Managing Systemic Risk in Emergency Management, Organizational Resilience, and Climate Change Adaptation: A Science-Policy Roadmap – Global



Systemic risk is a well-known challenge to policy makers, but it has often appeared in different forms. Over the years, it has been associated with the collapse of the financial system, climate change, terrorism and globalization (Centeno et al. 2015). Its relevance has been heightened by the Covid-19 pandemic in which the fragility of interconnected networks has become clearer to the public and decision makers. Different elements must be taken into account in order to understand the root causes of this process (Pescaroli and Alexander 2018). In recent decades, risk has become more complex and harder to predict, requiring a paradigm shift in its management (Helbing 2013, Linkov et al. 2014). According to the International Risk Governance Council:

“Traditional probabilistic risk assessment methodologies, which are based on linear or well-established cause-effect relationships, cannot be successfully applied to the risks that arise in such systems and may even have counterintuitive consequences and unforeseen” (IRGC 2018 , p.9)

The societal use of technology continues to evolve strongly and guides the use of geographical space, the environment and the synchronization of time. Fueled by the increasing dynamism of the world, interconnectedness is a fundamental characteristic of these systems, but they can be exposed to disturbances from a wide variety of causes (IRGC 2018). The increasing complexity of supply networks, outsourcing and the evolution of just-in-time production systems have reduced redundancy and tolerance to supply chain disruptions (Burnard and Brahma 2019). Crisis management must now go beyond hazard-driven scenarios and address multiple threats that develop simultaneously (Pescaroli and Alexander 2016). These include the simultaneity of climate extremes, hybrid attacks carried out amid ongoing emergencies, and the cascading effects of technological failure (Pescaroli and Alexander 2018). Unfortunately, the term “systemic risk” has often lost its meaning as it is swapped between science, policy and practical application.

In the following sections, we explore the policy and operational challenges of integrating systemic risk into the practice of emergency management, organizational resilience, and climate change adaptation. This is accomplished through a process of theory building supported by analysis of experience drawn from the Greater London area of ​​the UK. In particular, using a multidisciplinary perspective on disaster studies, we explore the unifying role of critical infrastructure. Our objective is to move towards the creation of a roadmap that can be used by decision-makers.

Systemic risk is the likelihood that particular failures in one subsystem or organization will affect the entire system in which they occur. We view it as a latent property with the potential to be cumulative. It can go unnoticed in organizations, but when triggered, it can compromise operational capability. According to the IRGC (2018), systemic risk can be considered as:

highly interconnected risks “with complex causal structures, non-linear cause-effect relationships”, and there is “a lack of knowledge about the interconnections in an interdependent and complex environment, prevention” (IRGC 2018, p.12 ).

This is substantially different from so-called ‘conventional risks’ which are associated with ‘recognizable patterns and management regimes which are relatively stable’.

In the social, political, economic and ecological realms, systemic risk can be associated with cascading, compound, interactive and interconnected crises and their interaction with the root causes of emergencies and disasters (Pescaroli and Alexander 2016, 2018). Organizational resilience is defined as “the ability of an organization to anticipate, prepare for, react to, and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruption in order to survive and thrive” (BS 2014). Adaptation to climate change is described as “the process of adjusting to actual or expected climate and its effects, in order to lessen harm or exploit beneficial opportunities” (IPCC 2018). These three concepts can be compared to the need to create a form of “dynamic flexibility” to manage extreme situations (Alexander 2013).

In the following sections, the paper discusses the challenges of managing systemic risk in emergency management, organizational resilience, and climate change adaptation. It then develops a case study based on London’s experience in understanding and managing systemic risk, after which it offers a discussion and conclusion. The case study is analyzed in two complementary stages that have organizational resilience as a common element. Firstly, the paper explores how emergency management addresses systemic risk, focusing on some initiatives developed by the London Resilience Partnership from 2002. This section includes examples of exercises, contingency plans and responses to complex incidents. Second, the paper analyzes how systemic risk is integrated into climate change adaptation strategies and practices, such as the use of scenario planning to identify common contexts. The review takes into account the work of the London Climate Change Partnership since 2001. It also considers decision-making pathways and various means of understanding the interdependencies between different operational areas.

Aubrey L. Morgan