Over the last 25 years, the world has seen a rise in the frequency of natural disasters. Today, there are more people at risk from natural hazards than ever before, with those in developing countries particularly at risk. This series explores measures that have been taken, and could be taken, in order to improve responses to the threat or occurrence of natural disasters in the MENA and Indo-Pacific regions. Read more ...

Background, Gaps, Needs, and Justification

Recent disasters, exemplified by the floods in Thailand (2011) and the earthquake/tsunami in Japan (2011), demonstrate how increased global connectivity of networks of communication and distribution of goods, in addition to capital concentrations in hazard-prone regions is in part responsible for skyrocketing financial losses associated with geophysical hazards (Figure 1). A fundamental understanding of natural hazards and their effects on these interconnected systems is critical for economic resilience. An example of this is Haraguchi and Lall (2014) looking at the 2011 Thailand floods and decisions around supply chain management.[1]

By understanding and quantifying the hazards and the associated risks and their inter-connectedness, societies will be in a better position to guard against these increasingly expensive, deadly hazards and bounce back from potentially catastrophic events. To accomplish this aim, we will develop a computational framework that will narrow the gap between tactical reactions and strategic thinking. We stress that it is imperative that there be better links between academics and industry in the natural hazards and risk analysis arena. This essay discusses the genesis, objectives and goals of South East Asia Risk Collaboration Hub (SEARCH), a knowledge-driven enterprise which provides a platform for the private sector and academia to discuss these crucial issues.

Figure 1.  Economic Losses from Natural Hazards, 1960-2015


Source: www.emdat.be. (Photo credit:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-15398566)
Note: The increasing losses in Asia as economies continue to expand.  Inset: Flooding in Thailand (2011) disrupted supply chains.  (Photo credit:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-15398566)

Businesses and the private sector are key players in any country’s road to resilience from natural hazards. This sector provides not only incomes for families but funds, insures and sustains many of the lifelines—public works, health facilities and government functions- especially in the recent past as globalization/neoliberalization privatizes these services. Furthermore, businesses must protect their own viability while maintaining these critical services. Yet, despite the essential services that the private sector provides, it has often been left out of the risk reduction and resilience conversation.

The Sendai Framework for Risk Reduction 2015-2030 highlights the importance of the private sector to disaster risk and impacts. It also discusses the need for collaboration with science, research and academia; training and education; and knowledge sharing:

§36(c) Business, professional associations and private sector financial institutions, including financial regulators and accounting bodies, as well as philanthropic foundations, to integrate disaster risk management, including business continuity, into business models and practices through disaster-risk-informed investments, especially in micro, small and medium-sized enterprises; engage in awareness-raising and training for their employees and customers; engage in and support research and innovation, as well as technological development for disaster risk management; share and disseminate knowledge, practices and non sensitive data; and actively participate, as appropriate and under the guidance of the public sector, in the development of normative frameworks and technical standards that incorporate disaster risk management …[2]

Research-focused academics are incentivized to work in silos, producing untimely and inaccessible results that would benefit from additional information and guidance from industry. By the time proposals are written, funds acquired, student researchers hired and brought up to speed on the project, data collected, analysed and written up, sent away for publication, reviewed then reviewed again before being put in the queue for publishing in a journal that the majority of business people will never see (this usually occurs over years), the profit-driven private sector has moved on, progressing at a faster pace that is needed to keep up with rapidly evolving markets.  Industry simply cannot wait for the slow and deliberate academic process.

Despite the slower pace of academia, the private sector will nonetheless gain from exposure to the academy’s new ideas and perspectives, cutting-edge research, and the curiosity-driven enterprises that fuel innovation. Furthermore, academic partnerships will allow industry to access and, critically, develop  a pipeline of well-trained students as future employees. While formal partnerships exist between private companies and academic institutions, we propose creating a transdisciplinary brainstorming space, where ideas can be discussed freely within a small, select group of stakeholders from multiple disciplinary planes. The group is constituted by individuals, from both the academy and business, that bring their own expertise to the table, working together to define the questions, while bringing  a willingness to engage others who may have complementary and/or discordant views. Ideas generated in this space are brought back to specialists in their respective camps, enriched by the dialogue.

What is SEARCH?

Based on these acute needs, and supported by the Sendai Framework, the South East Asia Risk Collaboration Hub (SEARCH) provides a platform for the private sector and academia to simply discuss these crucial issues. SEARCH was born of researchers frustrated with the closed-loop yet byzantine flow of information from field to lab, lab to publications, and publications back to another lab, and investors that lack the facility to discuss concerns that are emerging from disaster researchers. The benefits of the SEARCH dialogues will be multifaceted. The questions that academics ask can be better directed toward meaningful results. Industry has its own closed loop, occasionally infused with ideas from academia, but far too infrequently. In some industries, the amount of data and knowledge that exists may be light years ahead of academe—a seemingly intractable problem, which has persisted because proprietary data are the bread-and-butter of most businesses. By bringing together these two isolated groups into a conversation that does not violate the rules of proprietary ownership, both groups can be enriched with a diversity of ideas and opportunities to increase resilience in communities.

