Out of Pandemic, Transformational Resilience Can Emerge

Knowledge gained from the impact of, and resilience actions taken during, the COVID-19 pandemic could provide lasting lessons beyond health crises preparation, including future approaches to acute and chronic risks such as climate change.

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 critical institutions we rely upon during emergencies.

There are, however, three important similarities between this worldwide pandemic and chronic changes in the climate: 1) both are exacerbated through human activity, 2) both can have a massive impact both globally and locally, and 3) both require a global response.

The short-term response and longer-term resilience strategies implemented to address the pandemic crisis can lead to innovative solutions that may be applied to address other systemic issues the world faces, including climate change. What we learn now could accelerate future preparedness and resilience efforts and create transformational change for our future.

Resilience is the capacity of systems, businesses, institutions, communities and individuals to learn, adapt and grow, regardless of the nature and magnitude of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience. Many of us 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. As our world responds and recovers from this global pandemic, it is essential that we prioritize sustainable and resilient strategies that support human well-being, prosperity, and aims to put the world back into balance and harmony with the environment.

As our world responds and recovers from this global pandemic, it is essential that we prioritize sustainable and resilient strategies that support human well-being, prosperity, and aim to put the world back into balance and harmony with the environment.

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 such as a cyber-attack or disruption to critical functions, operations, facilities or supply chains.

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, injustices and deteriorating infrastructure, as well as acute events such as health epidemics, extreme temperatures, health epidemics or mass migration and the cascading impacts that these trends can generate. Further, preparations for acute events typically rely upon models of recent past events instead of future projections.

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.
  • 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.

Through WSP’s Future ReadyTM program, the firm encourages and enables its staff to research and consider the implications of emerging, future trends related to climate change, society, technology and resources; address these trends in project solutions and support clients and the communities they serve to lead the way in innovating towards a complex and uncertain future. WSP helps its clients consider future scenarios and build resilience 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 have been preparing 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 organizational resilience to the chronic stressors and acute shocks that climate change presents 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 large-scale and complex nature of climate change makes it uniquely challenging, especially in the context of economic decision making.”

Although the TCFD framework focuses primarily on climate change, the approach taken to prepare for global changes like climate change can support any hazard a business, community or nation may face in the future. Keeping frameworks like TCFD in mind and gathering the lessons we are learning from this pandemic about its impacts to employees, business functions, operations and supply chains will better prepare these companies for future risks and enhance their business resilience.

We live in a volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous and interconnected world — presenting both challenges and opportunities. 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, climate action failure, natural disasters, major biodiversity loss and human-made environmental damage and disasters. With hindsight we can certainly add global 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.

“Whole community” is a term commonly used by FEMA and “calls for the involvement of everyone — not just the government — in preparedness efforts. By working together, everyone can help keep the nation safe from harm and help keep it resilient when struck by hazards, such as natural disasters, acts of terrorism and pandemics. A whole community approach includes individuals and families, including those with access and functional needs, businesses, faith-based and community organizations, nonprofit groups, schools and academia, media outlets and all levels of government, including state, local, tribal, territorial and federal partners.”

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©WSP USA

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.

Anticipating the Unbelievable

WSP’s Future Ready program is one way the firm is helping companies and communities better anticipate future conditions to increase the resilience of our built, natural and social infrastructure and environment. This comprehensive approach includes a global trends analysis, checklists of key questions, and strategic action plans to prepare for and address health, economic, supply chain, critical infrastructure, societal, environmental and human capital impacts.

Because our society, economy and environment are so interconnected, these impacts are all interrelated. However, how they affect individuals, families, communities, businesses and governments will be different.

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 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 these functions.
  • Design for failure, regardless of the threat.
  • Regularly stress-test plans through 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, mass migration and technological attacks.
  • Use strategic foresight to develop community resilience plans in partnership with whole community stakeholders and suppliers.
  • Diversify supply chains and introduce redundancies and resilience measures 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 business continuity, preparedness and emergency response 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 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 critical.

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.

What is required to galvanize proactive response to these challenges? There is no one answer, solution or hero. Great ideas can come from any source; one is at least as likely to emerge from the ground-up as it is to arrive from the top-down. In either case it will require collaboration across sectors, organizations and jurisdictions to prepare and exercise whole community Future Ready playbooks to be prepared for a variety of shocks and stresses our world will face.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is that at the heart of every organization, community and country are its people. When we unite 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 during these uncertain times, it is important to remember these critical elements:

Leadership. It is at times like these that we see what true leaders are made of and whether they step up, show up, and lean into these crises. 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. It becomes familiar and comfortable to check in with neighbors who may be more vulnerable, such as those with underlying health conditions or the elderly.

Service. Change is hard for anyone and the changes we are facing impact everyone differently. We must remain mindful of how we treat each other and practice empathy, as there is not a single individual who isn’t bearing some burden during the COVID-19 crisis and compassion for those who are suffering more significantly than others. It’s 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 require us to be of service to them by staying home.

Gratitude. For those of us required and able to stay home, remember to practice gratitude for the roof above our heads, the food on our plates, the health and safety of our loved ones and to those who are putting themselves at greater risk for our safety and security. Know that we can and will make it through this. This is our opportunity to slow down and spend time with our loved ones, learn about our own vulnerabilities and practice 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. Right now, we are adapting our lives at an unprecedented level, motivated to protect our families, communities and economy. Can we draw any lessons from this devastating crisis to address a less immediate, but more critical challenge to our long-term survival?

When the pandemic has abated, it will be an important time for us to reflect on what we can do to make a global impact, and where we might be able to turn that effort into actions that address the threats of climate change. Whether we are acting as an individual, a family, a community, an industry or as a nation, we have an opportunity to provide similar, proactive responses to climate change that will have long-lasting impacts on the planet and our lives.

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Author

Emily Wasley
Senior Project Director - Sustainability, Energy and Climate Change
United States

Author

Heather Unger
Senior Sustainability Consultant and Future Ready Program Director
United States