Thinking the Unthinkable logo Thinking the Unthinkable logo

Prepared? . . . Probably Not!

Lord Toby Harris

by Lord Toby Harris

Filed under Climate Emergency / Diversity of Thinking

Lord Toby Harris chairs the UK’s new National Preparedness Commission. But it faces obstacles getting its core messages read and accepted. Here he asks why leaders still find preparing for the unexpected so problematic.

This is an edited version of a speech he gave to the Resilience Association in London on 4 October 2022.

We were all shocked by the speed at which the norms of society unravelled because of COVID. City centres were deserted, businesses were shut down, there was enforced social distancing and mask wearing.

2022 also brought war in Ukraine, huge supply chain disruptions, massive energy price rises, double-digit inflation and here in the UK two new Prime Ministers plus a 1970s-style run on the Pound.

The UK’s National Preparedness Commission was conceived before COVID hit. But the last two years have highlighted how vital its central purpose has become: to promote better preparedness in the UK for a major crisis or incident.

Preparing to be prepared

At our first meeting in November 2020, commissioners were warned that - irrespective of COVID - we are living in a world that is increasingly volatile and unstable.

A month later, a new edition of the National Risk Register was published. This mapped 38 major risks facing the UK. They included environmental hazards, major accidents, malicious attacks (cyber-based and terrorist), risks arising overseas, and - inevitably – animal and human diseases.

Notably the register did not mention the prospect of Russian aggression in Europe, or the resulting price rises and currency instability that we have all experienced.

The National Preparedness Commission therefore set itself the task of focussing on three questions:

  • What should we prepare for?
  • How much preparedness is enough?
  • And how do we finance the necessary investment?

Big Dangers … but losing momentum

I have to admit to being worried that despite all the unthinkables of recent months the momentum to raise the national game on resilience has been lost.

In August 2022, the UK government quietly announced that the Civil Contingencies Secretariat was being disbanded in its present form. The following month the National Security Council - where senior ministers met with the heads of key security agencies - was wound up.

Yet the need for a National Resilience Strategy based on a whole-of-society approach is exactly what the Commission has been saying since it was established. If you make every level of government, every organisation and every community more resilient you will create a sort of herd immunity. Then society will be better able to address future global crises, whether a new pandemic, a massive cyber attack, climate change of something we have yet to envisage.

This is true for each household and every individual. We all have to play our part. We are all in this together.

The coming unthinkables

A series of global trends is likely to impact directly or indirectly on all of us in the coming years.

First and foremost is climate change. This is leading to more extreme weather events both at home and abroad. Floods, droughts, storms, heatwaves and heavy rainfall will become more intense and more frequent.

This will mean that some parts of the world will become increasingly uninhabitable, driving huge movements of refugees and leading to shortages of food and water with an impact on global supply chains and producing political instability that will spill over national borders.

Our own homeland in the UK will not be spared these extremes.

Second, the world can expect increased competition for natural resources with greater supply insecurities.

Third, this is in the context of a changing world order and rapid geo-political change. The US is surrendering its pre-eminence, China is becoming an increasingly dominant economic power, Russia is using both “hybrid” and “kinetic” means to maximise its influence, and the future cohesion of the European Union is becoming less certain.

Near catastrophe in Texas

In February 2021, Texas experienced a major series of power failures. They illustrated graphically the scale of vulnerability in a modern, highly industrialised nation. After all, Texas itself, would be the tenth largest economy in the world if it were a nation. The major outage highlighted:

• the failure to invest adequately in the maintenance of critical infrastructure;

• the reliance on ever more complex and inter-connected systems; and

• the dangers of cascade collapse.

Such vulnerabilities exist around the globe. But as in Texas no one entity is responsible for mitigating them.

So, some crises will arise suddenly and unexpectedly, requiring urgent action. As a leader you need to ask yourself time and again: can you identify whatever is coming - however unthinkable? Then how do I prepare for the likelihood of it happening?

No other option: be better prepared

One thing we must learn from the last two years is that we cannot go on burying our heads in the sand. We must be better prepared for the unexpected.

The lesson for all of us – the over-riding lesson in every country - is that we have not been investing sufficiently in our preparedness and resilience.

