Community Resilience: Engineers need new skills – lateral thinking and an understanding of human behaviour

The contribution of engineers to resilience has traditionally been limited to their technical expertise. To achieve better outcomes the broader community needs to listen more closely to engineers and the profession also need to communicate in a more approachable language.

Over the last 10-15 years, society has become used to urban systems and services being provided to us, to support us in everything we do. From garbage collection to sewage, to water, to energy. 

These are just some components of our urban systems that we take for granted. But in times of crisis – storms, bushfires, flood, terrorist or cyber-attack – many of these systems can easily break down.

You can only put so much rubbish in the rubbish bin. If the garbage isn’t being collected, where do you put your bin which is overflowing with dirty disposable nappies while you sit in hope that there will be a rubbish collection next week? Do you start digging holes in your garden to bury those dirty nappies? 

In our rapidly changing world, adapting, or becoming resilient, is essential to survival. Absorbing disturbances and still functioning isn’t only necessary for our buildings and infrastructure, but also for social and ecological systems – and people too.

In systems of people and systems of nature there is a strong connection between social and ecological –  and you can’t look at either one alone when you are trying to tackle problems. 

This is a big part of where we need to go in the future if we are to develop solutions for some of these challenges. They aren’t going to be solved only by technological or technical solutions. They require an understanding of how human society wants to behave, and will require some modification of that behaviour. 

As a society we need to encourage people to rediscover their ability to respond in various scenarios which we haven’t thought of yet. 

But how do we encourage people to take more interest in their own resilience, in their ability as a community to survive when certain services are not functioning as they had been? When we have no petrol, what happens then? Or when you flick the switch and there is no electricity, or turn on a tap and there is no water? 

Potentially it’s a script for a disaster movie, but we can’t dismiss it as fiction. We need to be encouraging people to think about “what would we do if that happens”. 

But there are so many potential scenarios that we can’t even conceive, so how do we plan and prepare a community for impacts we don’t even know exist yet. This is one of the biggest challenges to fostering a resilient community. 

At the heart of a resilient community lies an understanding of human behaviour and the ability for lateral thinking. 

We can’t hope to have sensible strategies, accessible plans for community resilience without having a good understanding of human behaviour and how that can be channelled in a crisis situation.

Resilience is achieved most effectively when communities can deliver and support themselves, instead of relying on other systems and services.

The role of the engineer in achieving community resilience is crucially important, but engineering solutions in isolation are not enough. As engineers we need to think about our roles as members of the community. We also need to encourage people to take a greater interest in their own resilience.  

Some would call this the “soft stuff”, but in my mind, the soft stuff – the understanding of human behaviour, the managing change aspects – they are the most difficult to get right. 

The soft stuff is something that engineers aren’t usually considered to be capable of –  but that doesn’t mean they can’t be! 

As a profession engineers are taught to think directly about problems, rather than laterally, about problems. Engineers are usually far more comfortable dealing with physical laws – put an equation to them and they can tell you how thick a beam needs to be and how many reinforcing bars it needs. 

But once we start wondering about how a community would respond to certain situations, and how might we best build a plan for potential responses … it’s a whole other ball game. 

First published on Fifth Estate