HOW CAN THE ENGINEERING COMMUNITY BEST SUPPORT SAVING LIVES AND REDUCING RISK IN THE DEVELOPING WORLD?

24th November 2021

Our return to live discussion dinners was marked by the presentation of our annual Smeaton Medal. This being the 250th anniversary year and because of the quality of the nominations, the President announced that, exceptionally, it had been determined that Medals would be awarded to two people, emphasising that these were two full awards, not one shared. The winners had both developed their early careers and were working on the mitigation of risk and promotion of safety in the event of disasters in the developing world and therefore it was natural that they should be invited to introduce the discussion.

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The Speakers

The discussion was introduced by Dr Joshua Macabuag and Vita Sanderson, this year's Smeaton Medal Winners.

The President, HRH The Princess Royal welcomed Joshua and Vita, who presented opening arguments to the discussion.

 

Introductory Presentation

Following the President presenting Smeaton Medals to the two winners, each was invited to share some of their experiences and insights to introduce the discussion subject. Both drew on their experience of immediate disaster relief and subsequent action at pan-government and institutional level to improve reactive disaster management and pro-active resilience capability building. They then posed four questions to be addressed in groups by the 60 members and guests present.


Joshua and Vita set four questions for the discussion:

  • Both bottom-up (asset, or community-level) and top-down (government, or sector-wide) solutions to this problem are key. But in which of the two are Engineers best-placed to make an impact?

  • Preparation is more effective than response, and Engineers can obviously help mitigate risks. But how do we help define which risks to prioritise, and how to weigh these amongst other needs, particularly in resource-poor environments.

  • In low resource contexts, how do we achieve both the need for improved resilience against increasingly frequent and severe events and the need to maintain affordability and reduce the environmental impact of infrastructure?

  • Up to date, climate adjusted hazard information is key to achieving safe and resilient designs; how do we ensure this information is accessible during post disaster reconstruction to those who need it most? (and, by accessible, this means not just available but also usable)

 

Discussion

There was universal acclaim that both speakers were worthy Medal winners, indeed had demonstrated by their actions and indeed introductory words for the discussion, quite extraordinary achievements in their early careers that most engineers would consider a lifetime’s work. Each had achieved real impact on the safety and survivability of individuals directly affected by disasters and had also influenced governmental and quasi-governmental body policies.


Both bottom-up (asset, or community-level) and top-down (government, or sector-wide) solutions to this problem are key. But in which of the two are Engineers best-placed to make an impact?


Prevention and future planning tends to be top-down whereas immediate mitigation and recovery intervention is bottom-up.  Genuinely effective feedback looking in both directions is necessary.


Engineers should consider bottom-up and top-down actions to be equally important. The two were completely inter-related and complementary in that the experiences of the former should shape the development of the latter which would subsequently affect the delivery of the former. Actions rest with individuals, especially Engineers, and those individual actions help influence top-down policy and plans.


Engineers are well placed to assess risks both individually and as they affect interlinked systems and are not, unlike politicians, constrained to think in short term cycles. Therefore, it is important that Engineers engage with governments to assist their development of more effective plans and help bring them into reality. Top-down work requires impartial thinking from engineers and bottom-up demands sensitivity.


Above all, engineers should be fearless in “speaking truth to power”. Governments can, accidentally or otherwise, create or worsen emergencies and be unwilling to countenance responsibility. Engineers need to use their human as well as technical skills to encourage effective actions whether on short term responses or longer-term resilience building.


Even when actions at governmental level are achieved, such as the introduction of earthquake resistant building codes, Engineers need to follow through to improve the certainty of these being put into practice locally.


Preparation is more effective than response, and Engineers can obviously help mitigate risks. But how do we help define which risks to prioritize, and how to weigh these amongst other needs, particularly in resource-poor environments.


The risks faced in the developing world will be specific to the geography. Therefore prioritising particular risks would need to be based on local conditions and vulnerabilities rather than simply considering global challenges. 


In many places, risks which often exercise minds in more developed societies may be considered of lesser priority.  The impact of global warming over decades may not be considered as urgent as tackling the more immediate impact of famine, fire or flooding even though in the longer term the impact will be greater. Many societies have well-developed “coping” mechanisms for weather events that have been regular events over decades even if their severity or frequency is increasing.


