Featured

Adversity: The Primer for Resilience

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

Marcus Aurelius

One of my favorites among the many definitions of resilience is – Positive adaptation to perceived adversity. What Marcus Aurelius is pointing out is that adaptation is learned behavior; true for individuals, communities and nations. We learn to cope by coping; we learn to adapt by adapting to those things we cannot change. If we never have to cross barriers we will never learn to hurdle them. We need to fall if we are to learn how to get back up. In that sense, adversity becomes the primer for resilience. Just as a child’s primer started us on our journey to literacy, adversity starts us on our journey to resilience.

Too often, our politicians act as if they prevent anything bad from happening to anyone. But by trying to prevent bad things from happening to people, communities, or our nation, we are actually preventing people, communities and our nation from learning to cope and adapt.

One of the worst examples of this is our use of the Precautionary Principle. This unprincipled Principle states that no action – no matter how beneficial – should be taken unless it can be shown to be absolutely safe. Aside from the impossibility of proving a negative (“no bad thing will happen if I do X”), it turns risk management on its head (tip of the hat to the Risk-Monger). Instead of managing risk, the default position of our governmental officials and politicians is to skulk away from any decision with any possible downside in the name of “protecting us.”

Ultimately, such efforts are doomed to failure. Bad things will happen. The more little “bads” we’re able to prevent, the more severe the big “bads” will be. Because not only will we not have learned to adapt to adversity, but we will most likely engage in ever more risky behavior – leading to Minsky Moments.

As Helen Keller wrote:

Security is mostly a superstition
It does not exist in nature
Nor do the children of men
As a whole experience it.
Avoiding danger is no safer
In the long run than outright exposure.

To her,

Life is either a daring adventure
Or it is nothing.
To keep our faces toward change and
Behave like free spirits
In the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.

We should embrace adversity as a part of living, and learn the lessons it teaches us about coping and adapting; about becoming more resilient.

Featured

Rising after the fall

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

Confucius

In a November post, I talked about a different way for a community to visualize its resilience. It was a functional approach focusing on three aspects of a community – its common functions, the risks it faces, and the resources it has for recovery. Left hanging was how a community can determine the resources needed for recovery from a disaster – and whether it can recover at all.

Recently, my co-worker Jennifer Adams and I were notified that our paper that provides one approach communities can use has been accepted for publication. The approach is based on the stress testing performed by financial institutions, adapted for the community context. I briefly summarize the approach below; if you are interested in more detail, it will be in the published version (in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management).

In general, the approach is effectively an extended tabletop exercise, focused on a specific event. It is intended to be scalable – applicable to a neighborhood, a community system, or an entire community. Since the focus is on recovery, the time frame for the scenario extends beyond that usually considered in emergency management exercises.

The approach starts with development of a scenario based on a specific extreme event. The extreme event chosen should correspond to one or more of the risks facing the community. Each scenario should be plausible but need not be tremendously detailed. The type and magnitude of the extreme event, its geographic scope if relevant (e.g., areas of flooding or damage) and the time over which the event will occur should be included.

Perhaps in parallel, the scope of testing is also fixed. Again, this may be a neighborhood, a single community system or an entire community. Since it is assumed that testing is conducted by those who know the neighborhood, system or community, the availability of these “subject matter experts” effectively determines the scope of testing.

An important part of the approach is the establishment of success criteria: this forces the community to think about what recovery is, and how long it should take to reach it. This in turn sets the minimum time horizon for testing – the recovery process should be simulated at least this long (and if recovery has not occurred by this time, the test can be extended). For many physical infrastructure systems, success criteria for recovery may already have been set (e.g., Maximum Allowable Outages); for others (e.g., social support systems), a desired time to resume normal operations may be used.

The next step is focused on the impacts of the extreme event. The community’s anticipated losses – especially in terms of the community’s fixed assets – are determined. This includes both the direct losses, and those indirect ones that result either as a cascade because of interdependencies or because of actions taken in response to the extreme event. So, for example, a weather event triggers physical damage, that in turn challenges the community’s human, economic and social capital. A health crisis may cause loss of life; as we have seen with Covid-19, the response to the pandemic may seriously deplete the community’s social and economic capital as well. Social unrest can lead to loss of life as well as tears in the community’s social and cultural fabrics. As a result of this analysis, metrics for measuring progress toward recovery are also developed.

With recovery – the end state – defined, and the losses identified, the next step is to identify the tasks required to achieve recovery. This is the core of the approach – first identifying the tasks and then the resources needed to accomplish each task. If a community has a long-term recovery plan, this is an opportunity to exercise it. Since most communities do not have such plans, this forces them to think beyond their desired endpoint and to detail how they’re going to get there after the extreme event. In effect, it provides an opportunity to develop a recovery plan for the specific extreme event. Most likely, these plans will represent “brute force” approaches.

In this step, the community also goes one step further – looking at the time necessary to accomplish each task with the resources available. It uses the community capitals approach as a means to systematically look at the assets available for recovery (dispatchable capital) and the time required to deploy them successfully. Depending on the expertise available for the test, rather accurate estimates of task duration and sequencing (serial and parallel) can be achieved.

The final step is to analyze the results. First and foremost is to determine whether the success criteria have been met. In other words, determining whether all of the tasks required for recovery can be completed in the expected/desired time frame. If they cannot, then the testing points to possible actions the community can take to recover in time. These may be mitigating actions to limit losses; investments to increase dispatchable assets; better planning to develop more innovative (and probably more elegant) paths to recovery. In practice, it’s likely that a combination of some or all of these would be chosen. This approach to testing also provides a time to recovery (i.e., when the last task is completed).

Stress testing of this type offers some real positives to a community:
• It is based on the risks the community actually faces.
• It uses the community’s own expertise and knowledge of itself.
• It is scalable – a community can look at only one part or the whole community.
• It provides a time to recover based on the resources actually available to the community.
• It indicates opportunities for community action to reduce the time to recovery.

