New blog & website

May 13, 2010

This blog is no longer active.  Please visit out new blog and Programme website at

http://www.humanitarianfutures.org/

Our new site and blog outlines:

· what the HFP does
· how its programme works
· the tools and resources we offer
· information on events
· discussion forum with links to YouTube interviews with the HFP Director, Dr. Randolph Kent.

We urge you to view a short film about the activities of the HFP in the news section of the homepage, or by clicking the HFP logo in the signature below. Note in particular, our feature entitled – Jeggle’s Journeys – in which Terry Jeggle draws on his 40 years’ experience to offer a personal insight into future humanitarian priorities. And of course, we welcome your feedback on the new layout and encourage you to comment on the issues raised in the blogs, in the section headed, Discussion Forum.

Many thanks to all the readers and contributors of this blog over the years.  All new material will be posted to the new blog from this time forward.  Please update your links.


US agricultural production to decline severely under climate change

August 28, 2009

New research from North Carolina State University published in this month’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that the United States could experience stark crop yield declines under moderate climate change scenarios.

From Treehugger:

Agriculture and resource economist Michael Roberts and economist Dr. Wolfram Schenkler determined the impact of warming temperatures on corn, soybeans and cotton. They found that each had a critical temperature threshold above which crop yields started plummeting: 29°C for corn, 30°C for soybeans and 32°C for cotton.

Under slower global warming scenarios, Roberts and Schenkler project that yields for these crops could decline 30-46%. Under rapid global warming scenarios things got really bad, with yields dropping 63-82%.


Disruption after transformative events: the Satir Change Model

July 28, 2009
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The impact on group performance of a well assimilated change during the five stages of the Satir Change Model

Steven Smith has a very interesting post discussing the Satir Change Model – a model of group process which charts the impact of innovations in organisational dynamics.

Smith discusses the impact of change on organisational dynamics.  The Satir Change model is derived from family psychology, which tracks the changes in family behaviour after the introduction of a new or disruptive event.

What the model finds is that after a new way of acting or behaving is adopted, there is a drop in performance often followed by a period of chaos or disruption.  This then restabilises to a higher level than before after group members internalise and embrace the circumstances of the new condition.

Clark Quinn then comments upon this, applying the model to organisational change.  He suggests that breaking new conditions or changes of behaviour into small, bite sized chunks might actually help reduce the negative aspects associated with change adoption.  Introducing these at the right time, and in the right order, may be the key to progressive, ongoing organisational change.

Smith then summarises this process in a table, reproduced below:

ctions for each stage that will help a group change more quickly and effectively.

Actions for each stage that will help a group change more quickly and effectively.

Many thanks to Steven and Clark for discussing this issue in the context of organisational change.

What lessons might this hold for humanitarian bearocratic change in the face of increasing numbers of disruptive, change-inducing events? Depending on the magnitude and frequency of these events (both increasing), it is possible that such organisations could hypothetically be driven down a process of ever decreasing performance if such changes happen fast enough.  On the other hand, embracing and understanding a model such a this (if it works in the context of your organisation) could help managers better navigate these changes.

UPDATE – This also suggests that in order for organisations to learn and improve, they must be subject to creative, disruptive, potentially even destructive events.  If one is serious about change management and organisational adaptation, doesn’t it make sense to bring about such small events in order to help agencies and organisations better strengthen their “immune systems” in this regard?  In this case, do the ends justify the means?


Bill Gates files patents for geo-engineering ships

July 11, 2009

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Bill Gates and colleagues are seeking patents for a flotilla-based hurricane suppression system.

The patents, discussed here, are intended to use the temperature differential between the warm, surface water and the cold, deeper waters below.

Hurricanes are caused when ocean water temperatures rise, releasing warm, moist air into the atmosphere. This water condenses and creates cyclonic wind storms due to the pressure difference between hot and cold air fronts in the atmosphere.

Gates’ idea is to use giant floating bath tubs to capture warm water on the surface, then suck it down to the ocean depths in a kind of thermohaline exchange mechanism.

The basic idea is to draw cold water up from the ocean depths to cool the ocean surface, thus reducing the frequency and intensity of tropical storms.

This appears to be the latest effort in climate change, weather suppression technologies, discussed on this blog in a series of posts here and here.

From TechFlash:

Patent watcher “theodp,” who tipped us off to the filings, says he was reminded of “The Simpsons” as he read through them. “The richest man in the world hatches a plan to alter weather and ecology in return for insurance premiums and fees from governments and individuals,” he writes. “It’s got kind of a Mr. Burns feel to it, no?”

The hurricane-suppression patent applications date to early 2008, but they were first made public this morning.


Dengue fever to spread in 28 US states thanks to climate change

July 9, 2009
Red states are already at risk for Dengue Fever, blue states will likely become at risk thanks to climate change

Red states are already at risk for Dengue Fever, blue states will likely become at risk thanks to climate change

The Natural Resource Defence Council (NRDC) just released a report measuring the spread of the tropical disease Dengue Fever in new states thanks to climate change.

