Monday, November 30, 2015

Student Learning Matters

Phase I of the RES-SIM project has focused on:

“develop[ing] the conceptual model for a virtually distributed computer-based teaching and learning tool that enables students within and across disciplines (e.g. engineering, architecture, logistics), both on and off campus, to collaboratively acquire essential decision-making skills through immersion in a dynamic disaster system simulation”.

The team has been busy interviewing experts in disaster management and education (Stage 1) to identify stakeholder needs and perceptions (students, educators, graduate employers, disaster management agencies) and ultimately working towards producing the detailed design specifications for the simulator. Following the analysis of the interviews we are now turning our attention to a series of workshops to map the system (Stage 2) and will be conducting focus groups to develop the scenarios (Stage 3).

We’ve learnt a lot….

Yet it won’t be until Phase II of the project that RES-SIM will come into fruition— that is, be developed by a software consultant and ultimately used by students and staff.

What will success look like?

Most certainly a system that ensures student attainment of learning outcomes and supports a positive learning experience will be an important part of this equation. For this to happen it will be critical that Phase II of RES-SIM considers the complete learning cycle from curriculum design through to assessment and feedback. After all, while many people agree that online games and simulation can promote learning, critics argue that what is learned may be inappropriate and it is therefore important that games are underpinned by learning theory (Shaffer et al., 2005).

The RES-SIM team argue for scenario-based teaching of disaster resilience

Students need guidance when using simulation, they need to be challenged and they need time to reflect. Teachers need resources to be able to support students in these ways. In Phase II the team would therefore draw from a range of “Good Practice Guides” for curriculum development available from the OLT and other educational research and apply and extend these to the context of RES-SIM. We envisage production of sample learning activities, example assessments and guidelines to support learners and teachers so that students get the most out of RES-SIM.

Success will also involve the maximization of impact. It is one thing for the team to use RES-SIM to positively impact our own students’ learning however broader systematic adoption of the RES-SIM and the lessons learned is preferred over narrow adoption (Hilton, 2014). In part, broader adoption will be dependent on the extent to which RES-SIM and its scenarios cater to a wide range of educational contexts. The team is certainly focusing on this in producing the conceptual design during Phase I. Continual engagement with stakeholders, spreading the word about RES-SIM through journals and conferences and production of online resources is also ongoing. There is also the potential for broadening impact by including new partner institutions willing to adopt RES-SIM. If you are interested in being involved, please contact the team.


Hilton, T., (2014) The impact management planning and evaluation ladder (IMPEL), accessed 2 November 2015.

Shaffer, D. W., Squire, K. R., Halverson, R., & Gee, J. P. (2005). Video games and the future of learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 87(2), 104-111.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

RES-SIM: The challenges of addressing vulnerability in scenario design

Attending the Sendai conference in March this year I was struck by the unprecedented support and inclusion for vulnerable groups, and in particular for those with a disability. There were several public forums organised at the event, aimed at drawing attention to the issue of disability-inclusive disaster risk reduction. You could argue that this campaign for recognition was successful, in that the Sendai Framework prominently promotes the needs of the oft forgotten in a disaster risk reduction (DRR) context.

"Empowering women and persons with disabilities to publicly lead and promote gender equitable and universally accessible response, recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction approaches is key" - Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2013, p. 20
Image of members of the Disability-Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction Caucus on the stage at the DESA DSPD Forum 
This week the release of the Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2015 by ESCAP reminds us that disability-inclusive DRR needs to be a central goal, since the outcomes for this particularly vulnerable group can be so dire. It is well documented that vulnerable groups such as the poor, women, children, the elderly, and those with disabilities suffer worse outcomes in disasters. ESCAPs own figures show that for people with a disability, the mortality rates during disasters are two to four times higher than that of those without disabilities.

So we can easily acknowledge the importance of embedding disability-inclusive thinking into all of our DRR endeavours. The challenge then becomes what does this really look like on the ground. In particular, how can we as researchers incorporate this thinking into the design of RES-SIM? If we rely on current practitioners and educators to inform the design of our system, how can we ensure that this important goal is also in their consciousness? Can we afford to wait for these important goals to become mainstream and rely on public groundswell? I think that perhaps instead we need to 'lead from the top' and ensure that the voices of the vulnerable are loudly ringing in our ears when we make decisions related to DRR. Whether that be in a local community-based project, or globally when deciding on future policy frameworks.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A successful year for the REACT Network!

On Monday 26th October, the REACT Network partners will gather in Beijing for the final activities of our year-long project. The key event (poster below) will be a resilience seminar featuring Dr Jamie Mackee from the University of Newcastle and Dr Wen-Yen Lin from Ming Chuan, followed by a discussion forum with a panel comprising Dr Gary Wei (SwissRe), Dr Jason von Meding (UON), Prof Qian Ye (BNU) and Dr Jie-Ying Wu (MCU).

The REACT Network would like to thank the Australia-China Council and our respective institutions for the financial support that has allowed us to build lasting personal relationships and embark on significant collaborative initiatives. Please check back here for a report on the Beijing visit in a couple of weeks!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

What type of game do you want to play?

