Earlier this year (June 2017), I was asked to give a talk on the broad topic of risk communication at the annual Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management Conference 2017, themed The Future of Emergency Management. If you scroll down below, you’ll find the YouTube video of me delivering this short talk, but I’ve posted up a modestly edited transcript up here too with the slides for illustration. I hope you find it interesting.
Kia ora tatou. Thank you for the invitation to come and speak with you today.
I want to have a conversation today about maybe some of the assumptions that we have. But let’s assume that some kind of risk communication has landed, for better or worse, whatever that kind of communication is or was intended to be.
The top picture here is a rainbow which is to indicate when the world goes well. I posted this up on my Facebook page about two weeks ago from my local dog park and, immediately, one of my friends back from where I grew up – cos this is all about context – sent me the photo of me where I grew up in the 1970s in the UK. You’ll notice the grey eiderdown of doom covering the sky with the nice multi-storey Avis car rental and the bus stop outside.
Things change in people’s lives – over time, over location and big decisions have to be made in national contexts where we have to balance off the personal risks and possible personal gains with perhaps what our communities or our national interests might be.
When you’re in high stakes situations like this, people communicate all kinds of nonsense and trust in our communication sources becomes a huge issue.
I didn’t put a picture of the red bus at £350 million for the NHS on there but I could’ve done. There are all kinds of facts being transmitted/communicated to the population and they made a decision which has far reaching consequences for decades to come: Impacts upon national resilience, impact upon all kinds of different issues including the election that’s going on, happening tomorrow, in the UK (This talk was delivered earlier in 2017).
Now we have some ideas about community resilience and how it’s related to communication.
This is a model that was proposed and elaborated by colleagues of mine here Julia Becker, David Johnston (and Douglas Paton as well) and a report that was published in 2010. I just want to focus, though, on some assumptions that I think we might be overlooking.I think other people have looked at this but perhaps not in the context in which I’m trying to explain this.
The first thing I want you to remember is the context of social connectedness. This is in the Ministry of Health document on psychosocial support in emergencies which was published in December 2016. I’m not going to read it out to you but it tells you how important social connectedness is – social capital, social network, social identity, attachment – all of these issues referring to how people relate to one another. These are fundamentally important if we are going to be resilient in the face of an emergency.
But what happens when a community’s interests no longer aligns with people’s personal interests? I’m interested in teasing that apart a little bit. I think what we assume sometimes is that if personal interests are served, then the community benefits. I’m going to argue that that’s not necessarily the case.
Sometimes there’s a great deal of overlap; sometimes you can’t tell them apart; sometimes there’s a little bit of overlap but sometimes, they may not overlap at all.
In fact, personal interests may actually not serve the community at all well. It may take away from community resilience.
Some examples that I’ve been thinking about – if we take the top left, let’s say for example, we provided water storage for everyone. We gave them the big rainstorage tank that fits on to your rainwater downpipe. This increases your personal resilience, for your family, for your household and your community resilience, too. You’re not going be turning to your neighbours for water, you’re self sufficient and people can come to you if they need water, too.
On the right-hand side at the top, let’s say council decides to put a levy on people who are going through resource consent for strengthening their household because there’s a new code in town and everybody who’s doing work, needs to comply with that and that’s costly. It’s going to cost them if they do any work and they bear that cost but it means that their personal resilience may go down; they don’t have the savings perhaps to bail them out when times are tough or if something happens in their community. But at a general level, the community resilience goes up for that city.
On the bottom right hand side, let’s say there’s an economic downturn.Let’s say taxes go up. Let’s say people can’t afford to buy food for everyday let alone for their emergency kit. Lots of people find themselves in this situation now so their personal resilience goes down, the community resilience goes down, too.
The one I’m interested in at the moment is this one in the bottom left-hand corner where personal resilience may go up but community resilience may go down. I’m thinking about residential mobility. I’m thinking about when risk is communicated so people go, “I’m out of here! This is something I’m not going to tolerate and I’ve got choices and I’ve got the resources to move out of this situation.”
What happens to the community that’s left behind? What happens to the community in which that family, that person, moves into?
You may not be familiar with this person but he was very, very present in my upbringing. This man is Norman Tebbit. He was a Minister in the Tory Government when I was growing up and in the Thatcher creed, it was all about you move to where the jobs are. “My Dad didn’t riot, he got on his bike and he looked for work”, and that idea of getting on your bike was ever present when I was growing up. You moved to where the jobs are.
I moved 18 times in nine years – whilst I was doing my undergraduate training, once I went to work, once I went back to do more training. I think lots of people have histories like this – when they’re going through their formative years, they actually become quite detached from the communities in which they grew up and they become rootless, to a certain extent. We’ve seen this in Japan as well. We’ve seen this generation of people growing up away from their families and they’re now concerned about their parents and how they’re gonna look after themselves as they grow up.
I’m also interested in this idea of ghosting. Anybody heard the idea of ghosting? It’s not the first time where you’ve got a dodgy TV signal. You don’t get that on digital TV so much these days. This idea of people going completely dead on you on social media or by email and then just disappearing out of people’s lives.
The reason I got interested in this was because I think it’s related to residential mobility, object disposability and relationship disposability.
People here may have been landlords, certainly people here have probably been tenants. Have you heard of stories of tenants just getting up and leaving, ending their contract,walking away and leaving all their stuff behind. I’ve heard that story, I’m hearing it more and more. Where it’s too hard to actually figure on what’s going on and people just leave everything where it was and move on and start their lives anew. What seems to be apparent is that object disposability – this materialistic culture that we’re brought up in that if it doesn’t work, you just get rid of it and you get a new one – seems to be transferred on to relationship disposability. A relationship to the communities in which we live.
It seems to be that there’s a personal history of relationship mobility – that’s your history, that’s your context. If you have a history of moving around quite a lot and not necessarily connecting with the community that you’re in, it predicts a willingness to dispose of objects and just leave it all behind but also seems to predict an increased willingness to cut social ties. To move on, not connect with those people who you knew in that place where you were and just move on somewhere else.
If we go back to my original slide where we know that social connectedness is really important for resilience and dealing with disaster and challenge in people’s lives, what does this do to people’s access to social connectedness? What does it do to community resilience?
I’m interested in that bottom left hand quadrant where community resilience goes down but personal resilience may go up. That’s a win for people who have a history of a high level of residential mobility. They can move on and get on with their lives. I’m concerned about what happens to those communities that are left behind but also how do they integrate into the communities that they move into and think that we should be concerned about that as a nation, as councils, as territorial authorities, as people involved in trying to promote community resilience, pre disaster, pre-recovery.
We have been awarded funding, with the Bushfire Natural Hazards CRC (in Australia), and we’re goning be working with the University of New England in Australia. We’re going to be addressing these questions, but in particular:
Why do people move in disasters?
I’m particularly interested in how does a history of residential mobility play out in a disaster scenario but I’m also interested in working with people here on how we figure out how that works in a risk communication scenario. When we’re communicating different varieties or communication styles of risk, what does it do to people’s intention to perhaps move?
This has been done around people looking for jobs. This has never been done in people’s understanding of emergency or disaster risk scenarios.
The broader question to ask, how does it affect the social capital of those left behind, those communities who these people move out of but also how does it impact on the social capital of the community that it’s moved into and we’ve seen that in places like Kaiapoi after Christchurch and in Waimakariri.
I’ll leave you with those questions. Thank you.