sequences of different disasters

South Australian communities are currently facing a sequence of climate-related disasters.  While separated by only a few days, the disasters produce quite different types of damage.  Impacted families have to prepare for each disaster type quite differently, and then, perhaps within 24 hours, shift into a different response mode as the new emergency unfolds.  The time between events is short, so communities and service personnel have little time to process the emotional trauma of the first disaster before they are faced with another.  This impacts the mental health of adults and children, sometimes for years.  It has flow-on effects for individual and regional productivity, business turnover, economic activity and taxation revenue.  The aftermath impacts water supply systems, land and waterway management, communication and transport infrastructure.  This is a system-wide issue which cuts across traditional boundaries of responsibility.  Addressing it will require input from disciplinary experts across different departments and tiers of government, business groups, researchers and community members, all acting in concert.  It may also require different types of leadership, organisational structures, processes and decision-making.

Yogi Berra astutely observed that ‘the future ain’t what it used to be’.  If that is true, then perhaps the way we deal with the future also needs to change.  That means all of us – individually, corporately and in government.  The literature suggests approaches such as using scenarios to identify future risks and opportunities in the operating environment; developing a culture of interdepartmental and whole-of-government collaboration; engaging the research community and relevant stakeholders – government, business, discipline experts and the community – in the planning process.  These approaches aren’t actually new.  Shell has been using scenario planning for 50 years.  The EU initiated collaborative planning involving government, business, researchers and the community around 25 years ago.

Because we have no textbook formulae to follow, the steps we take will be somewhat experimental, and therefore uncomfortable. Even if our processes are well-considered, they will always involve uncertainty and risk.  Welcome to leadership in the coming years.

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