The Buxton Index; a measure of long term planning interest

April 7, 2009

The Buxton Index is an idea which measures the length of the period, measured in years, over which the entity makes its plans.

The late late pioneering computer scientist Edsger W Dijkstra discusses it in an essay, here:

The Buxton Index of an entity, i.e. person or organization, is defined as the length of the period, measured in years, over which the entity makes its plans. For the little grocery shop around the corner it is about 1/2 years,for the true Christian it is infinity, and for most other entities it is in between: about 4 years for the average politician who aims at his re-election, slightly more for most industries, but much less for the managers who have to write quarterly reports.

The Buxton Index is an important concept because close co-operation between entities with very different Buxton Indices invariably fails and leads to moral complaints about the partner. The party with the smaller Buxton Index is accused of being superficial and short-sighted, while the party with the larger Buxton Index is accused of neglect of duty, of backing out of its responsibility, of freewheeling, etc.. In addition, each party accuses the other one of being stupid.

The great advantage of the Buxton Index is that, as a simple numerical notion, it is morally neutral and lifts the difference above the plane of moral concerns. The Buxton Index is important to bear in mind when considering academic/industrial co-operation.

What is the average Buxton Index of the average aid organisation?  3 to 5?  How does this relate to the planning time frame of various state and non-state partners?  Should it be more?  Do they line up?  Does this explain anything?

PS – Thanks to Futurismic for the tip.

Mobility VIP cards; a creative and effective tool for rapid scenario generation

March 27, 2009


The Art Center College of Design have created an intermixable deck of cards designed to jump start the scenario creation stage of futures workshops.

Jamais Cascio brings our attention to another extremely interesting and relevant development for those involved in futures work, scenario planning, or strategic design at any level.  Called the mVIP cards, the deck loosely follows the “STEEP” framework for identifying various elements of change in the future.  

The best part about the deck is that they are presented as an online Flash application for anyone to explore.  Check out the Flash site here.

We played around a bit and created a future with the following components:

  • All electric utilities
  • Rapid learning networks
  • Ubiquitous bugginess
  • Carbon rations
  • Fertile soil is gold
  • Asia invades Australia
  • Genetically modified crop failures

While perhaps random generation of futures, I-Ching style, isn’t the best strategic orientation strategy, the deck does a very fun and effective job of mixing and matching different developments to open the mind to new possibilities.  Very useful and effective.

US researchers find disaster relief laws unsuitable for modern threats

March 25, 2009

New York University Professor Mitchell Moss suggests in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, that US Federal disaster relief legislation is dangerously out of date and must be reformed to provide for rapid relief after a catastrophe.

The paper argues that the main US Federal Disaster laws, in the form of the Stafford Act, is too cumbersome to be of use for today’s complex crises.  The report’s author argues that the laws:


  • Not recognizing 21st century threats such as chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological attacks or accidents as legal grounds for a major disaster declaration by the President; 
  • Fail to establish a difference between the scale of rural and urban disaster – the Stafford Act offers the same level of aid for a blizzard in a rural community as it does for a major earthquake in a metropolis. 

It goes on to suggest that US lawmakers should,

  • Amend the definition of a “major disaster” to recognize 21st century threats such as chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks and accidents; 
  • Create a level of disaster specifically for “catastrophes” to cover incidents such as Hurricane Katrina and September 11 and to provide increased levels of aid beyond that provided at the “major disaster” levels

The press release can be found here and the full paper here.

Creating resilient organisations more important than creating good plans, researchers find

March 5, 2009

Researchers find that disaster plans do not produce better responses to surprising crises, but that the processes of preparing them, does.

A researcher from the Arizona State University, Scott Somers, published a somewhat interesting  article in the latest issue of the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management (abstract, full text PDF).  In it he reports the results of a survey of 96 public works directors in the United States, evaluating each organisation on their level of crisis preparedness, crises preparation techniques, and organisational flexibility and resilience.

He found that traditional crises management approaches that create detailed, step-by-stop operating procedures produced less resilient organisations than expected.  Instead, he argues that it is more effective to, “create internal processes and organizational structures that build latent resilience within organizations so that they demonstrate positive adaptive behaviors when under stress.”

What does this mean?  Somers evaluated each organisation on six dimensions:

  • Level of perceived risk
  • Degree of managerial information seeking
  • Organisational structure
  • Amount of continuity planning
  • Levels of participation, and
  • Departmental accreditation

The strongest correlate to organisational resilience (by his measures) was the presence of strong continuity planning.  Somers also found that managers who actively sought out varied and diverse information sources were found to be more likely to lead resilient organisations.  Somewhat surprisingly, the research also found that managers which had higher levels of perceived risk were only slightly more likely to head more resilient organisations, and that organisational structure (in terms of levels of hiearchy in the agency) did not correlate very well.

What does this mean?  Somers concludes by suggesting that the plan itself is not as important as the capacity-building process of planning.  This seems to be due to the nature of complex crises; they are often a surprise, often something that cannot be trained for, and often disrupt traditional communication and decision-making frameworks.  Thus any plan which requires following “standard operating procedures” will be less flexible and adaptable than those which encourage more innovative, adaptive behaviour.