I have briefly summarized the approach and what it can do for a community. In a followup, I will look at a specific scenario based on a health crisis. I’ll do this in two ways: first, just looking at a community health care system, and then looking at the entire community. I’ll do this with much trepidation – the damage from covid is perhaps too fresh; too many are still falling ill and some dying; and, sadly, too many are still playing the Blame Game. But I’ll still do it, because as Confucius indicates, the glory is in rising again – recovering – and stress testing can speed our rise from disaster.

Featured

Trumping Resilience and Biden Time

While it seems that everyone has an opinion about “The Donald,” this post is not really about him, nor about Uncle Joe.  But I do want to riff on “group-ism,” unity and resilience.  I know that this will be controversial, but if we are ever going to have an adult conversation about these subjects somebody’s got to go first (Then again, you can always spot a pioneer by the arrows in his back and his blood-soaked boots!).

What’s group-ism?  It’s simply identifying – defining – a person on the basis of the group he or she belongs to.  Depending on your particular point of view, it may be called racism, gender-ism, identity politics (or a host of others).  And it can have a profound impact on a community’s resilience.

Let’s start with what should be obvious – something like group-ism is a part of our human DNA; it transcends color, culture, gender and breeding.  The ability to recognize “Others” was a key to our species’ survival.  Whether it was a wild animal or a member of a different tribe, our ancestors’ inbred ability to recognize something or someone that was different was important for prehistoric humans’ survival.  So in this sense we are all racist, sexist, anti-immigrant… – group-ists.  To deny that we are is to deny our own humanity.

But the world today is very different from prehistoric times.  Few of us live in isolated self-sufficient villages in the forest any more.  Stones and spears and clubs have been replaced by laser-guided weapons.  Many of us eat exotic foods from half a world away.  Our standards of living exceed even the wildest dreams of our atavistic ancestors; for the first time in recorded history less than 10% of the world’s population lives in abject poverty (or at least they did before the pandemic).

But these advances have required that we become more connected.  Interdependencies abound.  Our isolated village in the forest has become one of many neighborhoods in a concrete and asphalt jungle.  If a disaster strikes, we will have to work with our neighbors and friends and friends-of-friends-of-friends in order to return to something like our prior lives.  And if we wish positive change in our communities that means working with other neighborhoods very different from our own.  To paraphrase Bill Clinton, for community resilience “It’s the connections, Stupid!”

And it is in these connections that we can find the antidote to our inherited “group-ism.”  Humans are social animals.  We want to interact with other humans.  If I have had a positive experience with blacks, or Asians, or women or any of the other “Others” then I am that much less likely to trigger my inbred “Others” instinct when I see someone from these groups.  Conversely, without those positive interactions, that instinct will continue to hold sway.  And that’s why the growing tribalism in our culture is so dangerous.

Clearly “The Donald’s” blatant and often bigoted outbursts are bludgeons battering the bonds that hold us together, threatening our communities and their resilience.  Sadly, though, there are Montagues to his Capulet.  Uncle Joe with his if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, you ain’t black, and calling Trump voters clowns, chumps and worse Throwing boulders in the path to the unity he aims for. And the press: Trump’s boorishness and silly lies are matched (perhaps even exceeded) by the meanness, poor reporting and downright dishonesty of much of the media. Indeed, a plague on all their houses!

There is no greater threat to our communities’ resilience than these politicians (and media pundits) pandering to us in terms of the groups we belong to.  Dripping a seductive acid into our ears that our weaknesses are someone else’s fault; that those “Others” are holding us back.  All the while building suspicion and fear and reinforcing our atavistic instinct that leads to pathologies that further weaken our communities such as college students demanding re-segregation of residence halls (What would Dr. King make of that?!?).  How can we prevent – let alone recover from – another Ferguson if we have not built bonds of respect among all of the groups in our communities?  How can we spot the outsiders that truly threaten us – the Dylan Roofs and Omar Mateens – if we see everyone who is different from us as an outsider?  How can we be resilient when disaster comes if we have no connections outside of our own group?  The answer to all of these, of course, is that we can’t.  Our politicians are “Trump”-ing our resilience – crimping our connections in a world that demands connectedness.  Connections we must have to overcome our atavistic instincts; connections we must have to survive in this modern world; the connections needed for community resilience.

Featured

A New Birth of Freedom

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln

One hundred fifty seven years ago, in a little over two minutes, Abraham Lincoln delivered the most powerful speech ever given on this continent. In these 272 words, he reminded all of us of what has made the American concept exceptional.

In 1863, Mr. Lincoln had taken the first step toward ending slavery in this country. Undoubtedly, this was part of what inspired his “new birth of freedom.” But just below the surface of his words, we can find the face of Freedom’s homely twin – responsibility – “who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”

In our highly polarized politics at the national level, both sides claim to be for “Freedom,” although they seem to be worlds apart in what they think Freedom is. This polarization is filtering down to our communities, impacting their resilience. To me, our Bill of Rights provides an excellent operational definition of Freedom, especially the First Amendment. We must be free to worship (or not) as we wish. We must be free to peaceably assemble. We must be free to believe as we wish and to express those beliefs. In the Constitution, these are couched in terms of prohibiting the federal government from denying these rights.

But it is just as important that we recognize that no individual or group has the right to abridge those freedoms either. “Cancel culture” does not exist in a society that values freedom. A recent survey found that one third of Americans are unwilling – even afraid – to express their political beliefs. This week, two poll watchers in Michigan were vilified, their families threatened, and were finally browbeaten into accepting election results that they believed were tainted. Communities where one side does not allow opposing views to be expressed cannot engender the trust needed for resilience.

