David E. Alexander: 2030 Adapting to Complexity

By David E. Alexander

To the 2030 cohort:

When Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the Chinese People’s Republic, was asked what he thought of the 1789 French Revolution, he replied “It’s too early to tell.” Well, we know we will be living with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic for the next decade, but it is probably too early to tell what that will mean. Many commentators are saying that the world will never be the same again. Efforts to recover from the worst recession for decades (or centuries?) will be dominant. Disease and infection will constantly be in people’s minds. Now is the time to think about the wider implications of the lessons of the pandemic. ‘Climate,’ ‘environment,’ and ‘pollution’ are key words. Their intersection with other events and phenomena will create many of the biggest challenges.

In the next ten years we will really have to get to grips with the complexity of disasters. Most of them will be cascading events. Complexity will be a dominant feature and we must adapt to it. To understand disasters you must look at their context, the things that are not directly relevant but that exert a profound influence as causes and conditioning factors.

Whether you are a scholar or a practitioner, it is important to be well educated in DRR, as we need to continue to professionalise the field. We have a century of scholarship and you should read the most important works from throughout this period, not merely the latest research.

Lastly, temper your faith in technology with a degree of scepticism. Algorithms are useful, but they can make emergency response artificial and ineffective. In the end, nothing can substitute for personal relationships. Efficiency in emergency management and response is more about thinking widely than it is about applying more and more technology.

David E. Alexander is Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London, UK.

Further reading:

David Alexander’s article in the Guardian: Britain is in a state of emergency. So where are its emergency planners?

Alexander, D. 2020. Building Emergency Planning Scenarios for Viral Pandemics UCL-IRDR Covid-19 Observatory Working paper, Version 1.1 (4 May 2020), Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London, London, UK.