The paper concludes by suggesting that highly resilient organisations exhibit the following traits:

  • Teams are trained to systematically improvise solutions
  • Employees are encouraged to address problems with minimal supervisor intervention
  • Has staff whom constantly gather information and consider consequences of alternative actions
  • Fills its key positions with generalists, not specialists
  • Has low reliance on supervisor-centric knowledge and gives its employees access to and involvement in critical knowledge
  • Has work teams which are authorised to purchase materials and access resources without centralised approval

Compare this template to any humanitarian organisation you’ve dealt with lately; or any organisation for that matter.  How does it map?  Comments welcome.

Top three catastrophic risks for London in 2009

February 13, 2009


The London Fire Brigade just updated their series of forward thinking analyses about various risks in the Greater London area and how to prepare for them.  

It may sound a bit dry but their “Community Risk Registers” are actually a very exciting effort to cooperate and share information across agencies in preparation for future crises.  They  list a series of potential hazards by likelihood and impact, then sort them by what they might look like and who should take the lead in responding to them.  They update these lists quite often and just released their new registers for 2009.

The top three greatest risk for Central London in 2009?

  1. Human Health: Influenza type disease (pandemic) – High number of cases and consultations with healthcare providers threatening to overwhelm health and other services. All ages may be affected, but until the virus emerges we cannot know which groups will be most at risk
  2. Industrial Technical Failure: Telecommunications infrastructure, human error – Widespread loss of telecommunications (including public land line and mobile networks) at a regional level for up to 5 days. 
  3. Industrial Technical Failure: Technical failure of electricity network – Total shutdown of the electricity supply over an entire region occurring during working hours and lasting for 24 hours. 

Good to see the LFB is aware of these issues and already making preparations.  An excellent best practice example. HFP recently completed some similar scenario work for Oxfam UK outlining possible Avian Influenza outbreak scenarios, as well as conducting a serious game training simulation for ICVA in Geneva about the impacts of a complex technical failures and a major industrial accident in a politically unstable port city.

UPDATE – By way of background, the BBC did a report on the Avian Flu risk and the Registers back in August, 2008, which can be found here.  Also Charlie Edwards from Demos’ Resilient Nation project and contributor to Global Dashboard did a brief post on the background of the Registers in June, 2008, which has some interesting policy background on the effort and be found here.

Boyd for the agile humanitarian organization?

December 23, 2008

We have been re-reading John Boyd’s seminal Patterns of Conflict (PDF found here) and were struck, once again, by the relevance of his thinking for the 21st Century humanitarian organization.

Boyd writes,

…in order to win, we should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries… Why? Such activity will make us appear ambiguous (unpredictable) thereby generate confusion and disorder among our adversaries—since our adversaries will be unable to generate mental images or pictures that agree with the menacing… rhythm or patterns they are competing against.

Boyd was talking about aerial combat, with reference to other forms of warfare. In a recent post, we reflected on how others (such as John Robb) are pointing out that modern terrorists groups are successfully using this approach against established states and organizations.

Is it possible for humanitarian groups to use these same tactics to be more effective in their own work? If so, what might this look like? Boyd identifies the following attributes of a successful aircraft operating against such conditions. Below we map these principles to principles of planning and action for the humanitarian organization to see how well they fit (slightly edited from Boyd’s original list for ease of reference).

Boyd’s “Recipe for Generating confusion and disorder” Equivalent concepts for the 21st century humanitarian organization
Quick clear scanning sensors Risk assessment, early warning systems, and anticipatory planning processes
Quick shoot fire control systems and high speed weapons Rapid logistical deployment to crisis situations coupled with effective technological and social intervention
High speed, acceleration and deceleration Strategy: rapid policy making, decision-taking, and organizational responsiveness
High maneuverability Tactical: Able to change policy and practice rapidly to face changing circumstances

This mapping is clearly quite crude but nevertheless opens some interesting doors for comparison. For example, Boyd argues that in times of rapid change and uncertainty (i.e., when one is facing challenges of a faster tempo than one can make sense of), “it is advantageous to possess a variety of responses that can be applied rapidly” to achieve one’s goals.

This suggest having a diverse playbook for crisis response and wide range of skill sets and mental models ready at hand. To do so requires both top-down visionary leadership and emergent, bottom-up listening. He also argues that “cooperation and harmony of activities” are essential.

Finally he writes, “to shape and adapt to change one cannot be passive; instead one must take the initiative.” This highlights the essential component of agency in the face of uncertainty, which could be framed as being more proactive than reactive. This highlights one of the findings of the joint HFP / Tufts report on “Ambiguity and Change”, which was that to be successful, 21st century humanitarian organizations must achieve a paradigm shift and bridge the gap to sustainable development, not just “cleaning up” after the fact.

Put more simply and directly: the above comments leave one with the impression that variety/rapidity/harmony/initiative (and their interaction) seem to be key qualities that permit one to shape and adapt to an ever-changing environment.

Clearly this is of tremendous relevance to the HFP’s mission enhance the anticipatory and collaborative capacities of humanitarian organizations.