The Value of Social Capital and Emergent Groups

Last week we had the pleasure to attend the World Conference on Disaster Management (WCDM) at the Metro Convention Centre in Toronto. Great event! The diversity of delegates’ disciplines, the international perspectives, and the quality of sessions were all excellent. Although the Disaster Management field can at times be a fairly diverse mix of Risk Management, Business Continuity, Crisis Communications, Emergency Response, Disaster Relief, Aid and other flavours, it all makes for a lively and inspiring discussion when they converge.

There were many themes covered over the conference’s three days but perhaps one of the main ones was resilience. And related to that more specifically were the intermingled ideas of social capital and emergent groups. This was satisfying to see because these are of course a couple of the driving ideas behind both RallyEngine and CodeSearch.

Social capital, as described best by Dr. Erica Seville and Dr. John Vargo of the New Zealand based Resilient Organisations Research Programme, is the relationships and networks that organizations can draw on in a crisis. Give everyone a role in resilience (not just the experts) and build trust so that you can draw on it, and on a critical mass of support, when needed. Community outreach programs, for example, can achieve this by fostering familiarity and access to a broader range of skills.

CodeSearch, with its standby roster of corporate citizens ready to be mobilized in the event of a missing child, could very well be the model for this definition of social capital in emergency situations.

It works because it harnesses the power of emergent groups. One of the most important, and most difficult, things for organizations to do in a disaster is to mobilize their people. We see this time and time again (and we studied it here with the 2013 Alberta Floods, where only 19% of organizations were able to reach their employees). Resilience is often shepherded by groups of people that step up – because they know to or simply because they can – and emerge with solutions that adapt more realistically to the circumstances and resources at hand.

A great example of this was provided by Australian PhD student Melanie Irons in her presentation explaining how her Facebook page called “Tassie Fires – We Can Help” emerged in response to the devastating bush fires in Tasmania in 2013. She spearheaded a massive community response and launched a central hub of information sharing – both supporting and augmenting official efforts. Such “spontaneous volunteers” initiatives for emergency management social media have also been called Virtual Operations Support Teams, and they’re much more effective and popular than more traditional rigid volunteering.

An underlying current here is to stop spending time predicting and instead develop strategies for coping. As Kathleen Tierney of the Natural Hazards Center in Boulder Colorado said, “There’s a time to follow the rules and a time to find workarounds. … Networks are what actually do the work in a crisis, not tight linear command-and-control plans.” Rather than planning for XYZ scenario, plan to adapt and be adaptable. That’s the essence of resilience.

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