Events such as the one in Michigan happen because some of us have forgotten Freedom’s twin – Responsibility. There’s nothing sexy about Responsibility, but it is essential for community resilience. By accepting the good things that come from being a part of my community, I incur a responsibility to the community, especially in times of crisis. Over the last few years, but especially in this time of Covid, too many of us have forgotten that our freedoms bring with them responsibilities. I am free to express my beliefs as long as they don’t harm others, but I also have a responsibility to protect others’ freedoms even if I don’t agree with them. I am free to express my opinions (e.g., that lockdowns are essentially worthless), but I can’t yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. And while I might not want to wear a mask or a condom, I have a responsibility to avoid passing on whatever I might have to the rest of the community.

Just as in 1863, many of our communities – and our country – are riven by very different conceptions of government and governance. If our communities are to be truly resilient, we must repair our social fabric, and bind our communities’ wounds. Let us heed Lincoln’s words and be midwives to a new birth of freedom, and responsibility.

Featured

Visualizing resilience

Standing knee-deep in a river and dying of thirst.

Joe Cocker

As I’m writing this, we’re at the end of our election cycle in the US. For months, we’ve been bombarded with snarky snippets aimed at getting us to vote against the other guy, not for somebody. No matter our political affiliation, I think we all sometimes feel we’re in a river of factoids, looking for the truth.

The same thought applies to community resilience. Since I began working in the field, we’ve seen an explosive growth in the knowledge base. Unfortunately, this has not been matched by the application of the knowledge in practice. There are several reasons for this:

  • Accessibility. Much of the knowledge base is captured in academic journals that are never seldom read by anyone other than academics; and even if read, academic jargon and the creep of politics into much of the social science literature turns off many practitioners;
  • Lack of a framework. There isn’t a generally accepted theory of resilience that ties the many disparate strands together;
  • The resilience to __ problem. Practitioners are most often interested in strengthening specific domains and mitigating specific threats, not something as nebulous as fostering a community’s resilience (i.e., practitioners are most interested in the resilience of X to Y). Much of the literature treats resilience as an inherent attribute of a community, ignoring specific threats;
  • Lack of community-specific information. While there are several excellent presentations of data at the state or county level (e.g., Susan Cutter’s maps), there is much less at the level of individual communities;
  • Need to “kiss a lot of frogs.” There is so much information out there (and more being published daily, it seems) that finding that one key paper that will unlock the door to desired solutions requires time and effort that no few practitioners have.

Three years ago, Brian Dabson introduced me to an approach he was developing for the Missouri Transect Project. At the time, I was immersed in the ANCR Benchmarking effort, and – although I praised the overall conception and sent him some suggestions for making it better – I essentially forgot about it. At almost the same time, he left Mizzou for North Carolina (as good an excuse as any to not follow up on my “helpful” suggestions!) and his erstwhile co-workers appear to have dropped the approach as well.

Three months ago, I was asked to consider how to provide meaningful measures for the resilience of small communities, especially in rural areas. I expanded my writ a bit by looking at Opportunity Zones as well. In going back through all of the material I’ve accumulated, I stumbled across Brian’s excellent work. Below, I present my adaptation of Brian’s approach (with apologies to him where I’ve strayed from his original conception). The approach is intended for use by practitioners to determine where to invest scarce community resources.

The concept is deceptively simple. It starts with the concept that the purpose of a community is to carry out common functions for the members of the community. In general, the business of the community – carrying out its common functions – is performed through the consumption and production of community capital – financial, human, social, institutional. Thus, one way to look at a disruptive event is as a disruption of a community’s normal pattern of transactions (thanks due to Dan Alesch for this idea). Recovery then means establishing a new pattern of transactions, i.e., a New Normal. This enables us to assess a community’s resilience in terms of capital – its capital at risk vs the dispatchable capital available for recovery, from a given disruptive event. Examples of fixed and dispatchable assets:

Disruptive events might be natural disasters, or economic crises, or the return of the coronavirus. As discussed in a previous post, the “weaknesses” at the potential point of attack corresponding to the threat comprise the susceptibility. Generally speaking, these are the weaknesses of fixed assets to the threat’s attack. An attractive feature of this approach is that it can be applied to a community system (e.g., housing, water), a neighborhood, or an entire community.

One of the thing that I found very attractive in Brian’s original concept was the way he treated indicators for both susceptibility and recovery. For the Transect Project, he converted each indicator to a value between 0 and 1, by dividing by the range of values. As is generally done, he took the average of sets of indicators to come up with overall values for susceptibility and recoverability. An unintended consequence of this is that this enables us to use qualitative data as well.

For example, if we’re interested in the recoverability of a community’s electric power system, we might have quantitative data relating to financial reserves of its power authority. We might not have quantitative data on its susceptibility to a natural disaster, but through survey data or other means we could come up with a “good, bad, indifferent” rating which we could fuzzify onto a 0 to 1 scale. We then plot recoverability (Y) vs susceptibility (X).

This approach can be usefully applied in several ways. For example, it can be used to look at several threats to determine where to put mitigation dollars. In this figure, I’ve notionally looked at flooding, a health crisis and an economic crisis for a community. For susceptibility to flooding, I would include the condition of houses and other structures, and FEMA flood zone information (for both, there are useful quantitative and qualitative indicators). For recoverability, I would look the fraction of residents living in poverty, whether there were sufficient construction professionals. I would do similar things for the other disruptive events. The results might then look like


In this case, it appears that it might be more useful to invest in mitigating a health care crisis. While there is slightly greater susceptibility to an economic crisis, recovery from a health crisis is much less certain. While recovery from flooding is also “iffy,” a damaging flood is much less likely. Miami provides a real-world example of the latter. Many of the poorer sections of the city (i.e., those with less resources for recovery) are built on higher ground (i.e., less susceptible to flooding).

This approach can be used in other ways as well. For example, flood mitigation funding for Miami might better be used in those low-lying areas with the lowest incomes; i.e., the approach can be used to determine where best to use targeted mitigation money. Similarly, the approach can also be used to determine how to invest. In this case, the different indicators for recovery are compared, as are those for susceptibility. Those that most greatly increase the distance from “red” to “green” are those most likely to have an impact. But since there are costs associated with any action, communities will most likely want to do a “distance / dollar” type calculation. In my next post, I’m going to look at a method a community can use to determine what resources are needed for recovery.

