Playing at flood resilience: Using games to help vulnerable communities

By Adriana Keating, research scholar in the IIASA Risk and Resilience Program.

People have been playing games for fun for many thousands of years. But recently some have been designed not to escape from reality, but to improve it. As the world is becoming more and more complex, and the future more and more uncertain, serious games can be used as innovative tools for learning, decision making, improving effective collaboration and developing strategies for success. With games, we can communicate complex realities and learn from our mistakes without costs.

Systems thinking is required to tackle the challenge of managing both flood risk and development: to live in harmony with floods. Games provide the perfect avenue for exploring these challenges. Games that engage participants have been shown to be very successful and powerful dissemination instruments—with broader outreach than traditional reports. In a team made up of myself, Piotr Magnuszewski from the Water Program, Adam French from the Advanced Systems Analysis and Risk and Resilience Programs, and collaborators from the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance, we have been developing a game that can help build flood resilience in developing countries.


© Adriana Keating

The game provoking discussion at a workshop in Jakarta. © Adriana Keating

Because games are experienced as something that feels real, more information is retained, learning is faster, and an intuition is gained about how to make real decisions. Critically, the IIASA Flood Resilience Game is designed to help participants— such as NGO staff working on flood-focused programs—to identify novel policies and strategies which improve flood resilience. In its current form it is a board-game played by at least eight players, who each take on a role as a member of a flood prone community. The direct interactions between players create a rich experience that can be discussed, analysed, and lead to concrete conclusions and actions. This allows players to explore vulnerabilities and capacities—citizens, local authorities and NGOs together—leading to an advanced understanding of interdependencies and the potential for working together.

The game draws on IIASA research on the deep-seated challenges in the typical approach to flood risk management. It allows players to experience, explore, and learn about the flood risk and resilience of communities in river valleys. It lets them experience the effects on resilience of investments in different types of “capital”—such as financial, human, social, physical, and natural. The impacts of flood damage on housing and infrastructure are also an important part of the game, as well as indirect effects on livelihoods, markets, and quality of life.

Adam French

Players in Peru. © Adam French.

Playing the game can also improve understanding of the influence of preparedness, response, reconstruction on flood resilience. Importantly, it demonstrates the benefits of investment in risk reduction before the flood strikes, such as via land use planning and flood proofing homes. The effects of institutional arrangements, such as communication between citizens and with government, also become clearer during the course of the game.

Finally, participants can explore the complex outcomes on the economy, society and the environment from long-term development pathways. This highlights the types of decisions needed to avoid creating more flood risk in the future, incentivizing action before a flood through enhancing participatory decision-making. All these complex ideas are experienced with simple, concrete game elements that participants can connect with their daily realities.

From a researcher’s perspective, observing game play deepens our understanding of stakeholder motivations in relation to flood resilience. The game also contributes to better understanding and use of IIASA research via the Zurich flood resilience measurement tool, a ground-breaking approach to resilience measurement.

After several field tests in Jakarta and Lima with staff from the NGOs Practical Action, Red Cross Indonesia, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Mercy Corp, Plan and Concern Worldwide, the game is now being refined. The next version will be released soon, and the possibility of a mobile application to allow players to handle more complex dynamics while interacting in the workshop is being explored.

The game was developed in collaboration with the Centre for Systems Solutions, Poland, and with funding from the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

When global lessons are not so easily learned

By Junko Mochizuki, Research Scholar, IIASA Risk and Resilience Program

Experts in the field of emergency management like to emphasize that there are important “lessons learned” in the aftermath of disaster situations. After large disaster events such as the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, and 2013 super typhoon Yolanda in Philippines, forensic investigations are often conducted to reveal ”what went wrong”  in the chains of command, identifying what we can do differently when the next big one strikes. Such forensic investigations are not only relevant for the field of emergency management, but also for the field of disaster and climate risk management, which seeks to identify the underlying causes of what went wrong in the long chains of developmental policy intervention.

Survivors of Super Typhoon Yolanda in Tacloban City, Philippines, 2013. (cc) UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Survivors of Super Typhoon Yolanda in Tacloban City, Philippines, 2013. (cc) UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Over the years, researchers have identified a number of root causes that increase disaster risk—such as weak building codes and land use policy enforcement and overemphasis on ex-post emergency response as opposed to proactive management of disaster risk. Also, decades of economic studies looking at the costs and benefits of risk reduction investment show that such investment often pays off in the longer run. Yet, as the recent global trends of rising disaster risk unfortunately testify—we are far from learning these lessons effectively, or at least fast enough to beat the rising risk posed by future climate change: Global annual average disaster loss is estimated to have risen to approximately $300 billion in 2015 according to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).

As the special representative of the secretary general for disaster risk reduction, Robert Glasser wrote in the Guardian last week, “Every time there’s a mega disaster, there are lessons learned…  The key question is always, how do you keep up the awareness after a couple of years?”