Also known as “bonebreaking fever”, dengue is “characterized by agonizing aching in the bones, joints and muscles, a pounding headache, pain behind the eyes, a high fever and a classic rash. There is no cure or vaccine against the virus, only preventative and supportive care.”

The NRDC press release states that, “Many factors may be contributing to the rise in dengue fever, including increasing international travel and trade, densely-populated communities living in poverty in many countries including the United States, and the effects of global warming. Researchers project that because of global warming, in the next 75 years 3 billion additional people will become at risk for the disease across the globe.”

The full PDF of the report goes into more detail:

Global warming is likely to increase the number of people at risk of dengue epidemics by expanding both the area suitable for the mosquito vectors and the length of dengue transmission season in temperate areas. By 2085, an estimated 5.2 billion people—more than 3 billion additional people worldwide—are projected to be at risk for dengue because of climate change–induced increases in humidity that contribute to the disease’s spread, based on models that use observed relationships between weather patterns and dengue outbreaks.6 Researchers in Australia and New Zealand calculated that climate change is projected to increase the range and risk of dengue in these countries. According to their study, another 1.4 million Australians could be living in areas suitable for the dengue mosquito vector by 2050. Moreover, the number of months suitable for transmission may rise, increasing the costs of dengue management three- to fivefold.In the United States, dengue fever outbreaks have so far been limited to the U.S.-Mexico border region and Hawaii. However, our analysis reveals thatglobal warming could result in increased vulnerability to dengue fever throughout the United States and the Americas. The findings are cause for concern: The analysis shows an increase in dengue fever in recent years in the United States and its neighbors to the south. And the mosquitoes that can transmit this disease have become established in a swath of at least 28 states, making disease transmission more likely.

The political blow back from an increase in tropical disease in the US will likely be quite significant.  A few seasons of bone breaking disease should change people’s belief in climate change, for instance.  The pressure to “do something” will most likely be focused on the CDC and private health care providers, however, and could be too diffuse to translate into stronger support for climate change action.


An agent-based model of why incompetence spreads through big organisations

July 7, 2009

Italian research scientists use agent-based modelling to demonstrate the “Peter Principle” or organisational incompetence.

It is a truism amongst disgruntled workers in large organisations that their managers are complete idiots.  This is often justified with reference to the “Peter Principle”, named after the Canadian psychologist Laurence Peter who first observed this phenomena in 1969.  The international aid sector is no exception.

Stated simply, the Peter Principle is:

All new members in a hierarchical organisation climb the hierarchy until they reach their level of maximum incompetence.

A new study by researchers at the Universita di Catania has produced computational evidence explaining why this might be the case.  From the MIT Technology Review article on their paper:

[The researchers] say that common sense tells us that a member who is competent at a given level will also be competent at a higher level of the hierarchy. So it may well seem a good idea to promote such an individual to the next level.

The problem is that common sense often fools us. It’s not so hard to see that a new position in an organization requires different skills, so the competent performance of one task may not correlate well with the ability to perform another task well.

Peter pointed out that in large organizations where these practices are used, it is inevitable that individuals will be promoted until they reach their level of maximum incompetence. The unavoidable result is the runaway spread of incompetence throughout an organization.

The research team has used agent-based modelling to simulate this common practice of promotion. They found that, contrary to intended effect, performance-based promotion leads to, “a significant reduction in the efficiency of an organization, as incompetency spreads through it.”

The best way to counter this effect?  Alternately promote competent and incompetent people or simply promote people randomly (or based on non-competence criteria).

A nice review can be found at the MIT Tech Review and the full text can be found here, “The Peter Principle Revisited: A Computational Study”


Very few people changed their behaviour during the early stages of swine flu

July 6, 2009

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A new study in the British Medical Journal reports that despite major media coverage, most people did nothing to prevent the spread of swine flu.

The research, conducted at the Institute of Psychiatry King’s College London and the Health Protection Agency, was intended to evaluate whether perceptions of the swine flu outbreak changed the behaviour of the public.  They conducted a telephone survey of 997 adults between 8 and 12 May 2009 and were asked asked nine questions about recent behaviours.

The results are dismal from a flu prevention perspective:

  • Anxiety about the outbreak was low, with only 24% of participants reporting any anxiety and only 2% reporting high anxiety.
  • 62% of those surveyed did nothing to change their behaviour.
  • Most people reported that they had not changed the frequency of their hand washing (72%).
  • 83% said that they did not change how often then cleaned or disinfected things.
  • Fewer than 5% of people reported that they had avoided people or places as a result of the outbreak.