Anyone who’s been to the zoo, happen to spend time with children or seen a David Attenborough documentary will tell you how young primates are forever playing. But are they playing actual games with rules? or are they just following their imagination and free will?

As children blend these structured and free form activities, we learn different things in different ways. For example wresting with your sibling when you’re both in your super-hero costumes allows you to practice strategies and responses in a relatively safe way, so that you’re able to adapt in case you ever encountered a scenario like this.

Where as a game of monopoly with your parents introduces the constructions and tests associated skills such as: interpreting regulations, negotiation, planning, business acumen and the importance of chance and risk in decision making.

In my childhood monopoly was for long rainy days and wrestling was done outside. Two very different games have very different learning outcomes.

At a fundamental level The Resilience Simulator (RES-SIM) project endeavors to create a game. But what type of game would best introduce university students to the complexity of disasters and how they affect the interconnected systems most of us take for granted?

These are the questions we are grappling with as we begin to process the results from our interviews with disaster practitioners and educators. Any design process is iterative, as the stakeholders come together to create common understanding of what could, and more importantly should, a simulator look like. It’s difficult not to image a tangible preemptive outcome, but (crucial to) trust the design processes in generating innovative solutions.

As the projects underpinning methodology Concept mapping is simple but broad in visually representing the gathered data in ways that convey meaning and validate insights for multiple agents. RES-SIM applies concept mapping principles through multiple approaches including; Agglomerative clustering (Trochim), nested Heirachies (Novak) and to accommodate the dynamic nature of disaster Cyclic (Safayeni). Through interviews project contributors have added their expertise about how to conceptualise emergencies, their management by agencies and society and most importantly what simulators provide.

By outlining the concepts of a disaster into related subsystems, such as the built environment, combat agencies, local communities and exposing inter-relationships facilitated workshops will generate a conceptual model. The model will ultimately ‘run’ scenarios such as a ‘bushfire response’ or ‘cyclone rebuild’ that have been developed in the projects upcoming focus groups.

Due to the inherent learning potential (particularly systems-conceptualisation) of using concept mapping, there’s even rationale for the actual simulator to lead participants through a dynamic Concept mapping process. But the questions remain, would you want to play that game? And what would you learn from it?

If you think you would like to contribute to this ground breaking project please get in touch with the team about how you and your organisation could play a part.

By Jai Allison - RES-SIM Project Researcher

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Challenging the status quo

Last week, during my address as part of the University of Newcastle 50th Anniversary Webinar on the Future of Construction, I offered this perspective,
'It is quite a significant step to be prepared to challenge the status quo. Just like the machine of perpetual war, the hegemony of global governance that we accept with so little critical discourse thrives on our indifference. Within all sectors of society, decision-making is too often based on ideology and agenda, rather than evidence, and dissenters are dismissed as naive, sheltered and unrealistic. There is a pervasive narrative that asserts that a dichotomy exists between the well-being of our environment and the health of the global economy. This false assumption successfully obstructs reason and fuels the ideological and agenda-based decision-making that we see all around us.'
As researchers and educators, how often do we really go against the doctrines that dominate our culture? Standing up for ideas that run counter-culture can impact how we are accepted by peers, perceived by funding bodies and respected by students. Not everyone has been willing to take this risk in the past. I would argue, however, that the age of dangerous ideas being mainstreamed is upon us.

As we see the popularity of political figures like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn soar, one thing is clear. People around the world have had about enough of the current hegemony. The establishment is not impressed. Ad hominem attacks against those desiring radical change is the most common response, with the Conservatives smear campaign an excellent current example of ideologues running scared. While the masses demand to be represented, apologists for the status quo grow more and more desperate. We must not pass up on the opportunity to destroy false narratives once and for all, in whatever way that we can.

In the area of disaster research, are there ideas that we have previously avoided that we might revisit? How about the oxymoron that is sustainable development?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Refugees in Europe: a journey from Gevgelija (FYROM) to Budapest (Hungary)

In August, I spent two weeks in my hometown in Southern Italy. I also took a short trip with a friend of mine to Eastern Europe, along the way participating at the EUGEO 2015 Conference in Budapest (Hungary), where I organized a session and presented a paper. During my visit to this region of Europe, the refugee crisis was building. Things were becoming heated, not only in terms of (very) high temperatures, but particularly in terms of tension and debate within the European Union about how to manage what is rightly considered a humanitarian crisis.

Since we were travelling near to the Balkan area, which refugees traditionally use to try to reach their aspired destinations in Northern Europe countries, my friend and I decided to observe with our own eyes what was occurring. Of course, we did not do it for voyeurism purposes. We think that human beings have to recognize the often tragic and sobering power of History, which constantly happens around our everyday life and deserves direct observation when it is possible. We are also against the protectionist strategies of this European Union, setting itself up as an impregnable fortress. In the past 30 years we have been surrounded by news of tragedies constantly happening both along terrestrial borders and Mediterranean sea, as well as about the violence and ignominious treatments perpetrated on migrants both at borders and the detention camps in Libya and Europe. For these reasons, we decided to be an infinitesimal part of that History and to witness the biggest displacement of people to Europe since World War 2.

