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National Resilience Strategy – Response to Call for Evidence – SysRisk project

In what context is this response developed?: e. Other: as a representative of an academic consortium project involving partners from Universities of Reading, Surrey and York in partnership with Defra.

Which of the following most closely describes your level of knowledge of risk and resilience related issues? a. Academics focussing on resilience

Questions on Vision and Principles:

Q1. Do you agree with the proposed vision of the Resilience Strategy? Is there anything you would add, amend, or remove?

The proposed vision for the National Resilience Strategy is to make the UK the most resilient nation. However, given global interconnectivity (e.g. of the economy and environment) it is unclear whether a single nation can maintain resilience while many other countries do not. The contagion of risks has been clearly demonstrated in recent years with the COVID pandemic, food supply shocks, human migration and climate change. Reducing these impacts depends on global cooperation in resilience building, and it might be worthwhile to reflect this interdependency and a motivation to co-create resilience among nations in the overarching vision.

The core principles are strong and seem to capture the key elements. One addition might be an explicit mention of seeking to address the root causes of the different types of risks we face. Also, some distributional issues are mentioned in terms of understanding ‘the range of potential impacts and consequences (including geographic and socio-economic variations)’ but this should also include a consideration of risks faced by future generations.

Questions on Risk and Resilience:

Q1 Is there more that the Government can do to assess risk at the national and local levels? If so, what?

The National Resilience Strategy states it will consider the capability to address the common causes and impacts of risks, and systemic vulnerabilities. We believe that a participatory systems mapping approach can be useful addition to existing horizon scanning approaches for identifying threats and will be particularly valuable in appraising different types of interventions to build resilience. We are using this approach in the SysRisk project for three case studies: air quality, biosecurity and food security. We gathered c. 45 experts from different disciplines and sectors, stratified to cover the PESTLE areas (political, economic, social, technological, legal/regulatory, environment). We developed participatory systems maps of how risks cascade through socioeconomic and environmental systems and then identified: a) watchpoints-  data sets for monitoring initiatives to quantify whether these risks are being realised, and, b) interventions- from more proximate reactive measures to build resilience to more proactive measures addressing root causes. Following our systems mapping we conducted deliberative workshops to appraise interventions to build resilience. For example, interventions can be explored in terms of:

  • Whether they need to be proactive or reactive
  • Their likely feasibility (cost, achievability including barriers) and effectiveness
  • Multifunctionality (e.g., how they also build resilience to other threats or provide general benefits)
  • Ethical considerations (e.g., the extent to which certain sectors of the population may not have capacity to put these in place; and how this could be mitigated)
  • Complementarity (i.e., whether multiple interventions need to be put in place to work together; is there a specific ordering?)
  • Who and when? Who are the key players implement interventions (given effective resilience is governed by multiple stakeholders), and over what time frame?

The outputs of our project will be shared in a report and a presentation event (16th Dec, EoI details can be found here. We believe these protocols may be useful for the wider appraisal of risks and resilience building across government and we are happy to engage to share our lessons learnt from the process.

Current risk cascade systems maps include those in Table 1 below. An example map (work in progress) can be found here.

Table 1, Risk cascades from participatory system mapping through the SysRisk project

Air QualityBiosecurityFood Security
Novel pollutantsDormant pathogenProduction and UK land use
Electric vehiclesAccidental releaseEconomic and social barriers
Resource scarcityHuman / wildlife / livestockTrade related
Climate changeOutbreak health systemPandemic and other system shocks
Altered working patterns

Q2. Is there more that the Government can do to communicate about risk and risk appetite with organisations and individuals? If so, what? And Q5. How could the current local risk assessment process, managed through Local Resilience Forums, be strengthened to help local partners?

Many initiatives focus on adaptation to risks such as climate change through actions by government or businesses (e.g., UK Climate Change Risk Assessment; Sendai Disaster Risk Reduction Framework) but fewer at the level of individual citizens. Empowering citizens to develop adaptation strategies gives them personal agency to protect themselves and their communities, and is an essential route to reducing climate change impacts on health and prosperity. It may also increase the salience of risks and prompt a more active role in citizenship, for example cascading upwards to catalyse stronger institutional adaptation. Despite this, current advice on adaptation to climate change for local communities is sparse, and rarely involves participatory approaches with citizens co-producing their own adaptation plans. Rather than simply ‘communicating risk’ to citizens and communities, a more powerful approach could be to engage them in co-development of risk identification and resilience planning.  Evidence suggests this is likely a much more effective approach to changing attitudes and behaviours around risk awareness and resilience planning.

Questions on Responsibilities and Accountability

Q4. What do you consider the advantages and disadvantages of the current legislative basis for resilience?

The current legislative basis, although strong for responding to transient emergencies, is less fit for purpose in reducing the drivers of systemic risk. These ‘slow burn’ drivers such as non-renewable resource use, air pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss create multiplication of short term risks such as extreme weather events, food price shocks, and social unrest, and well as eroding the basis of resilience (e.g. a healthy population). Thus, there is a danger that the current resilience infrastructure is constantly fire-fighting and developing ‘sticking plaster fixes’ that don’t adequately address more ‘slow-burn’ systemic instabilities. The principle of subsidiarity outlined– with decisions, planning and responsibility at lowest appropriate level (e.g. communities, local authorities) and coordination at national level– is generally sound but there is a danger it leads to abdication of responsibility. This is particularly the case for addressing slow burn drivers. It would be worth considering how a legislative basis for Futures Generations (e.g., the Welsh Futures Generations and Wellbeing Act, 2016) could better ensure a long-term policy is enacted within Government to counter slow-burn degradation of resilience. 

