Opportunity from Disaster

Build Social Capital  by Michael Bernstein

Hurricane Sandy 2012

Hurricane Sandy 2012

Without A National Strategic Narrative, we have no way of transforming disasters into opportunities. An opportunity-driven approach to disaster response and recovery could integrate sustainability into the fabric of the United States and help ensure a more equitable, prosperous, and secure future for the country. The recent devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy presents a painful case-in-point. Strategic investments in response to Hurricane Sandy, based on sustainability, could yield positive short-, medium-, and long-term benefits to the environment, economy, and national security (e.g. green infrastructure, clean energy, and sustainable housing development (jobs), grid-decentralization).

From what I’ve read, however, the question of how we ‘build-back-better’ seems to be receding with floodwaters. In many ways, the social amnesia may be symptomatic of a lack of national direction on critical global challenges. Our national unwillingness to confront the impacts of human development on the planet’s life-support systems represents one example. A recent article, “Decision strategies for addressing complex, ‘messy’ problems” in the Fall Issue of the National Academy of Engineering’s The Bridge on Social Sciences and Engineering grapples with this unwillingness.

The authors, Metlay and Sarewitz, start by classifying the general types of problems facing society. Problems, they explain, vary according to “the degree of uncertainty and the extent of disagreement over tradeoffs among important values.” The messiest problems arise around issues that are highly uncertain and clouded by stark disagreement. Metlay and Sarewitz point out climate change as a good example of a messy problem—the issue serves as a lightning rod for diverging views on the role of government and includes “deep uncertainties related to the costs and beneficial impacts of actions to reduce climate change or minimize its effects.” We might bridge the problem, the authors suggest, by seeking, “(1) agreement that climate change is, in fact, many problems (some of which are very familiar and uncontroversial), and (2) the pursuit of smaller-scale consensus on values and actions that promote focused scientific and engineering solutions to local, regional, and national problems.” We might start disaggregating problems into areas specified by A National Strategic Narrative  including “continuing development and growth of America’s youth,” “security in the broader context of freedom and peace of mind,” and “sustainable access to, cultivation and use of” natural resources.

To return to Hurricane Sandy, without A National Strategic Narrative , we have no way of fitting what could be “smaller-scale consensus” solutions into a broad strategy for enhancing national resilience. One can imagine post-Sandy response and recovery efforts aligning quite well with various national sub-strategies. Take, for example, Grid Modernization efforts and the need to test “self-healing” electricity distribution networks, or the National Ocean Policy and the need to develop ecosystem-based coastal management approaches. A National Strategic Narrative could integrate and advance these sub-strategies to strengthen our nation.

This past summer, I had the good fortune to meet with a senior member of FEMA’s Office of Policy & Program Analysis. We discussed his thoughts on building social capital to assist disaster preparedness (social capital development resembles in part a whole-community approach to preparedness). In light of Hurricane Sandy, a social-capital building effort might prove a valuable vehicle for advancing A National Strategic Narrative.

What if there existed an institution whose sole mission were to build social-capacity to deliver on a national narrative? How would we ensure such an effort delivered evidence-based, credible solutions with power and autonomy but without inherent risk of bloated bureaucracy or political turf-fights? Could a public-private partnership support an Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) (designed, like ARPA-E, to be “flat, nimble, and sparse, capable of sustaining for long periods of time those projects whose promise remains real, while phasing out programs that do not prove to be as promising as anticipated”) to cultivate and mobilize social capital? An ARPA-C for whole-community capacity development and mobilization?

The institution could combine the success of the ARPAs with open government initiatives (like Data.gov), and the best practices from election ground-games, community organizing, and Military plan execution. If a plan is only as good as the team seeing it through, ARPA-C could research techniques, tactics, and methods for capacity-building in service of nation-wide needs. An ARPA-C initiative could accelerate the development of social capital within the country without regard for political persuasion. An ARPA-C, like DARPA and ARPA-E, might have the added benefit of making social challenges like climate change “less-messy,” transitioning political debate from infighting about uncertainty around complex impacts to constructive conversations about the steps people and communities can take to enhance their safety and prosperity today and in the future.

An institution framed around social capital might even find bipartisan support at the fundamental level of values. The communitarian values of progressives and the individualist values of libertarians each find voice in a drive to enhance national security by empowering individuals and communities. Embedded in A National Strategic Narrative, a social-capital project could accelerate almost any national initiative and help the United States, as Captain Porter and Colonel Mykleby urge, to “pursue her enduring interests of prosperity and security through a strategy of sustainability.”

Michael Bernstein is a doctoral student in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University.

Articles referenced

Daniel Metlay and Daniel Sarewitz, 2012, Decision Strategies for Addressing Complex, ‘Messy’ Problems, in The Bridge on Social Sciences and Engineering. National Academy of Engineering, Vol. 42, Fall 2012, pp. 6-16.

CAPT Wayne Porter, USN and Col Mark Mykleby, USMC, 2011, A National Strategic Narrative by Mr. Y. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Available at: http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/A%20National%20Strategic%20Narrative.pdf

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