In essence, we must try to predict the unpredictable, prepare for the uncertain, and recognise that some of it will be wrong. But we still need to consider the possibilities, however radical and extreme. After all, such unthinkables happen.

De-programme your mind

What makes handling this all the more difficult is that our minds tend to be programmed in ways that make it hard to respond to novel risks or to protracted and complex challenges: We find it easier to believe that something might happen if it comes easily to mind. The more we can picture it, the higher our intuitive estimate of its likelihood.

Then there is optimism bias. This pre-disposes us to be over-optimistic about the risk of something bad happening and over-confident about our ability to cope if it does. At worst, this can result in outright denial. And it is harder to form sound judgments about how much effort to invest in preventing low likelihood/very high impact risks.

And we are also subject to three realities.

Firstly, confirmation bias. This is the universal tendency to pay attention to what supports our existing beliefs while ignoring information that contradicts them.

Secondly, group think. This is the inclination to follow the pack and conform to the majority view.

Finally, there is NIMTO – “Not in My Term of Office”.

Yes! Being prepared carries a cost

Being properly prepared and resilient is expensive. Adopting a preparedness philosophy means parking our “just in time” approach in favour of “just in case”.

Leaders must be ready to build in redundancy and avoid interdependence. This is bad enough in the public sector. But even worse in the corporate sector, particularly in a corporate world with an increasing focus on optimising annual returns and quarterly figures.

I am a recovering politician. So, I know how difficult it is for our elected leaders to devote tax money to projects that do not come to fruition by the time of the next election let alone the one after it – or to build resilience that is probably invisible and may never be needed - for an eventuality that may not happen.

It is usually impossible to prove that actions have prevented something happening. This is particularly so if that hypothetical event is at some indeterminate time in the future and almost certainly long after your term of office is forgotten.

Japanese hero who defied orthodox thinking

That’s why I want to highlight the far sightedness of Mayor (Kotoku) Wamura of Fudai in Japan. He is such a rare exception. He served as mayor for forty years and was re-elected nine times. But beginning in 1972 he was ridiculed for insisting on building 51 foot high floodgates and a huge 673 foot sea wall at a cost of $30 million.

His actions were vindicated by the tsunami of 2011 that obliterated other nearby towns, but not Fudai. 3,000 residents owed their lives to his foresight. But by then he was long dead and the only expressions of appreciation were the many flowers laid on his grave.

So, to be resilient and prepared, we need to scan the horizon. We have to be super sensitive to the unpalatable evidence of what is out there but not yet looming. We’ve got to look out for US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”.

So, we have to prepare for and build general resilience.

The uphill struggle to convince

This is where the National Preparedness Commission comes in. Since our first meeting in November 2020, we have published a dozen reports and held a series of roundtables. They involved commissioners, civil servants and subject matter experts, along with a number of more general external-facing open events.

Earlier in 2022 we published a major review of the Civil Contingencies Act and its supporting arrangements. We made117 recommendations to strengthen resilience arrangements at local, regional and national levels. The aim was to build links with the voluntary and community sector, and for more and better information to enable families, businesses and communities to be better prepared.

“Partnering with Purpose” looks at how the Government can create a climate in which businesses and the private sector generally are enabled and supported to be better prepared and more resilient. This also talks about providing better information about the threats that the nation faces but also looks at how the regulatory framework might better encourage resilient behaviour.

Preparing London and the Thames Valley

In mid-September we held a roundtable looking at the English equivalent of the Fudai sea wall. That is the Thames Barrier – possibly a rare example of major UK investment in preparedness infrastructure.

The background is the major storm that took place early in 1953, combined with wind and low pressure, along with high spring tide. This caused a storm surge up to 5.6 metres above mean sea level that hit the Netherlands, north-west Belgium, England and Scotland There was extensive loss of life with nearly 2,200 deaths on land and several hundred mariners lost at sea

The flood on the East Coast of England was the worst in the 20th Century. A thousand miles of coastline were damaged, sea walls were breached in 1200 places. 250 square miles were flooded. At least 300 people were killed in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. 30,000 were forced out of their homes

In London, water lapped the top of the embankments in Victoria and Chelsea. So central London did not flood but as one observer recalled: “It was a close-run thing. A committee and thirty years later we got the Thames Barrier.”

