Tag Archives: risk

Creating Risk Evangelists Through Risk Education

A recent New Yorker article caused quite a bit of discussion around risk, bringing wider attention to the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the northwestern coast of North America. The region is at risk of experiencing a M9.0+ earthquake and subsequent tsunami, yet mitigation efforts such as a fundraising proposal to relocate a K-12 school currently in the tsunami-inundation zone to a safer location, have failed to pass. A City Lab article explored reasons why people do not act, even when faced with the knowledge of possible natural disasters.

Photo credit: debaird

Could part of solution lie in risk education, better preparing future generations to assess, make decisions, and act when presented with risks that while they are low probability are also catastrophic?

The idea of risk is among the most powerful and influential in history. Risk liberated people from seeing every bad thing that happened as ordained by fate. At the same time risk was not simply random. The idea of risk opened up the concept of the limited company, encouraged the “try once and try again” mentality whether you are an inventor or an artist, and taught us how to manage a safety culture.

But how should we educate future generations to become well-versed in this most powerful and radical idea? Risk education can provide a foundation to enable everyone to function in the modern world. It also creates educational pathways for employment in one of the many activities that have risk at their core—whether drilling for oil, managing a railway, being an actuary, or designing risk software models.

A model for risk education

  • Risk education should start young, between the ages of 8 and 10 years old. Young children are deeply curious and ready to learn about the difference between a hazard and risk. Why wear a seatbelt? Children also learn about risk through board games, when good and bad outcomes become amplified, but are nonetheless determined by the throw of a die.
  • Official risk certifications could be incorporated into schooling during the teenage years—such as a GCSE qualification in risk, for example, in the United Kingdom. Currently the topic is scattered across subjects, around injury in physical education, around simple probabilities in mathematics, about natural hazards in geography. However, the 16 year old could be taught how to fit these perspectives together. How to calculate how much the casino expects to win and the punter expects to lose, on average. Imagine learning about the start of the First World War from the different risk perspectives of the belligerents or examining how people who climb Everest view the statistics of past mortality?
  • At a higher education level, a degree in risk management should cover mathematics and statistics as well as the collection and analysis of data by which to diagnose risk—including modules covering risk in medicine, engineering, finance and insurance, health and safety—in addition to environmental and disaster risk. Such a course could include learning how to develop a risk model, how to set up experiments to measure risk outcomes, how to best display risk information, and how to sample product quality in a production line. Imagine having to explain what makes for resilience or writing a dissertation on the 2007-2008 financial crisis in terms of actions that increased risk.

Why do we need improved risk education?

We need to become more risk literate in society. Not only because there are an increasing numbers of jobs in risk and risk management, for which we need candidates with a broad and scientific perspective, but because so much of the modern world can only be understood from a risk perspective.

Take the famous trial of the seismology experts in L’Aquila, Italy, who were found guilty of manslaughter, for what they said and did not say a few days before the destructive earthquake in their city in 2009. This was, in effect, a judgment on their inability to properly communicate risk.

There had been many minor shocks felt over several days and a committee was convened of scientists and local officials. However, only the local officials spoke at a press conference, saying there was nothing to worry about, and people should go home and open a bottle of wine. And a few days later, following a prominent foreshock, a significant earthquake caused many roofs to collapse and killed more than 300 people.

Had they been more educated in risk, the officials might have instead said, “these earthquakes are worrying; last time there was such a swarm there was a damaging earthquake. We cannot guarantee your safety in the town and you should take suitable precautions or leave.”

Sometimes better risk education can make the difference of life and death.

Risk and the City

I recently presented at a two-day seminar organized by the Geneva Association in collaboration with the XL Group with a key theme of “urban risk”—a pressing topic, as more than 50 percent of the world’s population currently lives in cities. By 2030, the proportion will have risen to 60 percent.

I came to the meeting with a presumption that as cities expand, the risk from natural disasters will fall for a few different reasons:

  • Higher concentrations of people and value in urban areas motivates better flood defenses and more effective drainage systems than in rural areas.
  • Tall buildings have more of their value out of reach of floods.
  • City buildings are much more likely to have been designed by a structural engineer who has accounted for risks such as wind damage or earthquake shaking.
  • Friction from buildings at the boundary layer slows down hurricane winds.

These are all good reasons why urbanization should be a powerful force for risk reduction.

Blackout in New York City during Hurricane Sandy. Credit: David Shankbone

Conversely, here are ten reasons risk can be higher in cities:

1)    Desire to be close to the center of the city inevitably raises land values, and encourages land to be “reclaimed” for development, while still remaining susceptible to flooding, liquefaction, and amplified earthquake shaking.

2)    High central business district land values encourage the use of underground space for storing some of the most valuable and mission-critical equipment, raising the costs when the city floods.

3)    Land in the city that is abandoned as too landslide-prone or too flood-prone gets built on anyway by informal settlements, which then add to the urban risk.

4)    The September 11, 2001 attacks and the 1985 Mexico City earthquake highlighted situations where people living or working in high-rise city center buildings were at much greater risk than those beyond the city or in the suburbs.

5)    While in wealthy countries structural engineers ensure that taller buildings meet construction standards, in developing countries many midrise buildings are constructed without engineers.

6)    When the urban flood defenses do break, such as New Orleans in 2005 or in Nagoya, Japan in 2000, the consequences are much worse than if the defenses had not been constructed, because some cities have been developed as if there is no risk.

7)    Hazards and buildings interact in complex ways. Urban tornadoes create a debris field that expands the width of the damage zone beyond the highest winds. Urban storm surges and hurricane winds also turn building debris into hazard agents.

8)    Cities are totally dependent on electrical power. When the power goes out, all kinds of functions stop. For example, during Superstorm Sandy, many disabled people were stranded in their apartment buildings in the absence of working elevators.

9)    Cities can show reduced levels of social support in disasters, as seen in the higher casualty rates in Paris during the August 2003 French heat wave.

10)   Lastly, cities are typically located on a waterfront where they inevitably confront frontline water hazards such as storm surge or tsunami.

So, does that all add up to higher levels of risk?

To answer that question, we would need to perform a controlled study of two regions: one with a big city and one without, to model the comparative loss ratio for people and property across all perils. Factors such as economic wealth levels would need to be taken into consideration.

What we know for sure is the risks of a big city are different to those of rural areas. Going forward, we will inevitably see an increasing proportion of big urban disasters like those of the last decade in New Orleans, Port au Prince, Christchurch, and New York.