What does this imply for public health standards and pandemic flu prevention?  The authors suggest that:

Factors associated with an increased likelihood of making these changes included perceptions that swine flu is severe, the risk of catching it is high, the outbreak will continue for a long time, the authorities can be trusted, and people can control their risk. In contrast, being uncertain about the outbreak and believing that it had been exaggerated were associated with a lower likelihood of change, say the authors.

In other words, the real world likelihood of personal prevention of swine flu is very, very low.

This suggests that stronger policy measures must be on hand to enforce preventative measures if they are to be effective.  Are our governments and institutions prepared for and ready to take such measures?


UKCP09 launches today

June 18, 2009

After several months of delay and some behind the scenes controversy, UK Climate Projections 2009 (UKCP09) launches today, June 18th, 2009.

From the press release:

The UK Climate Projections (UKCP09) are being launched on Thursday 18 June. UKCP09 provides the latest information on how continued emissions of greenhouse gases may change the UK’s climate over 21st century. The information provided by UKCP09 will be valuable to anyone with responsibility for forward planning in the public, private and voluntary sectors. UKCP09 comprises a package of information including, publications, key findings, user support and customisable output. This is primarily available on-line. Please note that the sites will not go live until the Secretary of State has finished his announcement to the House, sometime around 12.30.

* For access to the main technical information about UKCP09, and the full range of information and support, go to http://ukclimateprojections.defra.gov.uk.
* A gentler introduction is available at http://ukcp09.defra.gov.uk.

UKCP09 is accompanied by a training programme – Projections in Practice (PiP) – and more information can be found at www.ukcip.org.uk/training.

What is so interesting about these projections is the background controversy and delay.  They will be some of the world’s most advanced downscaled climate projection available, but the project has been delayed due to methodological criticism and claims of over promising.

The critique, coming mostly from climate modellers and chaos mathematicians, suggests that some of the claims are too ambitious and that the levels of uncertainty are too high to produce such granular predictions.

From a past issue of New Scientist, cited here:

At the Cambridge meeting Lenny Smith, a statistician at the London School of Economics, warned about the “naïve realism” of current climate modelling. “Our models are being over-interpreted and misinterpreted,” he said. “They are getting better; I don’t want to trash them per se. But as we change our predictions, how do we maintain the credibility of the science?” Over-interpretation of models is already leading to poor financial decision-making, Smith says. “We need to drop the pretence that they are nearly perfect.”

He singled out for criticism the British government’s UK Climate Impacts Programme and Met Office. He accused both of making detailed climate projections for regions of the UK when global climate models disagree strongly about how climate change will affect the British Isles.

Smith is co-author, with Dave Stainforth of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Oxford, of a paper published this week on confidence and uncertainty in climate predictions (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society ADOI: 10.1098/rsta.2007.2074*). It is one of several papers on the shortfalls of current climate models.

Some authors say modellers should drop single predictions and instead offer probabilities of different climate futures. But Smith and Stainforth say this approach could be “misleading to the users of climate science in wider society”. Borrowing a phrase from former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Smith told his Cambridge audience that there were “too many unknown unknowns” for such probabilities to be useful.

Policy-makers, he said, “think we know much more than we actually know. We need to be more open about our uncertainties.” Meanwhile, the tipping points loom.

From issue 2617 of New Scientist magazine, 16 August 2007, page 13

There is no doubt that such projections will be welcomed by the scientific and policy communities.  One hopes that an adequate understanding of the uncertainties involved will also be appreciated.


Collapse dynamics: a lecture on complex change in social systems

June 16, 2009

Noah Raford, a contributor to this blog and consultant with HFP, posts this video and slides from a recent lecture on collapse and social transition he gave at the LSE Complexity Programme.

Video of the talk can be found here, thanks to our good friend Vinay Gupta:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Thanks to Professor Eve Mittleton-Kelly and all those who attended from the Collapsonomics group.


Before Disaster Strikes: Rate and Raise Public Preparedness Now

June 15, 2009

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A new policy brief from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University concludes that American cities need to develop new measures of preparedness and rapidly roll them out across all major cities.

From the policy brief, found here:

The American public is not prepared for major disasters. That will prove costly, including to the federal government, as more and new types of disasters are expected to occur. The new Security Council Resilience Directorate – Preparedness, as one of its first initiatives, should task the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to work with federal and non-federal stakeholders and independent experts to:

  • Develop agreed measures of public preparedness, and
  • Develop and execute cost-effective, innovative approaches for ensuring timely progress in preparedness.

In the revamped federal agency performance measurement system, public preparedness should be deemed a high priority measure for DHS, as well as for selected other departments who need to be made federal partners in this effort. The new Directorate should monitor the establishment of and progress in these measures.

The brief concludes, “More, more severe, and new types of disasters can be expected to occur as a result of new types of threats (e.g., biological, cyber, nuclear/radiological) and more as well as more severe threats due to increased global interconnectedness and climate change. Yet, most Americans are not adequately prepared to respond to or recover from a catastrophic disaster, and many expect the government to take care of them.”