I am neither a photographer (actually, I just "do pictures"), nor a journalist or a political analyst. However, as an Italian and European citizen calling for a shift towards inclusive mobility rights and hoping that national and supranational borders finally collapse as spaces of militarization, surveillance and control perpetrating existing and new injustice and inequalities, I have attempted to narrate and to document in pictures what I have seen on those European borders. I have also spoken with some of the refugees, trying to be respectful to people that were there sleeping, washing clothes, or playing football, often in very precarious conditions (as in Budapest). I had several small chats with groups of guys or with families; some were tired or didn't want to be disturbed, however others asked us to take pictures and were happy to speak with me.

We arrived in the small town of Gevgelija (FYROM), located just 300 meters from the South-Eastern border FYROM-Greece. The situation was very difficult. The temperature so high that plastic shelters and gazebos under the sun were literally burning. A few volunteers were providing insufficient food and water. People were continuing to arrive from the border, passing through an unpaved way carrying limited bags and dusty clothes. Exhausted parents took children by the arm. On the border, a police cordon was struggling to prevent refugees from crossing the barbed wire which was used to delimit the border. Protests by the desperate crowds were mounting, pushing to enter FYROM territory. I saw also Macedonian police and frustrated people facing off.

The unpaved way from the FYROM-Greece border to the camp in the Gevgelija countryside. 

Refugees arriving from the border. 

Tensions between the Macedonian police and refugees.

After Gevgelija, we travelled (on our own) towards Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, located in the North of the country. We visited the central station in which refugees were recovered -also for days- after travelling on buses from Gevgelija, waiting for an opportunity to reach the Serbia-Hungary border. While the Gevgelija camp was located in the countryside, with just a few nearby houses and about three kilometres far from the small, rusty station of the town, the refugees' area in Belgrade was located at the side of the central station along the river Sava. It was a small, but very crowded green area, with travellers passing with their bags and suitcases throughout igloo tents, people sleeping on the floor, and children showering in fountains. There were also a lot of Serbians accessing the shops and bars outside the station. Therefore it was possible to see both people having a social drink alongside refugees literally assaulting volunteers bringing food packs, which were of course insufficient to cater for the needy. Being the main railway station of Belgrade, it was absolutely a mess. This de facto worsened the already difficult condition of refugees; there was a lot of traffic along the roads with high levels of pollution and noise at the crossing lights; cars were going into and out from the private parking close to the station. Some people were waiting for private buses operating along the route Belgrade-Kanjiža (the small town close to the border Serbia-Hungary). In order to pay for bus tickets, food and water, refugees went to change their currency to the Serbian dinar.

Drying clothes on a football net in the central station in Belgrade. 


Showering kids.

We knew refugees were also in Novi Sad, an important city between Belgrade and the border with Hungary, however we skipped it because we had to enter into Hungary that evening, and long queues for border checks were expected (in fact, we spent four hours for a passport and baggage check!). Before approaching the border, we visited the refugees' camp in the Serbian town of Kanjiža. The camp was located in a green area just outside the town and close to a railway track. The condition was relatively better than Gevgelija and Belgrade; the camp was monitored by the volunteers of a humanitarian association, and tents were provided for shelter as well as fountains and toilets. A Syrian family asked me to take a picture of their daughters, and this turned into an occasion for a short chat. They told me that they took one month to arrive there from Homs (Northern Syria). They wanted to reach Germany, where some relatives were waiting for them. They did not know what would happen when they tried to cross the Hungarian border, however that evening they were preparing to leave the camp, Inshallah.

The kids of the Syrian family I chatted with in Kanjiža. The youngest daughter was very reticent to pose. 

Washing clothes. 

The camp had humanitarian tents, which are more comfortable of igloo tents or the ground. 

After a few days, I took part in the EUGEO conference in Budapest, where refugees were gathered into the Kalati station waiting to take trains to Germany and Austria. The station was full of refugees in shameful conditions; however, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán decided to prevent them from boarding the trains. The reason for this halt was the application of the EU directives on migrations. According to the Dublin III Regulation by EU, every application for international protection lodged by refugees has to be examined in the country of entry. Although the halt by Orbán was formally lawful and "necessary", it only served to worsen the already unsustainable conditions of the refugees in the station. Just a small water pump and few smelling toilets were provided for hundreds of people, as well as minimal food and no safe areas for sleeping. Refugees (probably around 500 people, but is a very roughly estimation also due to that other people came in the following days) were waiting for days in front of the station sleeping on the ground. They protested and claimed their right to travel. I spoke with some very young Syrian and Iraqi guys. They wanted to go in Germany and angrily waved their train tickets under my nose. A part of the ignominious conditions of the refugees, I was also ashamed for the silence on this issue during the EUGEO 2015 Conference. The Kalati station was just at three kilometres from the conference venue, the Eötvös Loránd University, in Buda side of the Danube. Nevertheless, it seems to me there has been no mention or condemnation, in formal speeches or key note lectures, about what was happening there. Nothing changes with a formal condemnation, of course, however a scientific meeting of geographers and social scientists must be aware of what is happening in their proximity and highlight injustices, particularly when global challenges knock on your door.

Underground passage occupied by refugees in the Kalati station, Budapest. 