That is why the IIASA Risk and Resilience program’s research is increasingly focused on cognitive, behavioral, and governance aspects of societal learning on disaster risk reduction. We are currently working with public, private, and civil society stakeholders, asking the questions of why we, as a collective society, continue to fail to act on these lessons learned in disaster risk management and what we can do to change it. By combining both quantitative and qualitative systems analysis approaches, we are untangling why we make decisions the way we do, and what processes and institutional mechanisms directly and indirectly affect disaster risk and developmental outcome over the long term.

Given that catastrophic disasters are by definition rare events (hence opportunities for learning is naturally limited), we are doing this using novel methods such as participatory gaming or policy exercises in which we create virtual opportunities for stakeholders to experience complex decision-making in a safe learning environment. By creating stylized context for common decision-making (such as rural farmers making longer-term decisions on livelihood diversification, or urban planners addressing rising disaster risk due to rapid population growth), these gaming spaces serve as mechanisms through which stakeholders can not only learn about their cognitive and behavioral assumptions, but also through which learning can be accelerated, repeated, and shared among different communities facing similar development and disaster risk reduction  challenges.  We are running such policy exercises in the context of our flood resilience project and internal gaming project .

Decades of research have shown that there are common global lessons on development and disaster risk reduction but they are not so easily learned in practice. It is too often that that the windows of opportunities for policy learning are limited and we continue with business-as-usual of “lessons unlearned.” Creating an enabling environment for iterative learning is no easy task under these pragmatic constraints, but we hope that a bit of creativity and lots of hard work will eventually pay off in the long run.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Aligning politics and practice for climate risks

By Thomas Schinko, IIASA Risk, Policy and Vulnerability Program

Climate change is projected to disproportionately affect people in developing countries, through extreme weather events and slow onset events such as rising sea levels. Because the countries most affected by climate change are also those who contributed the least to the problem and with the least capacities to cope, one of the major issues in recent climate negotiations has been how to support those nations’ efforts to adapt and to address climate impacts beyond adaptation.

To address this problem, in 2013 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) established the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) for Loss and Damage Associated with Climate Change Impacts (WIM).

Yet at the Paris climate talks in December, the future of the WIM was in limbo. The Global South argued for loss and damage to be a key part of an eventual agreement, while the Global North argued for including it under the adaptation agenda. In the end, the Paris agreement quite prominently featured loss and damage. However the Global North’s fears of signing up to a mechanism that makes them liable for unlimited damage claims in the future have been addressed by adding a specific paragraph to the agreement stating, “the agreement does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.”

©Amir Jina via Flickr

A flood in Bangladesh in 2009. Flooding is project to increase with climate change, yet arguments remain about attributing specific events to the influence of climate change. Photo Credit: Amir Jina via Flickr

Building on this reconfirmed support for the mechanism, the second meeting of the Executive Committee of the WIM was held 2–5 February 2016, in Bonn, Germany. The main purpose of the meeting was to give an update on the delivery of specific activities and to consider relevant requests arising from COP21. The Paris agreement requests the establishment of (1) a clearinghouse for risk transfer to facilitate the implementation of comprehensive risk management strategies and (2) a task force to address displacement issues. On the first issue, discussions have focused on the need to move beyond focusing solely on risk transfer and the link between current disaster risk management practice and climate adaptation as there are important overlaps.

As an observer, I could feel the presence of team spirit among the committee members, all honestly committed to help the most vulnerable people. Yet one issue remained hotly debated: the degree to which anthropogenic climate change can be blamed for natural disasters and extreme weather events. I saw a strong divide between committee members from the Global North and South and between those with a strong background in disaster risk management in contrast to those coming from a climate change background. Nevertheless, even in that regard I see a good chance for a joint vision to emerge, if we can distinguish two levels of the loss and damage discourse: the practical implementation on the ground vs. the political dimension.

On the practical implementation side, a pragmatic compromise became palpable: Building on decades of experience in disaster risk management related to weather extremes and the climate variability, it was identified as an entry point to deal with current and future climate risks – whether they are triggered or intensified by climate change or not. The political level, which circles around climate finance and the question of who is going to pay for losses and damages is quite another matter. Here the anthropogenic element is existentially important, as it builds the foundation for international support under the UNFCCC. If reference to anthropogenic climate change is left out of the loss and damage discourse, the UNFCCC might lose its mandate for support, as disaster risk management falls under national responsibility. Once this door closes it could remain shut, though another one might open (e.g. via civil law).

© Asian Development Bank via Flickr

Women in Thata, Pakistan line up for water following 2010 floods. Photo Credit: Asian Development Bank via Flickr

To overcome the political barriers and to build upon the convergence with respect to the short-term practical implementation, we suggest to foster an iterative and comprehensive risk management approach, linking risk prevention, risk reduction, risk retention, risk transfer, as well as ex-post relief and reconstruction to effectively tackle different layers of climate risks.

