Out of Pandemic, Transformational Resilience Can Emerge

The global pandemic from COVID-19 is a situation that none of us has experienced in the modern age. It has very different traits and impacts than what we have typically experienced from natural, man-made or climate-induced events. 

Most notably, the COVID-19 pandemic is at a contemporaneous global scale, affecting everyone simultaneously, and straining leadership, collaborative relationships and the institutions and essential personnel we rely upon during emergencies.

However, there are three important similarities between this global pandemic and chronic changes in the climate. Both:

  • are exacerbated through human activity, 
  • have had a massive impact both globally and locally, and 
  • require a global response. 

What we learn now could accelerate future preparedness and resilience efforts and create transformational change for our future. 

The short-term response and longer-term resilience strategies implemented to address the crisis can lead to innovative solutions that may be applied to address other systemic issues the world faces, including climate change. 

Many in the climate field have been proposing sustainability and resilience strategies to anticipate, manage and track the more chronic, gradual changes in the climate, such as higher temperatures, sea level rise and changing precipitation patterns. 

Developing a Future Ready ‘Playbook’

Almost all organizations have business continuity or emergency response plans that they prepare, exercise or test, and update on a regular basis for a variety of threats or shocks to their critical functions such as a cyber-attack or disruption to operations at a critical facility. 

However, because there is a belief that there will be time to react to slow moving changes in climate, few organizations have considered and addressed systemic, chronic and gradual changes in the environment, economy and society like deforestation, drought and extreme temperatures, as well as acute events such as health epidemics or migration and the cascading impacts that these trends can generate. Further, preparations for acute events typically rely upon models of recent past events.

Changes in the environment, economy and society, including deforestation, drought and extreme temperatures, as well as acute events such as health epidemics, can generate cascading impacts.
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Two lessons that we can draw from the COVID-19 Pandemic: Changes to the natural environment do not move linearly, but rather in step functions; and slow-moving phenomena that appear well off in the horizon can become crises in short order. Experience may not provide a reliable model of parameters of the next crisis.  

WSP’s Future ReadyTM program encourages its staff to research and consider the implications of future trends related to climate change, society, technology and resources; address relevant trends in project solutions and support clients and the communities they serve to lead the way in innovating towards a changing future. This helps clients consider future scenarios and build resiliency to acute shocks and chronic stressors. 

Resilient organizations track global trends, test their capabilities, operations, supply chains and value chains so that they can adapt their operations and minimize disruption in the face of a crisis. They prepare for possible challenges, testing situations, and have plans in place to adapt to the acute shocks their systems, employees and customers may face, as well as the chronic, systemic issues that can trigger these crises.

One emerging framework to enhance organization resilience to the impacts of climate change is the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). 

Originally released in 2017, the TCFD recommendations “emphasize the importance of transparency in pricing risk—including risk related to climate change—to support informed, efficient capital-allocation decisions.” The lessons we’re learning from this pandemic of the impacts to company’s employees, business functions, operations and supply chains will help to better prepare these companies for future risks and enhance their business resilience.

For the first time in the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report — which analyzes global, decadal risks — the most likely global risks for 2020 were all environmental, including; extreme weather events, human-made environmental damage and disasters, major biodiversity loss; earthquakes and tsunamis. With hindsight we can certainly add pandemics. The report identified the failure to act on climate mitigation and adaptation as the risk likely to have the greatest impact over the next 10 years.

Few organizations have playbooks that currently plan for the chronic threats that trigger these types of crises. Throughout our careers, we have developed and tested playbooks that plan for chronic changes in the climate, including sea level rise, higher temperatures and more severe extreme weather, also taking into consideration changes in technology, population, resources and societal norms. 

However, they are not the norm and tend to be company- or organization-specific instead of “whole community,” involving all stakeholders within a community. Climate change, like the COVID-19 pandemic, will require broad action by the global community.

Anticipating the Unbelievable

So, what actions should we be taking right now to mitigate further impacts from unanticipated events of global consequence? 

  • Test and update current business continuity or emergency response plans to reflect the lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis. 
  • Monitor and track global trends and risks, both chronic and acute, and take early warnings seriously. 
  • Identify the critical functions needed to operate, maintain and grow an organization and determine how global trends might impact that organization.
  • Design for failure, regardless of the threat. 
  • Stress-test plans, both discussion-based and full-scale real-world exercises.
  • Invest in people who excel in strategic foresight and know how to plan for and exercise multiple threats that may not have already been considered, such as biodiversity loss, higher temperatures and technological attacks. 
  • Use strategic foresight to develop community resilience plans in partnership with community stakeholders and suppliers.
  • Diversify supply chains and introduce redundancies to protect them.
  • Learn how to adapt business models quickly by providing online learning, teaching and connecting while practicing physical distancing. 

It is critical to test and update these plans regularly, and to get past the initial crisis response and recovery planning and begin to think more strategically about resilience planning.  

For example, to what extent will organization staff return to the office after the current crisis has passed? Will individuals be comfortable returning to mass transit? How will organizations thrive in a post-crisis economic reality? Going beyond response measures and committing to creating a more sustainable, equitable and resilient future for stakeholders, partners, customers, employees, suppliers and loved ones is crucial. 

Galvanize to Respond and Be Future Ready

In one sense, this pandemic experience is a global experiment in collective vulnerability and resilience. It is a full-scale exercise that is teaching us how humans behave, how systems react, how vulnerable or resilient our supply chains are and how dependent we are on our global partners. 

Great ideas can come from any source; one is as least as likely to emerge from the ground-up as it is to arrive from the top-down. It will require collaboration across sectors, organizations and jurisdictions to prepare for a variety of shocks and stresses. 

When we unify for a common purpose, especially in response to a natural or man-made crisis – or in the case of climate change, both – we achieve rapid and sustainable results. In order to maintain resilience, it is important to remember these elements: 

Leadership. Leaders that bring people together, identify solutions, adapt quickly to change, practice empathy and ensure transparent communication will gain the trust of others and transform the change we need for a more sustainable and resilient future. 

Connection. Before a crisis occurs, it is important that we maintain strong connections with our neighbors, communities and families on a regular basis so that when we are isolated and need to rely heavily on these networks for support, essential services and connections, the strength of these existing relationships can help us through challenging times. 

Service. Our essential workforce in industries on the frontlines of this crisis — employees in the medical and healthcare, telecommunications, information technology systems, defense, food and agriculture, transportation and logistics, energy, water and wastewater, law enforcement and public works professions — who can serve more effectively when the general population follows recommended shelter-in-place orders. 

Gratitude. When we are required to stay home, we should use that time to be grateful for the roof above our heads, the food on our plates, the health and safety of our loved ones, and to appreciate those who put themselves at greater risk for our safety and security. It’s also a good time to practice self-care and personal resilience.

Behavior. We may need to change our behavior, be more mindful of our consumption and focus more on essential goods and services, act and adjust quickly, and demand more as a customer and investor for improved preparedness and planning at a variety of scales. But this crisis will lead to beneficial changes in our routines when we discover what is truly important to us.

The pandemic reminds us about the importance of weaving resilience into our everyday lives. Can we draw any lessons from this devastating crisis to address a less immediate, but more critical challenge to our long-term survival? 

Whether we are acting as an individual, a family, a community, an industry or as a nation, we have an opportunity to provide proactive responses to climate change that will have a long-lasting impact on the planet and our lives. 

This article was written by Emily Wasley, Senior Project Director and Future Ready Advisor, and Heather Unger, Senior Sustainability Consultant and Future Ready Program Director at WSP.

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