Trying to rest. 

A man protesting against the police cordoning the station entrance. 

These guys show me their tickets for Germany. They were in the station since five days, and no food was provided. 

Refugees in the Kalati station. 

I do not know what has happened to the people I met, if they have been able to reach their destination and if they will be able to build a new life far from their home countries. In previous posts on our blog, Jason posed very interesting questions about the challenges migration and displacement pose to the concept of "place" and to the Western development models which provide benefits for the few and sufferance, bombs, and destruction for the others. In the Middle East and around the world, wars or terrorism threaten communities and institutions; this can be considered a disaster. Wars' consequences exceed the capacity of the population to survive, to regain a job or a wage, or to sustain their livelihoods. Local communities cannot cope with the disruption and destruction using exclusively their own resources. As disaster scholars, we are called to investigate the relationships among migrations, society, and environment for understanding pre-existing and new vulnerabilities and risks, for both people continuing to live in those countries and refugees. In this way, several researches are exploring impacts of wars, as well as climate change and hazards on migration trends and displacement. Also narrating and witnessing refugees' stories and conditions respond to this academic -and ethical- need, giving voice to excluded and marginalized people.

All my pictures can be found at my Facebook page (contents are in Italian, apologize for this), as well as pictures by my friend (he is an amateur photographer) on his Flickr.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Displacement Crisis Revealing our Humanity

The world is finally waking up to a global displacement crisis. While we debate what to call the displaced, refugees...asylum seekers...migrants...the number of people seeking a new 'place' as a matter of urgency is swelling like never before in history. What is 'place' and who deserves one to call their own? Do citizens of failed states have a right to seek another place? As we consider the cauldron of violence and instability that is the Middle East, are we asking questions about the underlying causes of displacement?

Photo by Giuseppe Forino

This crisis is only likely to grow. As Australia and the UK prepare to join the US-led bombing campaign in Syria, will the politicians making the decision to kill ever more civilians be held accountable for the impact? How has this strategy worked out before in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya? Violence is a lucrative pastime. The global arms trade generates massive revenues, and soaring military spending is justified based on the perceived risks posed globally, often as a result of intentional destabilization. Quite a business model.

However, it is not only conflict that creates displacement. Climate change is occurring whether you like science or not. Disaster impacts are evolving as societies urbanize and people adopt less sustainable living in the pursuit of 'development'. In many ways, people are become more exposed to disaster risk because of how they choose to live. The drive to 'modernize' and 'advance' inherently supports the incumbent economic system of our time. A devotion to market fundamentalism practically locks us in for whatever disasters will eventually befall our race.

Put it this way. Our economic and social order is built on the premise that limitless growth is healthy. Anything that might challenge this premise is dismissed as problematic, idealistic and unreasonable. Solutions that involve equality and justice for all are labeled socialist. This belief system taken to the extreme brings us humanitarian bombing and coal is good for humanity. Orwell was spot on; blind, selfish, self-absorbed consumers want to believe that 'war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength'.

It is great to see the outpouring of empathy for the Syrian refugees reaching Europe. It gives me hope that most of us really do care about others. Perhaps it takes a picture and the tragic story of a dead toddler to really wake us up from our busy, stressed out existence. My hope is that this crisis will create thousands of activists around the world. There are huge ethical and moral dilemmas to consider, but not a lot of time to take action.

The world certainly needs to come up with rapid and collective solutions to this humanitarian crisis, but we need to be careful not to apply a band-aid to a deep laceration. Increasing refugee intake is commendable, but are we prepared to interrogate the problem at its source?

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Mass Media and Disasters

Thank you to Eloisa Rozul, graduating from our Master of Disaster Preparedness and Reconstruction, for this excellent video and some interesting thoughts on media in disasters.


In today’s society, people are bombarded with constant exposure to mass media in different modes. These include television, magazines, books, radio, newspapers, movies and the most recent, internet. Media has proven to be a significant contributor of the people’s new ways of thinking, of perceiving and of interacting with their environment. Indeed, media has become an integral part of human existence. For instance, it provides an update of what is the latest fashion trend, new sports icon, the next political leader, the “perfect body” image, the upcoming celebrity star and all other events that arouse the interests of the public. Mass media has become a source of power and meaning.

Significantly, with the increasing number of global crisis and disaster occurrences, mass media has played a significant role in the entire disaster management cycle – from the pre-disaster phase (mitigation and preparedness) up to the post-disaster phase (relief and recovery). It has proven to be successful in fulfilling its strategic role in information distribution, mass communication and education of people in times of relocation, evacuation and relief assistance. Interestingly, mass media has seen to portray a new role – the linkage and emotional utility function. However, sensational portrayals of poverty and vulnerability, government’s shortcomings and helplessness of victims have resulted in inappropriate media stereotypes of the communities concerned. Although it has certainly helped in fund raising campaigns, it appears to have negatively influenced both victims and the concerned governments. As an example, the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines showed the positive and the negative impacts of mass media coverage. This video presents a simple but clear illustration of the power of mass media, focusing on the case of Haiyan.

by Eloisa Rozul

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Resilient futures: A game of high stakes

What is a game? It can be a form of competitive activities played according to rules, or an activity for amusement or entertainment, or structured, interactive activities that require thought and adaptation as part of challenges within a learning exercise. Learning by gaming about resilience is particularly ‘high stakes’, given our current climate of uncertainty, and exposes participants to new knowledge and skills without the risk that would otherwise be taken in the field.