I like this approach for several reasons:
• First and foremost, it is visual. There’s not a lot of numbers or complicated words for the layman to try to understand. If you’re in the red, you want to get in the green.
• Unlike the other common visuals – maps, I can look at how well my community (or my neighborhoods, or my water system…) will handle all of the threats I’m worried about. This makes it easier for a community to prioritize its investments.
• Because I’m looking at all of the community capitals, I can also consider the impact of non-financial investments, and of investments made by all parts of the community. It allows the local government to look at the impacts of investments made by non-profits, businesses, and of “capital stacks” on recoverability. For example, if there were insufficient construction professionals, a partnership could be formed between construction companies, local unions and a community college to begin to fill the need.
• Finally, its extensible. As we learn more about how communities actually recover, and the relative importance of various factors to susceptibility and recoverability, we can add factors or throw out others or learn how best to combine them.

My goal – as always – is to find ways to help communities strengthen themselves. Knowing which strengths are relevant to a community’s ability to withstand or recover from the threats it faces is a crucial first step. That knowledge is the key to taking action to become a stronger – more resilient – community.

Featured

Of Ice Storms, Interdependencies and Impacts on Running a Bar

With apologies to the spirit of Finley Peter Dunne.

We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

I originally posted this in 2014, after a rather devastating ice storm hit the southeastern US.  The essential conclusion is that our interdependencies can lead to a cascade of consequences from a disruptive event.  While a community’s web of interdependencies can be a source of strength it also inevitably introduces new vulnerabilities.  We’ve seen this in spades with Covid-19.

This weekend I was sharing a bottle of wine (or so) with my neighbor Dooley, who owns a small pub.  We hadn’t seen each other since before the ice storm which had knocked out power for a couple of weeks, and he asked what I was doing now.  When I told him a little about my work in resilience, and especially when I mentioned interdependencies, he looked at me as if I was some kind of freak and said, “That’s all well and good, but it’s way too [expletive deleted] Ivory Tower for the real world.”  So, with the courage born of three or so glasses of wine, I tried to prove the practical importance of resilience to him.

“You’re a small businessman, right?”  “Yeah.”

“We live in South Carolina, right?”  “Well, duh [Sometimes Dooley is not the most sparkling of conversationalists].”

“Of all the things in this community, what’s probably the most important to your business?”  He looked at me as if I was an idiot and said, “My customers, of course.”

“Okay, but what is the most important thing besides your customers?  What service do you rely on the most to keep your business open?”  “I don’t know, electricity?”  “Bingo.  Electricity – keeps your beer cold, your customers cool, and your business hot.”

“So?”

“What happened to your business when we lost power during the ice storm?”  “I couldn’t open.  In fact, since my rent’s so high, I had trouble making ends meet for a few weeks afterward.  Fortunately, Glen and Shirley [Dooley’s bartender and waitress] were willing to let me be a little late in paying them.  The landlord – that [expletive deleted] – wouldn’t cut me any slack.”  

“And how are you doing now?”  Well, I’m back on my feet; in fact, I’m actually doing better than before the storm – Bill’s Brews and Bratz didn’t make it so I’ve got some new customers.”

“And what happened to Bill’s bartender?”  “I think he left town.  I’d have liked to hire him – he came by looking for work – but the new business wasn’t that good.” 

“See, that’s why interdependencies are so important.  You depend on the electricity being on – if it isn’t, you can’t open.  The folks who work for you rely on you being open for their livelihood; but that means that they also depend on the electric company because you do.  If you bought a generator, you might not depend directly on the power company, but you would depend on a distributor for fuel, which would probably mean that you’d now depend on the power company to power the fuel pumps.  And the electric company depends on its customers to pay their bills, otherwise the company couldn’t pay its employees and suppliers.”

Dooley – always gracious in defeat and articulate to fault – grumbled something like “Humph, rhubarb, rhubarb ratz a fratz.”

I’ve portrayed what I was telling Dooley in the figures below.  In the first, I’ve shown a sort of general picture of a community’s electric utility that experiences a disaster.  There’s an initial loss of capacity, followed by a gradual return of service to its customers.  I’ve also shown a red region, indicating that without power small businesses will begin to fail.  The figure is meant to indicate that some smaller businesses actually fail.  As the outage goes longer, more and more businesses will fail.  You may notice as well that eventually the capacity of the electrical system goes back to what it was before – no more nor less.  That’s because a utility almost never adds new generation in response to a disaster.

In the second, I’ve plotted gross sales for the community’s small businesses.  Sales fall during the service outage, because many of the businesses aren’t open.  And, as indicated in the first figure, some never reopen.  Thus, gross sales plummet. Sales probably won’t fall in proportion to the number of businesses that haven’t reopened, because some of the competitors of the closed businesses in the community will reopen (or stay open if they have a generator) and capture their customers, just as my friend Dooley did.  I’ve plotted small business activity in terms of gross sales because that’s what businesses use to pay their staff.  You may notice that the figure suggests that the workforce is even more vulnerable than small businesses.  The businesses, at least, can lay off one or more of their employees.

In the third figure, I’ve plotted the workforce, expressed as employment.  As you can see, it’s taking a much longer time for this part of the community to recover.  Even after the electricity gets turned back on, it takes a while for entrepreneurs to open new businesses to replace the jobs lost.  I’ve used the different colors to suggest another step in the cascade:  the local government may be able to build up a reserve fund when employment is high (green) through taxes on payroll and other economic activity; may just break even at somewhat lower levels (yellow) of employment; but high unemployment will likely bring with it a higher demand for community services and lower taxes, meaning the government will be running in the red.

As Dooley and I discussed later, each part of the community can do something to reduce the impacts.  Small businesses could buy generators if they need them or buy business interruption insurance for lost revenue.  That shrinks the red region in the first figure. The utility could bury its lines, pulling the black line away from the red region.  Businesses are just as vulnerable, but the likelihood of a loss of electric service is reduced.  Workers could save so they can live without a paycheck if necessary, or gain a diverse enough skill set to be more broadly employable.

