Deliberate Deafness to Direct Divinations of Disaster
Responses to disaster can assume any of these four kinds of description: doing nothing, reactive, preventive, or predictive. Neither the generosity of nature through repeated lessons, the benefit of modern Earth observation technologies for monitoring conditions nor the evolution of intelligent data-driven models has salvaged the worsening situation of preventable disasters across Africa. This gross verdict of governance failure has not spared Kenya, home to the recent saddening cases of loss of lives to acts of negligence in public safety, repeated droughts, famine, and floods. Three key questions arise: Are political leaders listening? Is the public learning? Is democracy failing as citizens continue to elect the same crop of disappointing leaders?
The Gap in Systems Thinking
The regrettable and repeated cases of disaster, deformity, disease, destitution, and deaths arising from drought, floods, and famine paint the portrait of systemic gaps traceable to the poverty of systems thinking. Systems thinking, by focusing on the root causes and the big picture, informs long-term preparations and strategic planning. Systems underpin the structured and repeatable achievement of goals. Robust systems must, therefore, be in place to institutionalise and guide effective responses which can outlive disruptions by change of regime or office holders. Today’s problems may be the result of implementing outdated solutions of yesterday. Systems thinking equally inspires a culture of lifelong learning and relentless research to create new knowledge to solve or adapt to new challenges.
The Gap in Responsible Governance
Misplaced and defensive political eloquence has been a key feature of the talk shows following disasters. Political leaders rarely take responsibility for failures. The bitter truth is that elucidating government policies and plans or parading the international awards received for “the robust measures the government has put in place” cannot match the price of losing lives to drought, floods, faulty infrastructure and vehicles, among others. Of the four responses to disaster, Africa’s deluge of examples has been feeding the ocean of “doing nothing” and “reactive responses.” Doing nothing includes the eloquent explanations and generation of political heat with no remedial impact. Reactive responses, regrettably, have come to be the hallmark of what most politicians consider responsible leadership even where wastage is evident in the process. Using aircraft and buying food for a delegation of VIPs at exorbitant prices to go “inspect” disaster sites is a common case in point. “Oversight” then gets reduced from its noble meaning of responsible and quality supervision for risk mitigation to its ignoble meaning of negligent errors and omissions.
The Grasp of Predictive Modelling
The rest of the world has grasped the emerging fact that preventive responses, which may be a new dawn to some leaders, have been superseded by “predictive management.” Through scientific research and continuous observations of natural phenomena using ground-based and satellite or airborne sensors, enough data can be generated to model and predict events long before they happen. It means going beyond the hindsight based on historical events and the insight gained from current events to the rich foresight driving predictive risk management. Predictive security intelligence is one such prime target area for combating crime, the abundance of crowdsourced data or “wisdom of the crowd” being a key resource for scientific decision-making.
The Grandeur of Global Best Practices
Though global best practices in predictive management are still to be found mostly outside Africa, the wave of digital transformation and big data revolution has democratised access to the data and technologies Africa needs to improve risk management. Through technology, numerous leapfrogging opportunities exist. The satellite-based data revolution availed through initiatives such as Digital Earth Africa and analysis-ready Open Data Cubes should be a strategic asset for good governance. Political goodwill, however, is required to realise these opportunities and domesticate them by empowering homegrown talents.
Predictive modelling is the axis of predictive management. Though not the only country example, Finland presents illustrious lessons in predictive management founded on thorough applied research. The country of less than six million inhabitants, 78% forest and interspersed significantly with peatlands still features the world’s top and unparalleled research and environmental monitoring stations located in the chilling wooded and peatland areas. During my recent scientific study tour here, I had my curiosity about the parameters the field measurements capture satisfied by a mixture of the familiar and the amazing: temperature, pressure, oxygen levels, carbon dioxide levels, water vapour and similar gases key to global warming, and then amazingly, even the miniscule daily changes in the stem size of pines are accurately measured using hi-tech instrumentation as they grow at a snail’s pace in the cold climate. Perhaps symbolic of the patient determination needed for a culture of discipline and structured development, the pines aged 70 years and above look deceptively small in size relative to the fast-growing tropical trees we are familiar with. Even 1,000 years is not an extraordinary age for the pines.
Through dedicated scientific and predictive models, Finnish early warning systems can predict disasters to inform early mitigation measures. The Helsinki Rescue Department, for example, has an impressive average response time of six minutes. In contrast to the common scene of dusty land offices with scattered paper maps, the National Land Survey of Finland houses a serious Geospatial Research Institute with 50% of the staff having PhD qualifications. The team also monitors the movements of the Earth’s crust and their implications for coordinate reference systems and global climate. As a badge of research excellence at the heart of these enviable achievements, the National Land Survey of Finland also makes a substantial mark by producing over 300 peer-reviewed research papers annually.
The Grand Lessons on Governance and Progressive Research
The Finnish example offers key lessons in a three-tier stack for governing a successful predictive management model.
I enquired what is valued most in terms of inputs into this successful Finnish model and got this answer: Investment in human capital (education, skills, and experience) and quality research data supported by process interoperability and digitalisation. Similar to Germany, the Netherlands, and several European Union members, open data policy is gaining traction at an impressive pace in Finland to democratise access to the raw material needed for quality decision support.
Knowledge-and technology-led decision making is not just a good idea for governments, but so far, the sustainable and most effective means to optimising operations, managing risks, and transforming lives. These wonderful examples offer Kenya and her sisters still caught up in a similar risk management predicament critical lessons in predictive management for critical infrastructure and public safety. The emphasis on quality research and digital databases is instructive. To Kenya, it particularly speaks to increased research funding and efficiency, expediting the implementation of the policy requirements for digitalisation of land records, and setting up county GIS labs without the bottlenecks of political negativity. To realise meaningful gains, targeted human capital engagement and capacity development are indispensable.
My take remains:
The forces of digital transformation will continue to reshape the race and jig for global competitiveness and viable partnerships. All defensive political eloquence and excuses aside, the champions of the future world stage will be the nations whose governments promote quality education and partnerships for knowledge- and technology-led influence. Adequate investment in Research, Technology and Innovation (RTI) is no longer just a good idea, but a necessary condition for global competitiveness.
By Nashon Adero
Youth mentor, writer, and a lecturer at Taita Taveta University, Kenya.