Having a resilient future or resilience to a disaster can be learned from typical situations in society where the outcome of one group’s choices is critically dependent on the actions of other groups. Students often lack first-hand experience of disasters or of responding to them. Their understanding of resilience in a disaster context cannot often be learned externally from a real disaster. The ‘game’ therefore offers them that opportunity.

This project is about teaching students about resilience to disasters and about how to deal with the action of others which impact on their resilience. Games are part of all human experience from simple games learned early to complex games devised with rules. Humans are used to games in their experience and many lessons are learned throughout life as part of game playing: competing, strategy making, interacting in structured ways, making decisions and problem solving.

Many students who study disaster management don't have real life experience of disasters. In a management context, they do need experience to practice based on applicable principles learned through simulated contexts. Using practice which has been captured from disaster response and management practitioners and presented in “a system dynamics” format, scenarios can be created within which students can apply learned principles and then learn decision-making processes, in the context of disasters, about disaster response management and the consequences of the decisions they made, leading to understanding the transfer of knowledge to those affected to enable resilience in specific contexts.

The “systems dynamic” model enables multiple actors to act and react in various ways, learning from experience, building knowledge of action and its effectiveness, building principles of practice to apply in as many different disaster scenarios as they can, as effects can vary in almost every disaster event. However, to build this “systems dynamic” model requires extensive levels of knowledge. This knowledge can be captured from practitioners (disaster response and relevant agencies). This knowledge can then be modelled into the system with certain rules and algorithms which allow the system to produce (generate) results according to those rules, enabling learning and re-learning as contexts and conditions change in a ‘game’ situation.

The game played by these rules can then identify students who have demonstrated the ability to learn and adapt to rules and uncertainty which was captured from real life. The skills derived from this game of high stakes learning process will equip students to be ready for a disaster Resilient Future.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Call for papers: International Journal of Project Management Special issue “Managing Disaster Recovery Projects”

FOR THE ATTENTION OF international scholars researching project management aspects of post-disaster recovery!

You are invited to submit abstracts (by 31st December)  for an upcoming special issue entitled 'Managing Disaster Recovery Projects' in the International Journal of Project Management. We invite research papers on disaster recovery project management case studies, project issues and best practices that have had significant contributions to the success of disaster recovery projects.

Papers may address any aspect of project management for disaster recovery projects, such as risk management, scope management and project scheduling. Topics may include but not limited to:

• The role of project management methods in attaining successful disaster recovery 
• The methods, tools, processes, practices and/or knowledge areas used in managing disaster recovery projects 
• Experience and lessons in managing large disaster recovery projects (what worked, what didn't and why) 
• Governance and organization of disaster recovery projects 
• Stakeholders management and coordination 
• Factors affecting the success of managing disaster recovery projects 
• Measuring the performance of disaster recovery projects 
• Incorporation of disaster resilience paradigm in managing disaster recovery projects 
• Solving wicked problems in disaster recovery 
• Professionalism and disaster recovery

Both theoretical developments and case studies on the different levels and themes are welcome. All submissions will be sent to at least two independent reviewers. Authors should submit a maximum 1000 word abstract to get feedback about the suitability of the topic for the special issue. Please submit abstract directly to Professor Randy Rapp and Dr. Yan Chang-Richards. Once invited by the Guest Editors to submit for the special issue, papers should be submitted online, carefully following the Guide for Authors. Submitted papers will undergo a double-blind review process with multiple reviewers. All queries should be submitted directly to the guest editor.

• Abstract submission deadline: 31 December 2015
• Paper submission deadline: 1 April 2016
• Notifications to authors: 1 August 2016
• Expected publication date: early 2017

*much of this CFP was first published by IJPM *

Friday, August 21, 2015

Disasters, poverty and the paradox of limitlessness

I think that we, the human race, are in a bit of a pickle. The consensus seems to be that now is a great time to be alive. Those spreading such optimism trumpet the achievements of industrialisation and globalisation. Sure, the human population is soaring, but more people are healthier and happier than ever, aren't they? Limitless growth seems to be working.

As a result of humanity's rapid development during the 20th century, consumption has been exceeding the earth's ability to regenerate since the early 70's. Last week earth 'overshoot day' came earlier than ever before. We no longer live on the 'interest', but are eating into natural capital. The human population could hit 11 billion by 2100, exacerbating existing dilemmas in health, poverty, civil unrest. Per capita share of environmental resources must decrease as population increases, but as a minority of the human race consume more and more, there is less for the remainder. Much of the growth in the 21st century is projected to occur in Asia and Africa, regions that are largely still to fully develop (and reach consumption levels on par with the West). A bleak outlook, I know.

