Dear Colleague

In this months newsletter

Towards an International Architecture for Managing Global Hazards - Summary Report in Five Categories
  1. Present crisis drivers that will increase exponentially over the next two decades.
  2. Convergence of existing crisis drivers.
  3. Synchronous failures and global collapse
  4. Negative results of technological innovations
  5. Fundamental changes in the nature of human agency and human space.
Perhaps a peculiar way to enter the festive season, nevertheless as we mentioned in our November newsletter, we would like to share with you some preliminary findings concerning a typology of future global hazards and tentative systems for dealing with them.

This typology is part of the Towards an International Architecture for Managing Global Hazards project, intended to test how decision-makers deal with ever more complex global threats. The project’s first step has been to determine the range of threats which experts on foresight, organizational behavior and systems analysis, the natural sciences as well as humanitarian action believed were of particular importance. Based on these findings, the project will be holding roundtable sessions in March 2021 with decision makers from the public and private sectors to see how they would deal with such threats. Be assured, you will be one of the first to know.

Below, please find a typology of those hazards which resulted from our interviews with experts in disciplines involving hazards and disaster crisis drivers, innovation, organisational and inter-organisational behaviour, international relations, horizon scanning and public and private sector dynamics. You will also find preliminary suggestions about types of systems and systems architecture needed to address them. Additionally, by opening the full report you will find preliminary systems solutions.

The threats in and of themselves clearly suggest that profound changes are required not only in the ways that we view and respond to such potential global hazards, but also in the means for doing so.
Interviewees’ perspectives on hazards and their plausible global impacts can be summarized in five categories: 
  1. Present crisis drivers that will increase exponentially over the next two decades. Examples that fit within this category were displacement as a violent continuum, dynamics and dimensions of climate change and Earth’s ecological bandwidth.

    In a world of approximately 9.7 billion people in 2050, an estimated 1.2 billion people will be displaced. Forecasts suggest that they will be trapped in “no-man’s lands”, where resources will be limited and where states or coalitions of states will clash in efforts to restrict ever increasing movements of the displaced. When it comes to climate change, the reasons for concern are well known, but the dimensions, dynamics and consequences over time less so. Yet, the increasing and accumulative impacts of climate change made this existential threat one that will most likely increase exponentially over time. In a related vein, it was suggested that the Earth’s ecological bandwidth, even without climate change, meant that increasing human population and maintaining that population may be incompatible with the planet’s capacities to do so.
  2. Convergence of existing crisis drivers. Convergence often results in unexpected connections and ramifications. For example, effective response to wildfires in the state of California normally depends upon ad hoc fire fighting forces, 15% of whom consist of prison labour. However, in 2020, at a time when the fires were raging at unprecedented rates, Covid-19, was also raging through the local prisons. These intertwined incidents resulted in fires that spilled over into poor communities which led to unprecedented  ‘community impoverishment’.

    In general, a consistent theme was that convergence reflects interacting crises, making each harder to deal with and in turn creating ‘mega-crises’. Rarely is there a linear causal thread – crisis drivers do not spring from common causal roots, rather there can be myriad interactions between different types of micro-crises.
  3. Synchronous failures and global collapse. Synchronous failures, like convergent crisis drivers, reflect a multiplicity of stresses that are interactive and non-linear. However, synchronous failures differ from convergent hazards in two fundamental ways. In the first place, the hazards themselves are global in impact, and secondly, they result in virtually simultaneous systems and societal collapse across the globe.  Some have suggested that the combined consequences of systems stresses such as global indebtedness, a pandemic, cyber collapse and ‘exhausted multilateralism’ could result in overloads which societies across the world could not handle. This perspective was reflected in a series of comments that can be summarised in the words of one interviewee, ‘We can say that we are increasingly sliding towards a planetary situation in which a convergence of stresses makes synchronous failure across the global a possibility as never before.’

    Such failures would result not only in the collapse of conventional institutions of governance and economies, but also breakdowns in functional systems dramatically affecting food availability, communications, energy sources, political structures and security. ‘All of these,’ noted one interviewee, ‘will underscore a more general sense that few institutions can be trusted or have legitimacy.’
  4. Negative results of technological innovations. Few would deny the positive transformations that have resulted from technological innovation and in various ways will most likely continue to do so. Nevertheless, while the consequences of present and foreseeable technologies could clearly have been a subset of other categories, the emphasis that at least 38% of interviewees placed on the downside of technological innovation seemed to justify technological innovations as a separate hazard category.

    The range of potential threats emanating from technological transformations that were noted was extensive. From bio-engineered pandemic drivers and hypersonic weapons systems to cyber threats and the ‘tyranny of data’, the consequences of technological innovation were seen as threats to societal stability and survival in the foreseeable future. Unregulated Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things and cyber dependence could result in fundamental changes in the ways that human beings lived their lives, pursued their livelihoods and contended with unprecedented vulnerabilities.
  5. Fundamental changes in the nature of human agency and human space. Intertwined with previously mentioned hazard categories were fundamental changes in the nature of human agency and human space. Driven for the most part by transformative technologies, the very nature of being human might become dependent upon innovations rarely considered. These in turn might lead to new forms of vulnerabilities that would stem from what controls whom and vice versa. Though this prospect was only touched on by one interviewee, it represents a perspective that has been the subject of analyses in the scientific and social science literature. For a project intended to anticipate systems for dealing with future global hazards, this category seemed to be very relevant. 
For the full report, please see Towards-an-International-Architecture-for-Managing-Global-Hazards.pdf

As we always say when we end each newsletter, pleased share your thoughts – criticisms and suggestions and even compliments – about this newsletter’s substance with us.

However, for the closing of this newsletter, the Humanitarian Futures team would like to conclude by sending you our warmest greetings for the Festive Season.
With our very best regards,
The Humanitarian Futures team

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