However, it is important not to lose track of climate change as a risk driver, by consequently screening new scientific and empirical insights. This is crucial, as future risks might substantially increase due to climate change, requiring an iterative adaptation of current practices and support by the international community.

To support such an approach, rigorous scientific input, bringing together researchers from various disciplines, practitioners, NGOs, and policy makers is crucial. Together with international partner institutions, in November 2015 we initiated a scientific hub on loss and damage to provide such input. The envisaged clearinghouse for risk transfer and the task force for climate-related displacement could become key recipients for information generated by our network, packaged with further information and distributed to make it actionable; particularly addressing the needs of the most vulnerable developing countries.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

How can Europe cope with multiple disaster risks?

Interview with IIASA risk expert Nadejda Komendantova

In a new study, IIASA Risk, Policy, and Vulnerability Program researcher Nadejda Komendantova and colleagues from Germany and Switzerland examined how natural hazards and risks assessments can be incorporated into decision-making processes in Europe on mitigation of multiple risks. 

A cyclist rides along the flooded Danube River in Braila, Romania, in 2010. Credit: cod_gabriel on Flickr

A cyclist rides along the flooded Danube River in Braila, Romania, in 2010. Credit: cod_gabriel on Flickr

Why did you decide to conduct this study?
European decision makers currently have a number of methods that they can use to assess natural hazards and risks and apply to the decision-making process. These methods include risk and hazard assessments, probabilistic scenarios, and socio-economic and engineering models.  The variety of tools is enormous and volume of knowledge and data is growing. However, the process of communication  between science and practice leaves a lot of open questions for research.

Researchers have developed a few tools to provide multiple risk assessment of a given territory. But even though these models have been tested by operational and practicing stakeholders, there is limited information about how useful the models are for civil protection stakeholders to use in practice.  In order to communicate results from science to practice and make it possible for decision-makers to use such tools, it helps to involve decision-makers in the development process. Participatory modeling, which is an important part of risk governance, allows us to not only to take into consideration the facts, but also values and judgments that decision-makers bring to their actions.

What questions did you aim to answer in your study?
The decision-making process becomes even more complex when we talk about situations with multiple risks – multi-risks – which involve interactions between several risks. How will decision-maker will prioritize their actions on risk mitigation or on resources allocation when facing not single but multiple risks? We also wanted to find out if the tools developed by science such as decision support models could be suitable for these tasks. Another question is if there are differences in perceptions of the usability of decision-support tools between different stakeholders, such as academia (based on more theoretical considerations) and civil protection (based on practice).

What are the multiple risks or hazards that face Europe?
Across Europe, people suffer losses not just from single hazards, but also from multiple events in combination. The most important hazards for Europe are earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, wildfires, winter storms, and floods along both rivers and coastlines.

What methods did you use to conduct your study?
To answer our research questions we collected feedback from civil protection stakeholders on existing risk and hazard assessment tools as well as on the generic multi-risk framework to understand interrelations between different risks, such as conjoint and cascade effects. The new study was based on a method developed by Arnaud Mignan at ETH Zürich, with a decision-support tool developed by Bijan Khazai at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Through a participatory approach, the decision-support tool allowed  stakeholders to assign relative importance to the losses for different sectors for each of the scenarios likely to occur in the region.

We collected data through questionnaires on existing risk assessment tools in Europe and their implementation. Then, using the new framework, we conducted focus group discussions in Bonn and Lisbon, and decision-making experiments applying the developed tools. Afterwards we had a chance to collect feedback from stakeholders.

What did you find?
The study showed that general standards for multi-risk assessment are still missing—there are different terminologies and different methodologies related to data collection, monitoring, and output. According to stakeholders from practice, this variety of data, assessment methods, tools and terminology might be a barrier for implementation of the multi-risk approach.

The study also found a sharp divide in understanding of the usability of the tools and areas for their application. Academic stakeholders saw the risk-assessment tools as being useful to understand loss and communication of multi-risk parameters. The stakeholders from practice instead saw  the tool as more useful for training and educational purposes as well as to raise awareness about possible multi-risk scenarios.

What should be done to help decision-makers make better decisions?
The study made it clear that we need to work on training and education, both for policymakers and the public. The models we have developed could be useful for educating stakeholders about the usefulness of a multi-risk approach, and to disseminate these results to the general public. It was recommended to use the tools during special training workshops organized for decision-makers on multi-risk mitigation to see possible consequences of a multi-hazard situation for their region. Participatory modeling, involving cooperation between scientists and decision-makers from practice, could not only improve communication processes between science and policy. In addition, decision-support models can become a part of dialogue to help to avoid judgment biases and systematic errors in decision-making and to help in complex decision-making process grounded on human rationality and judgment biases.

Nadejda Komendantova, Roger Mrzyglocki, Arnaud Mignan, Bijan Khazai, Friedemann Wenzel, Anthony Patt, Kevin Fleming. 2014. Multi-hazard and multi-risk decision support tools as a part of participatory risk governance: Feedback from civil protection stakeholder. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction.

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.