But honestly, the contamination of ecological systems is out of control. So called 'ecological debt' is growing rapidly, and regardless of the political posturing, serious measures are not being taken to avoid the disasters that will surely come as a result. The environmental, political and social ramifications could be world-changing. Will technology or human ingenuity save the day? Neo-liberalism has redefined the 'limitless' worldview, aided by a taboo on the discussion of population. However, this is not a technical problem. It is not even a population problem. If we propose technical solutions we will solve the wrong problem.

The real issue facing us is the ideology of limitless consumption and progress measured by economic growth. However, questioning the wisdom of perpetual economic growth is tantamount to heresy in a neo-liberal society. As Garrett Hardin posits, 'It has long been recognised that some of our most deeply held views are not neat, precise propositions but broadly "global" attitudes that act as the gatekeepers of the mind, letting in only those propositions that do not challenge the dominant picture of reality.' The ecological problems we face today reduce to balancing supply and demand. Ecological 'services' are limited, while demand is essentially endless.

The paradox of a growing global population that protects the 'limitless' worldview is astounding. I do not agree with everything Hardin writes, but his assertion that 'four centuries of sedation by the delusion of limitlessness have left humanity floundering in a wilderness of rhetoric' is difficult to argue with. Poverty has not ended, inequality is growing and we are killing the planet; and we feel entitled to carry on! Forced displacement due to conflict, climate change and disasters will create lasting impacts for countries both producing and receiving refugees. What is the plan? No amount of cruelty perpetuated on those escaping will actually stem the tide, much less address the actual problem(s).

It would appear that the limitless paradigm offers few solutions when it comes to the core issues facing the human race. Perpetual growth and boundless consumption might satisfy our desires in the present, but what are the long term impacts?

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Developing RES-SIM - A game changer

A little over a year ago, Sittimont and I thrashed out the initial concept for RES-SIM over lunch at the Tanner Bar. We brought Helen and Vanessa (RMIT) on board, as well as a strong advisory panel. Competition for OLT funding is more competitive than ever, but we pulled it off. In March, we officially commenced work on our OLT grant 'Modelling disaster resilience: enhancing student learning through trans-disciplinary simulation of wicked scenarios (RES-SIM)'.
RES-SIM will 'develop the conceptual model for a virtually distributed computer-based teaching and learning tool that enables students within and across disciplines (e.g. engineering, architecture, logistics), both on and off campus, to collaboratively acquire essential decision-making skills through immersion in a dynamic disaster system simulation.' 
In an educational environment, we need to search for innovative ways to replicate real-world scenarios. The last thing we want is for our graduates to be caught by surprise when faced with scenarios not encountered during the study of their disciplinary knowledge base. In many fields, a valuable strategy to bridge this experiential gap is to incorporate games/simulations/virtual experiences.

My first exposure to this was when I used a software tool that simulated the operations of a construction company as part of an assessment for architecture/engineering/construction management students in a Project Management course. The students worked in multi-disciplinary groups and made weekly decisions regarding different aspects of their company. Every weekend, a different scenario played out and afterwards, the group was able to analyse the impact of the decisions they had previously made.

As a researcher in disaster risk reduction, I have long been interested in how societal systems and subsystems respond to disturbance, both natural and human induced. Existing studies do attempt to classify and delineate these variables, however a multi-disciplinary evidence-base fit for the purpose of educating our students is far from complete. This project gives us the opportunity to compile the field data required to underpin a system resilience education tool.
'RES-SIM presents a revolutionary method of evaluating and responding to disaster scenarios, based on a holistic understanding of the affected systems and subsystems of society. This ‘whole-system’ approach will allow students (future emergency responders) to hone their judgement and decision-making in a safe environment that provides valuable feedback based on engineering-based, sociological-based and economic-based system dynamics.'
We live in challenging times. The educational landscape is shifting. Students engage differently. Graduate attributes in demand evolve alongside industries themselves, and our curriculum must keep up. In addition, the future of our global society is uncertain. Disaster risk continues to increase for many people inhabiting our planet. Besides the purely professional competencies embedded in the utilization of this learning tool, there is little doubt that society demands graduates with an understanding of disaster risk in complex systems in order to address the systemic problems that it faces.

When Sittimont and I first discussed the concept, we were excited by the possibilities. Now, the project team truly believes in making this a reality. RES-SIM can be a game changer.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The rising challenge to entitlement: disasters, migration and western values

2015 is a year of global agreements regarding climate change, disaster risk reduction and sustainable development. The new frameworks proposed will invariably require innovative strategies for change. But is society ready to accept change and adaptation for the good of future generations? Change invariably involves sacrifice. The belief that our very way of life is being eroded by the demands of environmentalists is prevalent, but we must consider who this narrative serves. The ‘risk’ of change to those who have accumulated power, wealth and resources under the status quo must not be ignored. An assessment of ruling-class risk may indeed help us to contextualise some of the important debate of 2015.

Entitled to Succeed

If schooling has taught us anything, it is that success manifests as wealth, power, achievements and accolades. ‘Work hard and succeed`, they say. ‘If you don't succeed, you didn't try hard enough’. Nobody likes to admit that disadvantage runs deep and 'failure' according to our system is more accurately predicted by socio-economic indicators than by work ethic. Those 'born to rule' hate to admit that privilege is a factor and will point to rags to riches success stories that supposedly prove that a meritocracy exists. However, the systemic inequality that is all around us challenges the very values of a free society that our democracies uphold.