We have seen the same kind of cascade of consequences caused by our response to the pandemic.  Our lockdowns and social distancing requirements closed small businesses which didn’t have the financial reserves to survive and recover.  At one point, 20% of our workforce was without jobs.  Local and state governments were – and are – operating in the red because of a lack of revenue (The “stimulus” spending by the federal government has helped tide many (most?) of the displaced workers over, but this isn’t a sustainable solution.).  One of the biggest challenges facing governments at all levels after this election is implementing policies to mitigate this type of disaster.

An ice storm is not a hurricane, or an earthquake, or a terrorist attack.  In fact, ice storms are pretty common in many places across the country.  Resilience is not just about recovering from disasters.  Resilience is really about realizing that change is inevitable, and that our interdependencies – our connections within and outside the community – can amplify the impacts of disruptive events. Community resilience demands that we recognize those possible impacts, and let that recognition point us to a more secure future.

Featured

Covid-19: Disasters Have Direction

You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended. You can ensure the safety of your defense if you only hold positions that cannot be attacked.

Sun Tzu

This is an updating of an old post.  The original did not have any specific examples; I think Covid-19 provides a good one.  I’m sure the concept “Disasters Have Direction” is obvious to many of you, but I’ve never seen it articulated.  As I try to show in the discussion of the pandemic, it can be a useful construct as we think about a community’s resilience.

For a few years, FEMA and DHS have championed the idea of an “All Hazards – Maximum of Maxima” approach to planning.  The basic premise is that if a community plans for the worst of the worst, then it will be prepared for whatever may actually happen. This is a deceptively simple tautology that I think deserves a little more analysis than it usually receives, especially in terms of community resilience.

Let’s start by looking at an idealized community.   A community can be thought of as an ecosystem.  There is a “human layer,” made up of individuals and families.  There is an institutional layer, consisting of private businesses and other economic institutions, and all of the other “human-serving” organizations in the community.  Then there is the physical, environmental, layer – containing the built and natural environment.  All of these are held together by the social capital within the community (some may argue whether the physical layer is bound to the community by its social capital, but that’s a subject for another post!).

Of course, this is an ideal community; real communities may have a strong economy but be weak in the human element.  Some have a decaying infrastructure but a flourishing natural environment.  Thus, we can depict a real community as follows.  This real community would be relatively weak in terms of its community institutions, have a somewhat stressed natural environment, but have a robust built environment.

Now let’s assume the community is hit by a pandemic.  There is no immediate physical damage.  Any that occurs most likely happens because the humans who normally maintain things –infrastructure, for example – are not able to do so.  This disaster has attacked individuals and families, and – because they are closely tied to the human layer – the community organizations that meet social needs.  For a pandemic, hospitals, clinics and the public health department would certainly be included.  Since, in this case, there is relatively little capacity in the community institutions (e.g., a rural community), they will be particularly hard hit – most likely overwhelmed. 

But what happens in a natural disaster?  The initial impact on the community is going to be on the physical layer; buildings are going to be blown down, debris will be strewn about, flooding may occur. The other parts of the community will be impacted because of these physical blows.  In our notional real community depicted above, there would be relatively little damage done to the built environment, but the natural environment would experience much greater damage (at least in relative terms) because it is weaker. 

A severe economic downturn attacks the community from another direction.  Businesses lay off workers; some close.  Many individuals and families experience severe economic hardship.  There is no immediate impact on the other parts of the community ecosystem.  Eventually, however, all will be affected.  In our example community, the economic impacts are less severe than for a community with a weak economy, or already burdened individuals and families.

Thus, disasters have a direction, as shown in the next graphic. It must be stressed that the graphic points out the initial point of attack.  If the magnitude of the initial impact is huge, or other parts of the community are weak, then the disaster is likely to ripple throughout the community with cascading impacts.

This simple concept is consistent with the idea that vulnerability to a threat depends on weakness at the point of attack.  This is shown in the next figure.  Threat X indicates a potential health crisis (e.g., a pandemic), while Threat Y is primarily a threat to the community’s economy.  As depicted, Threat X is more likely to lead to disaster than Threat Y because the greater relative strength of the community to withstand an economic downturn.

This simple picture of a community also has meaning in terms of recovery and community resilience.  If community resilience is measured by how fast – and effectively – resources are deployed to achieve community restoration and recovery, then the social capital within the community plays a crucial role.  Suppose Threat X above actually materializes.  The vulnerable part of the community has few available resources.  It is the community’s social capital – its connectedness – that provides the pathways for resources to be shifted within the community.  It is the community’s social capital that determines whether resources from outside the community are effectively brought to bear.  In a very real sense, it is the community’s social capital that determines whether the community actually recovers from disaster.

If we look at Covid-19 through this lens, clearly the pandemic attacked individuals and families, and community health organizations.  Its magnitude varied from community to community, but – initially – dealing with the pandemic exceeded the resources (e.g., PPE, ventilators) available to most communities, i.e., it was a disaster and it had a direction.  Communities had to rely on their connections (bridging and linking social capital) to others in the region and to the state (and, for the biggest cities, to the federal government) to get the resources they needed.  In a later post, I’ll outline a methodology that, if used, could have reduced the impact of the pandemic at the community level.

Our response to the pandemic triggered an economic disaster.  For those of you who remember my old post “Of Ice Storms, Interdependencies and their Impacts on Running a Bar” I pointed out that the number of businesses which could reopen after a disaster depended on how long they were closed.  In some places, the Covid-19 lockdowns lasted for months – and the economic consequences have been devastating.  I intend to update that post as well and expand upon it a little based on the knowledge we’ve gained from the pandemic.