Climate change may ultimately be catastrophic but for many communities in developing countries the reality is it is but one of many existential threats faced day-to-day and year-to-year.  Societies may well be focussed on the risks arising from more immediate threats such as disease and war. Meanwhile, the apparent prioritisation by many developed countries of completing vaccination programmes at home before even starting to assist developing countries has been noticed.


Prioritisation has often been focussed by measuring impacts on a largely financial basis whereas the real measure needs to become social and societal impact.


As threats are many and various and of differing local priority, there should be a movement away from considering individual risks to a focus on achieving greater resilience which is a property of systems of which Engineers should have an innate understanding and therefore be well placed to step up and lead development.


In low resource contexts, how do we achieve both the need for improved resilience against increasingly frequent and severe events and the need to maintain affordability and reduce the environmental impact of infrastructure?


Whilst developing societies are sometimes assumed to be of lower resilience and therefore at higher risk, the reality is that many so-called more advanced societies have developed in a way that they are actually more fragile than less developed ones.  This is partly about increased expectation of always available services enabled by infrastructure and systems which are vulnerable to interruption by both natural events and human action – seen in the rapid collapse of sophisticated “intelligent infrastructure” through system outages following bad weather storms or cyber-attack. The challenges of immediate response and the degenerating after-effects of Hurricane Katrina in a supposedly advanced society was cited as an example of such fragility.


Developing communities may be more resilient at times but with limited resources and skills are unlikely to be as efficient. Engineering assistance should focus on creating the ability to improve the latter which is where support in building plans and transferring appropriate skills is important to leverage and multiply the impact of actions.


Resilience is not only about avoiding or mitigating the impact of events. Equally important, particularly as the impacts are very often more severe from the disorder and subsequent issues in the aftermath rather than during the event itself, is a focus on the speed and sufficiency of the return of essential services followed by longer-term economic and social recovery. At the moment, perhaps, there is a focus on the former with many examples of greater human loss and suffering long after an event because recovery effort finishes once immediate actions have been completed.


Up to date, climate adjusted hazard information is key to achieving safe and resilient designs; how do we ensure this information is accessible during post disaster reconstruction to those who need it most? (and, by accessible, this means not just available but also usable)


Experience has shown that information is almost always available somewhere but very often not accessible, at least in the necessary response timescales. This has sometimes been compounded by the insensitive application of “proven” actions not appropriate to the communities affected. Local knowledge can often be overlooked or indeed not sought. Being “humble” is a necessary and valuable attribute.


Many bodies have information and conduct global level risk assessments – including the World Bank and World Federation of Engineering Organisations as well as the insurance industry. Can the UK Engineering Institutions work on distilling these sources to create a more coordinated and focussed set of data readily accessible at local level?


A particular issue is that some of the most detailed information and understanding of risk is held in the Insurance industry wherein for commercial reasons it is held confidentially and not available to Engineers and others, whether governments, policy makers or planners. Engineers should step up to seek mechanisms whereby such information can be made available by the Insurance industry whilst respecting their commercial imperatives.


Care has to be taken to avoid loss of knowledge over time following a disaster event. Literature abounds on the “repeat mistakes” from events whether natural disasters or human-made ones in safety critical industries as people responsible for the recovery and lessons leant moved on, even where exhaustive reports have been published and multiple action plans supposedly followed.

 

Concluding Remarks

The discussions had been extremely wide-ranging so rather than attempt to cover everything the speaker responses focussed on only a few points.

It was clear that building resilience was going to be more effective than simply managing present risk although focus needed to continue being on proportionate and appropriate response to immediate disaster events.

The exponential power of transferring knowledge and skills was emphasised by examples from both Medal winners. One person’s actions were able to help 2-30 people but supporting local engineers expanded that to several hundred and through an additional chain of knowledge transfer led to some 35,000 people assisted.

The focus of the Insurance industry on measuring loss financially needs to be replaced by a much more holistic approach which embraces and values short- and long-term social impact.

Sharing knowledge is an absolute priority and thereby helping to build capacity in the developing world to achieve both top-down appropriate policies and plans, and then execute them effectively and quickly when the need arises.

“Think national and international but act local”

Be receptive to transferring knowledge in two directions. Developing communities have as much to offer developed ones on resilience as the latter do with their allegedly advanced technologies and systems.

The last point was emphasised by the President from her experience with the Save The Children charity.