What, in fact, are 'western values'? Freedom, justice, compassion? The freedom to accumulate. Retributive justice. Conditional compassion. Perhaps it's the expectation that someone be employed and pays taxes (so that our government can fund war and distribute private sector welfare).

In these times of austerity, most Western governments favour neoliberal economic ideologies and, as a consequence, policies that target the least at fault for economic crisis and the least able to afford cuts, taxes and levies. Underpinning this agenda is an insidious belief that the poor are lazy and the disabled are frauds. We are told that to help such poor souls, we must impose some sort of punishment. It’s the moral thing to do, after all.


How does our perception of western values (and the incentives and punishments attached to these values) affect our attitude towards those outside our borders, and indeed towards the ‘others’ within our borders? It's hard to know what our values truly are, if you consider the rhetoric of our elected leaders. They preach social justice while passing legislation to persecute the vulnerable. Perhaps that is what social justice means to such ideologues. How do we view more than two billion in poverty worldwide, populations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine exposed to ongoing conflict or the disproportionate number of people in developing countries vulnerable to climate change?

Despite all of our advances, every second child on the planet lives in poverty. Of the world’s 2.2 billion children there are 1 billion in poverty. 18,000 children (under 5) still die every day from poverty, hunger and preventable disease. As UNICEF articulated in 2000, these children,

die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.”

Do we consider that many of the problems felt beyond our borders persist as a result of inequality? Indeed, systemic inequality is capitalized upon by western corporate and governmental entities to maintain growth and accumulate wealth for the 1%. However unintentionally, we in the west are born with a perceived entitlement to benefit from this inequality, established hundreds of years ago, largely through slavery and the global domination and destruction of indigenous people groups.

Climate change, migration and disaster risk reduction:

"people who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to climate change."

Those most vulnerable; children, women, the elderly and the disabled, located in developing countries, already suffer disproportionately due to conflict and disaster. Needless to say, programs that address the underlying causes of this vulnerability have a significant impact on long term disaster risk. However, the current near-consensus towards technocratic solutions to poverty does little to reduce growing inequality and lack of individual freedom. Indeed, the solutions imposed by development experts often serve to increase vulnerability among the most marginalised in a society.

Extreme events force many more people from their homes than conflict, yet few governments are facing up to the potential of future mass migration. As of end-2013, 51.2million people were forcibly displaced worldwide. We cannot be entirely sure what the consequences will be of planetary boundaries being exceeded, but it is hardly a stretch to imagine that more people than ever would be forced to seek safe refuge from violent conflicts, stronger and more frequent natural hazards and food and water shortages.

Photo credit: worldmaritimenews

Perhaps the Hunger Games narrative isn’t so far-fetched.

Risk reduction holds a different meaning for the wealthy and for the poor. As renewable energy alternatives become accessible to all, entire industries are at risk. The opponents of freely available sustainable energy will fight on for their ‘right’ to collect profit in the years to come. Global agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership will attempt to reinforce structures designed purely for profit and domination. Whether it is energy generation or food production - sustainability and resilience for you and I come at a cost to the global elite. Sustainability demands that we moderate/reduce consumption (largely procure from established corporate elite) while resilience empowers ‘people’ to cope for themselves (thus reducing reliance upon elite derived/powered systems and products).

Sameness or Variety:

No amount of positivity or optimism prevents people dying of thirst and starvation daily. Meanwhile, the west gets fatter. We place our faith in business, in foreign aid, in development, to provide the solution. Are we wrong to assume that this system, created by corporations, banks and government, will act in the interests of humanity? We so easily swallow the narrative that says that ‘the others’ are out to ruin life as we know it- single mothers, unemployed youth, the disabled and asylum seekers. But does our existence really depend on protecting ourselves from these vulnerable groups? The lie is pervasive. Our leaders tell us to just believe, over and over again.

While 3 million people turn out to advocate for free speech in Paris, there is little outrage against what Joseph Conrad called "the merry dance of death and trade." As sections of Western society become more and more polarised and marginalised, the ability to empathise with ‘others’ is rapidly eroded, within and beyond our borders.

Current global systems (economic/social/moral etc.) are ideologically flawed; they assign power, wealth and resources to the few at a detriment to the many. These systems are also highly contemptuous of change. A healthy system should naturally transition through periods of creative destruction, allowing innovation and creativity to flourish. Instead, we have been programmed to favour growth and conservation at all costs, while protecting the status quo.

Voltaire and Inequality

Can we envisage a world where no one starves to death or dies of treatable disease in any given day, and where everyone has access to life’s basic necessities? Do the poor choose to remain poor?

‘The comfort of the rich depends on an abundant supply of the poor.’ - Voltaire

If we truly do aspire to a more equitable and sustainable way of life, what needs to happen to make it a reality? Can current global systems deliver on such a vision or is such thinking ultimately utopian? The current status quo gives us a scenario where the poorest 10% of humanity account for just 0.5% ofconsumption while the wealthiest 10% account for 59%. The demand for global resources and strain on our environment does not arise due to the actions or inactions of the global poor. Economic distress is never caused by families on social welfare, it is caused by banks and corporations that effectively benefit from publicly sourced subsidies (source?). What is the tipping point for injustice, the last straw before moral outrage?