Dan Alesch once said that we recall a disaster by the name of its triggering event, but remember it because of its impacts.  If that’s the case, Covid-19 will join the Dishonor Roll with Katrina, Deep Water Horizon, the Great Recession and so many others.  Each of these disasters were daggers that first pierced specific parts of the community, i.e., they had a direction.  Their impacts were determined by communities’ strengths at the point of attack and the force of the dagger’s thrust.  A community’s social capital determines how rapidly resources can be brought to bear to heal the wounds.  However, those who are not connected – without significant social capital – have to recover on their own:  resources won’t flow where messages don’t go.  In this way, the community’s social capital plays a crucial role in its recovery – and thus is a key component of the community’s resilience.

Featured

Community Recovery in the Time of Covid

Sometimes things fall apart so that better things can fall together.

Marilyn Monroe

Our communities are going through tough times right now. All have seen disease and death damage their social fabrics. Some are experiencing physical devastation due to nature’s wrath and men’s anger. Sadly, we know that more death and destruction is inevitable. Our response to this has led to economic and educational chaos, and stunted lives.

But we also know that eventually these will ebb and end. We will stand on the rubble and realize that our communities must now recover – must now reach toward a New and, hopefully, Better Normal. We know that for some, recovery will require more resources than they have to give. Communities will look to state and federal governments to provide them the resources they lack. But what resources will our communities actually need?

Unfortunately, there’s no single answer. The damage done to many of our communities covers the spectrum from their physical environments to their social fabrics and their economies. Just as the damage experienced by communities will vary so to will the resources needed for recovery. Some communities will reach for any funding that they can, and sort of haphazardly aim to rebuild what was lost. But for those with the greatest damage, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” This time the magnitude of the damage is too great. For them, trying to rebuild the past has no future.

Other, more resilient, communities will recognize that the changes wrought by Covid and our response are so great that they require almost a reinvention. They will make the tough decisions to rebuild their communities to be “Future Fit,” ready to face whatever adversities the future may bring. They will take responsibility for their own recovery and develop plans to reach a New and Better Normal. And through their planning most will recover more rapidly than those who don’t plan.

While those plans will vary in detail, on another level they will have in common a focus on functionality, infrastructure and assets. In terms of functionality, they will likely start with an assessment of the damage to the community’s infrastructures. They will then look at how the existing infrastructure and assets will be used to achieve recovery. While these plans are likely to differ in the terms they use, I think it’s useful to look at their common focus through the lens of the Seven Capitals.

Social. In the US, our social fabric (our social infrastructure, if you will) has been badly frayed, especially in many of our major cities. Rioting, aided by masking and lockdowns, have prevented our social networks from the message-passing that is so vital for recovery of our communities – as I’ve said before, “Resources won‘t flow where messages don’t go.” And I’m not just talking about PPE and medical supplies. Although we don’t talk about it enough, most people depend on their networks of friends, neighbors and acquaintances to find out about job opportunities.

Unfortunately, while academia has established the importance of social capital, the damage to it is being ignored by many politicians. Recovery will require opening the places we gather as quickly as possible, so that we can reestablish our personal networks. That means churches, libraries, schools, parks and recreational venues. That also means getting rid of masks as soon as we can – they facilitate anti-social behavior. And most importantly, getting rid of those barriers that are keeping families apart.

Human. Even before Covid-19 reared its gnarly snout, our educational system had some serious problems. Educational “attainment,” especially in our de facto segregated inner city schools was so bad that it would have had to improve to be abysmal. Look at Baltimore – proficiency in reading and math hovering just slightly over 10%, but with a 70% graduation rate. And DC bordering on the criminal – a whopping 20% proficiency in reading and math among eighth graders, while spending twice the national average per pupil.

But just getting back to that “Normal” is proving challenging. While the “hybrid” model (part in-person, part online) sort-of, kind-of works for middle class kids, inevitably the disadvantaged (esp. in rural areas) will fall behind. We need to get the schools fully open now. But that will not absolve us of fixing the damage the lockdowns have already caused. If you can’t read and can’t do basic math, you can’t get a job to support yourself, let alone your family. One way to approach this is to task the federal Senior Corps with providing educational mentors for those who are struggling. This may also be a business opportunity for some of those out of work.

At the same time we’re taking care of our kids, we need to take a hard look at the skills of our out-of workers. These folks, in general, have developed the life skills to hold down a job. Most of those eventually will find similar work. But many won’t – a lot of jobs are gone, especially those in small businesses. We need to beef up our infrastructure for coaching, redirecting and retraining these once-and-future assets to our society.

Economic. Overall, the US now has a “90%” economy – about 10% of our labor force is out of work. Our goal should be careers, not simply jobs. That means businesses aimed at today’s and tomorrow’s needs, and workers with skills to match. Local government has a small role to play (as I discuss below) but ultimately economic recovery will be accomplished through the actions of innovators and entrepreneurs creating careers, and workers willing to learn new skills.

But that’s not to say that businesses, especially small businesses, don’t need help – many do. Professional and business associations should play a major role. First and foremost, small business owners need coaching as they make the tough decisions about whether and how to relaunch. Damage assessment is a skill that they seldom need, yet it is crucial to these decisions. It may indicate that the customer base isn’t there, or that a new business model is needed. Small business owners also often need help with the paperwork for SBA loans. Most professional associations already are providing guidelines for protecting the health of customers and employees, but they can do more.

Cultural. Anyone who watches the news has to be worried about the cultural chasm that seems to be widening in our country. We’ve always had the elitists who believe that government can solve all of our problems. We’ve always had the anarchists who believe that the only answer to our problems is the complete destruction of society as we know it. In past decades, the sensible middle – those who recognized our problems and worked to implement practical solutions – was strong enough to hold us together in this ideological tug-of-war. I’m not so sure that’s true any more.

If we are to recover our culture, we must first once more define it for ourselves. That means rediscovering our common values – freedom (and its homely twin, responsibility), family, the rule of law, equality of opportunity. That means regaining confidence in our own ability – that of each one of us – to make a difference in our world. That means recapturing our history – America the Aspirational – and our ability to dream. That means looking clearly and critically at our world, not through red- or blue-tinted glasses, but through the lens of our common values. And when we see situations not consistent with those values, once more working for the common good.

