-eller-kriget-kommer/om-krisen-eller-kriget-kommer---engelska.pdf

2 Kate Whannel, “Post-Covid planning: The committee aiming to protect us from disaster,” BBC News, Nov. 20, 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-55003034

3 Robert McSweeney, “Explainer: Nine ‘tipping points’ that could be triggered by climate change,” Carbon Brief, Feb. 10, 2020 https://www.carbonbrief.org/explainer-nine-tipping-points-that-could-be-triggered-by-climate-change

4 Hasit Thankey, “How NATO plans to make us all more resilient,” interview by Elisabeth Braw, On the Cusp, American Enterprise Institute, Feb. 11, 2021, audio https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/how-nato-plans-to-make-us-all-more-resilient-hasit/id1506195821?i=1000508622150

5 Elisabeth Braw, “The Case for National Resilience Training for Teenagers,” Occasional Papers, March 2, 2020, https://www.rusi.org/publication/occasional-papers/case-national-resilience-training-teenagers

6 “National Risk Register 2020 - a critique,” Resilience First, Jan. 6, 2021, https://www.resiliencefirst.org/news/national-risk-register-2020-critique

Author

Managing Director of Willis Research Network
Head of People Risks Research

Hélène joined Willis in 1998, specialising in natural hazard modelling and reinsurance optimisation. Since 2001, she has been leading multi-disciplinary teams, who research, design and develop analytical solutions and insights for risk identification, quantification and management. She currently leads the Willis Research Network, an award-winning public-private partnership, which harnesses over 60 science partners to form innovative long-term collaborations, improving our understanding of risks (natural hazards, technological risks, geopolitical drivers of risk) for the benefit of clients and society: using science to support resilience.
Hélène has extensive experience in spatial modelling, design of innovative solutions, and applying science to business challenges. Her current focus is on Climate advisory services (advising corporates on how leading-edge climate research can help them quantify their exposure to climate variability and climate change; exploring the links between climate change and national security) and on People Risks (how people can increase vulnerability or improve resilience: terrorism, societal resilience to systemic risks, including pandemics).
She holds a BSc in Economics & Political Science (Sciences Po), and an MSc in Environmental Economics (UCL).


Related Solutions

Contact Us