Is the very (western) way of life that we protect and treasure part of the global malaise? Are we so devoted to materialism, consumerism and individualism (the religions of the West, as defined by Russell Brand) that we would cast off all responsibility for the consequences of the flawed ideological underpinnings of empire and globalisation?

Voltaire’s oft-quoted and adapted words, ‘the best is the enemy of the good,’ in the poem La Begueule, are commonly used to justify failed systems or as pretext for trivial solutions. The correct meaning was in fact to warn against greed, envy and lack of gratitude. It was upon such a misconstrued meaning of Voltaire’s words that the Obama administration oversaw the robbery of US taxpayers to feed a reckless and greedy banking sector, as Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz points out. Consider this on a global scale...does the current economic system ‘require’ an abundant supply of the poor? Is growing inequality a positive thing, as argued by Kevin O’Leary? A 2014 report by Oxfam states that the richest 85 people in the world hold the same amount of wealth as the poorer half of humanity. Inequality is increasing all across the globe. The clear warning is that,

“when wealth captures government policymaking, the rules bend to favour the rich, often to the detriment of everyone else.”

Poverty. Inequality. War. The military industrial complex. Human trafficking. Crony capitalism. Humanity requires drastic reorganisation. However, those who benefit from sameness will not make way for variety without resistance.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The impact of disasters on the marginalised, impoverished and disadvantaged

This is a post I wrote on my way to Sendai, first published by UNISDR here....


Thousands of participants are now descending on Sendai for the 3rd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR), hosted by the Japanese Government, this weekend. At the conference, stakeholders will formalise the post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction and hundreds of events and sessions will present a vision for the world in which less people are vulnerable to the negative impacts of hazards.

As we consider the achievements of the past decade under the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), we must avoid being sucked into a technocratic mindset. Undoubtedly, the knowledge-base in many disciplines has exploded with scholarly DRR material. Countless disaster-related problems have been solved through the dedication of government, humanitarian, community and private sector actors. Many of the solutions have been born of human intellect, and this is great.

However, as we shape the DRR vision for the next ten years, let us not forget that global economic, social and political systems assign power, wealth and resources to the few at the expense of the many. In 2014, Oxfam reported that 85 richest people in the world now have equal wealth to the poorest half of humanity. In this context, our attempts to reduce disaster risk and build resilient societies (at least the human dimension) are at best fanciful, if growing global inequality is ignored.

So, should we become cynical and view international governmental platforms, meetings and negotiations as disingenuous grandstanding sessions, allowing participants to be seen to ‘do something’ about disaster risk, but ultimately serving the interests of the powerful?

Dr. James Gilligan refers to the estimated 10 million deaths per year that occur due to poverty as, “the equivalent of an ongoing, unending, in fact accelerating, thermonuclear war, or genocide, perpetuated on the weak and poor every year of every decade, throughout the world.”

Those most vulnerable to disaster impacts are those marginalised, impoverished and disadvantaged. A global economic system addicted to growth at all costs does not factor in human misery. People become mere statistics. Beings with complex needs, abilities and interests become ‘resources’ to be used and abused. Why is there so little opposition to what Joseph Conrad called “the merry dance of death and trade.“

At WCDRR, there will be time to recognise amazing achievements to date. There will be time to spread contagious, visionary thinking, as part of a post-2015 agenda. I look forward to engaging with individuals of diverse background, opinion and worldview.

I hope that we will all take the time to consider how our ‘best laid schemes’ for DRR can indeed succeed in the long term against a pervasive backdrop of inequality, violence, poverty and injustice. How can we best address not only the symptoms, but the cause?


At some point I intend to write in detail about my frustration with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and my first experience of a UN conference. Ben Wisner called it 'naked national elite economic power at work' in an email worth reading. It's hard to disagree with his assertion that 'only popular demands and protests will shift national governments.'

Friday, January 9, 2015

New edited book: Calandra L.M., Forino G., Porru A., 2014, Multiple Geographical Perspectives on Hazards and Disasters, Valmar, Rome, Italy, pp. 128

I have recently co-edited the book "Multiple Geographical Perspectives on Hazards and Disasters", with Lina M. Calandra and Andrea Porru, published by Valmar, Rome (Italy). The book collects, but is not limited to, some of the contributions discussed during the IV EUGEO Congress "Europe, What’s Next? Changing Geographies and Geographies of Change", Rome, 5th-7th September 2013. Within the Congress, we organized the session "Multiple Geographical Perspectives on Hazards and Disasters" (here the full program), aiming to reflect upon the multiple significance of disasters, hazards and risks and their geographicalness within the Italian academic landscape of geographical sciences.
The book is organized in two sections. The first analyzes strategies and tools of disaster risk management in their spatial planning and assessment dimension, as well as it explores the social construction of risk in Central and Southern America and Canada. The second explores the assessment, opportunities and challenges of disaster recovery in case of some major events in India, USA and Italy.

If you are interested in the book, you can freely download here