Doing all of this requires time and starts with small steps: opening churches, museums, art galleries, recreational venues and, yes, even bars. Rebuilding our culture will require that we reestablish our social networks, especially our ability to repair and extend those networks. The task of community rebuilding and recovery, if done well, will strengthen the sensible middle, and thus strengthen our cultural bonds.

Institutional. It is clear that many (most?) of our communities are going to need rebuilding (if not reinvention). That effort is going to require planning and resources. Since entire communities have been impacted, the whole of these communities needs to be a part of recovery planning, not just government. Further, all must recognize that while there likely will be more federal and state aid, ultimately recovery of the community will depend on how well the community can mobilize its own resources – financial, human and social.

For some communities, some sort of long-term recovery committee will move the community to a New Normal. Ideally, the committee will include all of those who can mobilize resources to get things done. Its most important job will be to “define victory” – determine what a successful recovery is for the community. It will integrate local (not just government!), state and federal resources. A part of this will be finding “patient capital.” It will act as an information hub, letting the public know what businesses are open, and where there are job openings. It will act as an economic gardener, focusing its attention on new and existing businesses looking to grow. Working with both local business and local government, it will flatten some of the regulatory barriers (e.g., licensing/permitting, unnecessary zoning restrictions, environmental reviews) to the birth of new businesses. The committee will also report on progress to the public. After a disaster of this magnitude, recovery will take years not weeks, so keeping the public informed is essential.

Built. Some locations have experienced significant damage to their infrastructures (e.g., from wildfires in the western US and tropical storms in the southeast). We know the drill for recovery – sort of. But if the New Normal is to be better than the old, then we may need to rethink the physical infrastructure, particularly in our bigger cities. I’m not a big fan of Governor Cuomo, but his ideas for making New York City both more livable and “socially distance-able” make sense. But what the events of the last few months have really highlighted are the infrastructure needs of our rural communities. Many of our responses to the pandemic have greatly stressed our – already fragile – rural health care infrastructure. And as I’ve noted above, we need to expand our internet coverage to include everyone, especially those in our rural areas.

This post is much longer than normal (I apologize!) but I could have written even more for each of these. Recovery from the pandemic will be a long slog. We cannot claim to have recovered until we’ve rebuilt all of our infrastructures (the assets of our community capitals) and have them functioning again. While government has a role to play, our communities’ recoveries won’t depend on government’s actions (although failure to recover may). Ultimately the recovery of my community, or your community, will depend on whether you and I – all of us – work together to achieve a New Normal. Our goal must be “Future Fit” communities, ready to face whatever adversities and to seize whatever opportunities the future may present.

Featured

Law of Community Momentum Revisited

Disasters accelerate existing trends.

Joe Riley, former Mayor of Charleston, SC.

Every body persists in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed.

Isaac Newton (translated from the Latin in wikipedia)

Remember back in high school physics when your teacher droned on about “a body in motion tends to stay in motion; a body at rest tends to stay at rest.” This past week as I was looking at some data relating to migration away from cities, I remembered an older post I wrote – about something I called the Law of Community Momentum. I developed the concept that a variation of Newton’s Law of Conservation of Momentum might help explain Mayor Riley’s “Law.”

I stated the Law as “A community’s trajectory will not change unless some force changes its path.” This says that if a community property has some sort of clear trend (e.g., loss of population, economic growth) that it will continue that trend unless or until some change occurs to alter the community’s path. This means that if the community is on a downward trend, then a negative force is likely to accelerate the trend, and its converse. In this context, a “force” may be a natural event (e.g., a hurricane) or an intentional human action (e.g., investing in the community, making policy changes). Certainly the pandemic and the concomitant social unrest have exerted tremendous force on all of our lives. They are accelerating change across our communities.

Let’s look at a few examples of how a force can accelerate an existing trend. Over the last decade, videoconferencing had slowly matured and made some inroads in both business and education. In fact, when I started teaching in 2013, I had to learn how to teach online (as I’m sure my former students will attest, I was only sort of successful!). Over the last 15 years or so, governments and businesses have increasingly used some form of videoconferencing. Now, however, online interaction has virtually taken over education. Zoom and its siblings have not only changed how we do business but made drastic changes in our social interactions.

Over the last decade, the populations of New York and Illinois have been slowly decreasing. More recently, California has also begun to see a net outmigration. High taxes and arguably poor governance have “encouraged” those who can to leave, especially from urban areas. The pandemic and social unrest have changed this trickle to a stream – trucks are carrying people’s possessions out of these states at an accelerating rate – now at least twice what it was last year.

The parishes in the New Orleans metro area provide several examples. The city itself (Orleans Parish) has seen declining populations since 1960. Katrina (a most negative force!) accelerated that trend. Tammany Parish has seen continuous growth in population over the last 15 years – Katrina affected this only slightly, bending the curve somewhat downward. The stats for St. Charles Parish tell a similar story. One of the hardest hit parishes – St. Bernard – also experienced a population decline during the 2000’s. Katrina accelerated the trend and it now appears that the rate of decline has increased. The same holds true for Jefferson Parish.

Greensburg, KS, offers more examples. Its population had been slowly declining since 1960 when it was hit by an EF-5 tornado in 2007. Housing prices and average income had also declined. The city’s population was immediately halved, and continues to shrink.

Newark, NJ had experienced a population decline since the 1940’s, amid problems caused by “White Flight” and ineffective and/or corrupt politicians. Its overall decline – especially in providing public services – mirrored that of Detroit. Under then-Mayor Cory Booker (2006-13), the population decline turned around; public services improved; investment began returning to the city. This shows that purposeful action aimed at overcoming existing trends can, in fact, change a community’s momentum.