This was an example of foresight: the need to protect the financial and governmental centre of the nation. The issue, of course, now is how long the Barrier is going to be fit for purpose given a more unpredictable climate and rising sea levels.

Overcoming resistance and scepticism

In all such cases, we’ve got to get beyond simply admiring the scale of what we face, whether it is climate change, a pandemic even more serious than COVID, a devastating cyber-attack, or whatever else it might be.

Often the responses needed are threat neutral. The steps necessary are the same whatever the hazard.

Think back to the beginning of the pandemic and the need to identify and support vulnerable people isolated in their homes. There were the problems of utilities sharing information with the NHS and vice versa. This was because of the perceived concerns about GDPR and confidentiality.

In March, the Commission held a roundtable looking at how those issues were overcome and could be overcome in the future. This was because of the need to identify and support vulnerable individuals in a pandemic, in a flood or virtually every other sort of emergency.

Black Swans, Jellyfishes and Elephants

I like the taxonomy which says: we have to be ready not only for the “Black Swans” (previously unobserved, high impact, hard to predict rare events), but also the “Black Jellyfishes” (things we think we know about and understand, but which turn out to be more complex and uncertain, sometimes with a long tail and a nasty sting at the end) and the “Black Elephants” (challenges visible to everyone, but which no one wants to deal with).

The core message is that resilience needs to be designed in as part of society’s fabric. It means that you as leaders need to recalibrate your perceptions along with risk and resilience.

And the increasing complexity of our society and its systems – of course – brings many benefits, but it potentially creates its own fragilities.

How complexity creates fragility

Here is a prime example. At 16:54h on 9th August 2019 there was a simultaneous loss of one gas and one off-shore generator. Despite the back-up arrangements the temporary reduction in frequency led to a power cut in some areas of the country. The grid stabilised within fifteen minutes and all demand was reconnected in all areas by 17.40.

The outage was caused by two completely unconnected random events that together produced a modest but unimaginable cascade effect. The electricity grid did what it was expected to do and power was restored extremely quickly.

There were consequences:

• Nearly a million people were without power (but not for long)

• Newcastle airport was plunged into darkness for fifteen minutes

• Ipswich Hospital was hit by 30 minute power cut because the emergency generator had failed with patients trapped in lifts, interruptions to supply in the cardiac unit (In fact, someone in Government saw it as a point for congratulation that the emergency generators had failed in only one hospital.)

• Traffic controls in London, Bradford and other areas failed – leading the traffic police to say ‘it’s like Grand Theft Auto out there’

The most prolonged effects were on the rail system. Major delays lasted through the night. The reason was that electric trains are designed - quite appropriately - to come gently to a halt if the power fails. Those systems worked.

Trains stopped in their place all over the network. The problems arose because some classes of train could only be rebooted by an engineer who had to travel to the affected trains. Where trains had stopped other trains could not pass them, because of the risk of spreading the disruption to unaffected trains that could have been restarted by their drivers.

Think complexity… and the unexpected

My point is not to apportion blame in this case. It is to highlight the fact that there will be interdependencies that have not been considered. So who should be responsible for managing a particular consequence: is it the electricity generator that failed, the grid itself, the train operator, or the train designer?

It is a truism that Generals always prepare to fight the last war rather than the one that is actually coming. Sir David Omand, the former UK Security Coordinator, recast it in a slightly different way. He said, “What we prepare for, we deter. So what we actually experience by way of events is, alas, what we have not prepared for.”

The reality is that our nations, our cities and communities, and our organisations have to have preparedness and resilience designed in. This has to be part of society’s fabric.

Inaction: will someone else fix everything?

There is always the assumption that someone else will sort it out.

But ultimately, every single one of us have to see preparedness and resilience as their responsibility just as much as it is the responsibility of public authorities.

We all need to be resilient. We all need to prepare for risks. Of course, it is not cost free. But to not do so is worse and eventually carries a higher cost.

As John F Kennedy put it: “There are risk and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range costs of comfortable inaction.”

Leave a comment