SEARCH is a knowledge-driven enterprise. The neutral forum creates safe space for industry, academics, governments and non-governmental organizations to come together to learn from each other. The vision or end goal is risk reduction by development of transdisciplinary knowledge between academia and the private sector. The mission to accomplish this is through reducing risk and impacts including financial, posed by natural hazards via a bidirectional flow of information between academics and investors.

Objectives and Goals (implementable solutions for all)

There are three main objectives of the SEARCH initiative: (1) creation of a Secure Forum, (2) completion of a Pilot Study (including a computational framework to support the findings) and (3) generation of a radically interdisciplinary Risk and Natural Hazards Curriculum that brings together the natural and social sciences along with the humanities.

SEARCH will sponsor a series of secure forums, an innovative space for open discussions about disaster impact and risk between financial risk analysis professionals and decision-makers, academics and students from a wide-range of disciplines (e.g. geoscience, climate science, ecology, economics, history, anthropology, media studies, etc.) , and disaster professionals with boots-on-the-ground experience in disaster scenarios. The conversations will not be transcribed verbatim, but will be employed to provide a bird’s-eye view perspective on challenges facing academics in terms of conducting research and investors’ need for high-quality and digestible information. Investors and academics would derive benefits from their participation these forum: investors would be exposed to cutting edge, scientific (social and natural) ideas and possible solutions, while academics would gain invaluable, pragmatic insights that could lead to new directions for research as well as insider information for students on current trends in the financial industry.

A pilot study will be the SEARCH proof-of-concept tool.  We are partnering with a financial institution to undertake a 360-degree risk analysis of an older, completed/funded activity. We will take the set of parameters that the decision makers had at the onset of their process, and complete a ‘parallel’ analysis to determine if our transdisciplinary team can uncover additional hazard uncertainties. Our team of faculty, students, and advisors will be tasked with developing a viable analysis during a three-day period (i.e., a disaster/financial risk “hackathon”). After the three days elapse, a report will be generated and evaluated by our financial institution partners. During this period of evaluation and the ensuing six months, the SEARCH core team will conduct a deeper analysis of the project to uncover more detail while evaluating the work done by the team.

Risk and Hazard Curriculum: SEARCH provides an innovative platform to educate undergraduate and graduate students at the partner universities who will eventually form the core workforce. To be prepared to undertake these critical analyses, they must be versed in the basic theory and practice of disaster risk analysis, as well as having a conversational understanding of corporate finance and investment. Accordingly, students will acquire this knowledge through an introductory course that is designed to familiarize them with the basic vocabulary, theoretical background, and tools needed to delve into complex disaster risk analysis using a pilot case as a test bed. The course will be punctuated by visits by leading authorities in disasters, policymaking, and/or risk analysis.

These three objectives will help to develop a “Tactics to Strategy (T2S) Framework” that will serve as the quantitative backbone of our operation. It will help to streamline the wealth of unstructured and complex data coupled with simulations to smart decisions, based on values, alternatives and resources, made on short time scales in the context of long-term and sustainable strategy. The T2S Framework is not only a computational framework that allows the coupling of different computational models as components, but also will employ different databases and data analytic tools. The different models are plugged into our proposed computational framework to interact with other analytical and or predictive tools. The different models as components can range from hazard sources to hazard impact models, but can also be social behaviour or pricing models. The research challenge will be to develop adapters to connect various computational models within the framework, enabling the computed information to leave a specific model and propagate through the interconnected framework a clear picture of the issues.  Information from other models feed into this framework to guarantee a two-way coupling between models. Simple examples of such as framework could be Conway’s Game of Life, a cellular automaton model allowed to evolve with a pre-determined set of rules and an initial set of input parameters, or generally the systems dynamic approach that examines complex, non-linear systems by integrating feedback loops into a set of pre-determined conditions and rules . This framework is unique as we utilize advanced statistical methods to make short-term decisions informed by short-term needs, long-term goals and values. The needs and priorities can be defined by stakeholders or individual models, while the values are solely defined by stakeholders. Individual models of the computational framework provide important data to bridge the gap between short- and long-time scale and the inform the Bayesian inference.

SEARCH would move beyond and be more research driven than the current business continuity planning and programs. It is a disaster risk management approach providing a holistic and long-term solution to the ever increasing risk faced by communities today. This is a true marriage of practice and research. It creates a holistic, transdiciplinary information and solutions to the complex natural hazards problems faced by industry today and going into the future.

[1] M. Haraguchi and U. Lall, “Flood Risks and Impacts: A Case Study of Thailand’s Floods in 2011 and Research Questions for Supply Chain Decision Making,” International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 14,3 (2014): 256–272.

[2] United National International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction (U.N.I.S.D.R.), Sendai Framework for Action 2015-2030 (2015), 31, accessed June 1, 2016, http://www.wcdrr.org/uploads/Sendai_Framework_for_Disaster_Risk_Reducti….


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