One more example – Camden, NJ. When I was growing up in the Philadelphia area, Camden was a basket case. Unsafe to walk the streets; people fleeing to the suburbs; high unemployment and low quality of education. City leaders took some highly nontraditional steps (e.g., reconstituting the police force) to change the city’s trajectory. As a result, crime is at a 50-year low; unemployment (at least prior to Covid-19) was at its lowest in three decades; high school graduation rates were up 40%; billions of dollars were being invested in the city; its parks were providing social and recreational opportunities that would have been unimaginable two decades before.

All of these examples show that a community’s trajectory is not its destiny – while a disaster may accelerate negative trends, good leadership can help the community recover and perhaps even thrive. Yet, in this time of the virus, I have to ask – what will become of those communities that do not or cannot arrest their trends? Whither Seattle, Portland, San Francisco? Recovery requires purposeful action – investment of money, people’s time and skills, and mobilization of the entire community. Will these communities be able to act purposefully to reverse their current trajectories?

Featured

Economic recovery – sort of

These are the times that try men’s souls.

Thomas Paine

The pandemic and protests and civil disorder continue to assail both the social fabrics and the economies of our cities, states and nation. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been following an interesting set of maps and graphs detailing the ongoing evolution of the US economy.*

The graphs and maps are focused on consumer spending, and based on private sector data (e.g., credit card transactions). Thus, they do not directly reflect business activity (although the team has separately analyzed some data relating to business activity). They also are significantly distorted by government initiatives designed to mitigate the economic impacts (more on that below). The data is broken down into seven economic sectors** – by state and county, and also includes data for 50+ metro areas. Data are also reported on a national level for consumers living in high, medium and low income areas. In the following, let me give you a sort of high-level early-stage summary on the recovery of consumer spending (based on data up 6/26/20).

Total consumer spending is still down by about 7% since the group’s January baseline. However, that total is misleading – spending on Arts, entertainment and recreation and Transportation is still only abut half of the baseline, with a very slow trajectory toward recovery. It may take years for these sectors related to tourism to recover, especially Transportation. Spending on Restaurants and hotels is also still down by a third nation-wide, but with a better trajectory. Health care spending is down 12%, but seems to be recovering well. Spending on Apparel and merchandise has essentially recovered, though the data does not reflect shifts from storefronts to online suppliers. The biggest surprise is Grocery spending – up 12%, probably reflecting eating at home vs dining out. This is highlighted by data from March: Grocery spending spiked at +73%!

Another surprise is in who’s not spending – consumers in affluent areas are spending 12% less than in January. Middle income areas are seeing a drop of only about 6% in spending; while there is a negligible drop in less affluent areas. Other data collected by the group indicate that small businesses in the more affluent areas are also being harder hit than in other areas.

Looking at the data at a state level, mid-America is doing the best, with generally increased consumer spending; Tennessee having the largest increase (5%). West Virginia, New Hampshire, Idaho, Hawaii and Maine are also seeing somewhat increased consumer spending compared to January. Both coasts are doing more poorly, especially the West Coast. Consumer spending in Rhode Island and California has lagged the worst among the states.

Looking at the metro areas, there are two surprises: Jacksonville and Nashville. Jacksonville’s consumer spending is up over 5% compared to January; Nashville’s is off 33%(!). Nashville is particularly surprising given that Tennessee in general is doing rather well. San Francisco is also lagging badly, as are the other California metro areas as well as DC.

A few other observations about the data:

  • Iowa is the only state which has seen a decline on spending for groceries (11%).
  • Nashville saw the biggest drop in Transportation spending – 80%, and it’s staying flat.
  • In terms of Health care spending, the southern tier of states has recovered more than the northern tier; poorest performing is Vermont, off 52%.
  • In general, spending in rural areas is recovering more rapidly than in urban areas; and several rural counties actually saw increased consumer spending.
  • There is one aspect of the data that I find fascinating, but can’t explain: almost everyone one of the curves bottomed out in the period 3/28-4/17. However, in each case, there were two dips – one around 3/30 and another around 4/15, with slightly increased spending in between.

Here’s my takeaways:

  • The data shows great disparities in terms of geography, economic sector and income group. When I add in the data not included here (e.g., unemployment, housing, bankruptcies, small businesses closing) I come to the conclusion that recovery policies are going to have to be carefully crafted if they are to work. One size won’t fit all. Given the continuing dysfunction in Washington, I have to wonder whether my prediction of a four to five year recovery wasn’t overly optimistic. If Congress can’t come together on something as relatively simple as policing reform, how are they going to deal with the knottier (and naughtier!) issues surrounding recovery? As one example, increasing taxes on higher income groups will penalize already suffering small businesses in their areas – is this what we really want to do?
  • These data necessarily paint a much more positive picture than reality. They reflect the positive impacts on spending due to stimulus and unemployment payments (which eventually have to expire), but hide the looming problems associated with housing. Throughout the country, there have effectively been rent and mortgage “holidays” – most often three to six month moratoria on evictions and foreclosures. As these expire, the pressures on the consumer are going to increase. Governments will be forced to choose between landlords and renters, banks and homeowners. In general, my sympathies are always with the underdog, but the choice between landlords and renters is actually between two little guys – over half of the nation’s landlords manage only one or a very few units.
  • The prognosis for many metro areas is not very good. People are leaving NYC, San Francisco (in fact, all of California) and other big cities in droves. Conversely, the suburbs and near-urban rural areas are already seeing signs of growth. If this de-urbanizing trend continues (and I think it will) it will constitute a watershed period in American history, testing urban resilience as never before.
  • Still, the data could have been worse; even with the caveats above, rebounding consumer spending is a necessity for our consumer-driven economy. And recovery is actually happening in some places. We aren’t seeing a V-shaped recovery, but progress is being made.

* Developed by a group consisting of Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, Nathaniel Hendren, Michael Stepner, and the Opportunity Insights Team.

** Apparel and general merchandise; Arts, entertainment and recreation; Grocery; Health care; Restaurant and hotel; and Transportation.