Questions on Partnerships (wider critical sectors and supply chains)

Q7. What can the Government do to make collaboration between academic and research organisations more effective? And Q8. Are there areas where the role of research in building national resilience can be expanded?

The current interface between academic and government around identification of risks and resilience building approaches is somewhat poor. Understanding complex risks requires diverse expertise from a range of academic disciplines (and practitioners from many sectors). Risks cascade through social, cultural, economic, political, technological and environmental systems, and so highly integrative approaches are needed to understand these risks and develop appropriate resilience. Platforms that bring these different expertise sets together in a more effective way seem essential to address systemic risks.  There are two ways in which this could be achieved:  first, UKRI should continue to fund long-term interdisciplinary research centres and programmes, ensuring that both academics and public officials are involved in the research; and second, there should be more ‘Policy Fellowships’ and similar schemes (e.g. the ESRC pilot Policy Fellowships and the Defra Systems Programme Fellowships schemes). There is also value in secondments from government into academic programmes and groups for defined periods, i.e. increasing the permeability of the science-policy interface in both directions.

In addition to academia, the Resilience strategy should also consider transdisciplinary and decentralised collaborations with a much more diverse set of (local) actors, ensuring improved resilience knowledge isn’t abstracted for its context and can be applied directly at source.

Q8. Are there areas where the role of research in building national resilience can be expanded?

No doubt there are many areas and UKRI-government workshops to explore this issue could be valuable. One example is how diversification of supply chains to ensure resilience might be targeted. Currently, advice on this seems to be at the general level of ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’. However, diversifying supply has substantial overhead costs, so trade-offs with short term economic  considerations also need to be managed. One approach to assist in this is to identify clusters of trade partners that respond to shocks in a similar way. For example, one of our SysRisk team members (Dornelles et al.) has led analysis on the synchronised dynamics on national food supply shocks. Countries fall into around six clusters within which they share synchronised dynamics in food availability (i.e. they experience food availability crashes simultaneously). This approach can help diversification- e.g. importing food from countries in different clusters is more resilient than importing from multiple countries within the same cluster. This research approach along with many others could be developed to inform resilience building.

Questions on Community and local resilience:

2. Do you understand the types of emergencies that might impact you and other members of your community? a. What would help you better understand the risks that could affect your community?

The answer to this is probably negative in most cases, yet initiatives to engage communities to identify the different threat vectors that may impact them and develop personal adaptation plans could be very valuable. Studies show people show concern about climate change impacts but they think little about the diverse mechanisms of impact, including both direct effects of climate change (e.g. heat stress, flooding) and also second order effects (e.g. food insecurity, national infrastructure disruption such as transport and energy supply, etc). Therefore, individual/community adaptation planning is poor. One further possibility is targeting of those most in need of climate change adaptation planning (for example, targeting the most vulnerable households by combining hydrological modelling of household flood risk with thermal image analysis of heat extremes, intersected with social demographic data), and using this to engage these high-risk households in participatory adaptation planning. Resilience strategists should be aware that certain sectors of the population lack the capacity and resources for adaptation planning, which exacerbates environmental injustice (e.g. see here).

Questions on Resilience in an Interconnected World:

Q4. What international risks have the greatest impact on UK resilience?

Environment mediated risks pose particularly severe threats for the UK. This includes linked threats such as climate change, biodiversity loss, human migration and food shortages. TheUK Government’sIntegrated Review and the National Resilience Strategy Call for Evidence recognises the globally interconnected nature of threats. However, it is easy to underestimate how their impacts can accumulate to destabilise natural, social, human, manufactured and economic capital, thus eroding resilience to future risks. For example, the pandemic has cost the UK hundreds of billions of pounds, and each weather extreme event may cost billions, and food or energy aid under increasingly disrupted global supply networks could also cost billions. These massive costs may begin to erode the capacity of the government to provide resilience.

A Futures approach to understanding how resilience can be maintained under various scenarios of degraded natural, social, human, manufactured and economic capital could be very worthwhile. This could involve an interdisciplinary working group with strands of experts cataloguing how the degradation of each type of capital over the last few decades has impacted resilience to new shocks, plus modelling how future changes in UK natural, social, human, manufactured and economic capital will affect resilience. Work across different strands should consider how the different types of capital also interact to affect resilience, e.g. how degradation of human capital (e.g. health of workers) can affect economic recovery, or how natural capital degradation (e.g. damage to green/blue space, biodiversity and air quality) can affect human and social capital, all affecting resilience to future perturbations. 

Hence, for effective resilience there is a need to address: i) blindness to the multiple types of risk in an interconnected world, ii) blindness to multiple types of interventions that often need to be put in place in a complementary way, i.e. beyond a focus on interventions in a specific sector or from a specific disciplinary angle, and iii) blindness to the assumptions that underpin each intervention working effectively, i.e. how interventions depend on sufficient stocks of different types of capital. A credible resilience strategy must address blindness and barriers at all these levels.

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