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Sunday, January 31, 2010

The limits of planning

Plans are nothing; planning is everything.
Dwight D. Eisenhower 

One of the consistent observations reported back from Haiti has been that volunteers have been struck by the lack of basic infrastructure which has made their work nearly impossible. While tragic and terrible, this should come as no surprise. When we make plans, particularly for rare and terrible events, there are many assumptions which go unnoticed, that is until execution is needed. We assume that certain basic resources will be in place. For example, no one considers whether there will be air to breathe. That is a given unless the rescue mission is to the moon or perhaps to some lake in central Africa where methane poisoning may be a consideration.

In Haiti, we assumed that despite the destruction there would be a certain basic social and political infrastructure. That assumption was not correct. Haiti's tragic history is to a great degree a consequence of that never developing.  Despite the huge humanitarian deployment, that infrastructure cannot be created overnight, particularly within the context of the destruction of the limited physical infrastructure which existed. 

"Happiness equals reality minus expectations" - Tom Magliozzi  

This is one of my favorite quotes, from the great philosophical sages of the 20th century. It is very timely in terms of how we view the possible responses to the predictably unpredictable tragedies which have always occurred and will always occur in our world. Which one is next? Will it be an earthquake which devastates southern California or Memphis, a Hurricane which hits south Florida, the explosion of the Yellowstone Caldera which may cover the eastern portion of the US under a foot of ash, or the explosion of a suitcase nuclear device in New York or Washington. The possibilities are endless. Can we plan for all of them? In the event of such a catastrophe, how will we actually assess what success is? I could imagine a scenario where planning and execution are outstanding, yet thousands might die and the entire activity deemed a total failure despite saving countless lives.

In our 21st century world, we make huge investments in both physical and social infrastructure to make our lives better, primarily to protect us from physical wants and discomfort. In a primitive world physical catastrophe does not destroy much. Those who survive  may be able to rapidly get back to their baseline status, as poor as it might be. In our world marked by complex physical infrastructure which is required to support our complex social interdependencies, physical catastrophe results in much more loss than the individual lives. 

We have a certain set of expectations as to what is required for us to "survive" and these expectations are quite different from what they were 50 or 100 years ago. When Herbert Hoover spearheaded the efforts to save those devastated by the great 1927 floods of the Mississippi River, those who his efforts saved had few if any expectations. Furthermore, when the waters receded there was precious little to rebuild in comparison to what would be required now. The physical infrastructure is just much more complex now.

This makes planning for disasters more and more difficult. When I was involved with a medical center IT planning project  one aspect we discussed is how to plan for rapid deployment of IT infrastructure to get back online in the event of some sort of catastrophic event. Beyond the data backup, how much of the hardware needed to be redundant and where? If we are to have redundant IT infrastructure, what about other infrastructure such as core services such as pathology, radiology, operative suites, and emergency services. Should we build a completely redundant "mirror" hospital to have just in case? Who would pay for and maintain this? Is this type of insurance really necessary?

I think the lesson is the downside of sophisticated infrastructure which makes our lives better is like any sort of leverage. It can cut both ways. Without such infrastructure, we are destined to suffer every day. With such infrastructure our lives are better but we we become dependent upon it and in the rare event where catastrophe hits, the devastation and the rebuilding process is terribly painful. Furthermore, we should not create expectations that we can plan for total effective interventions for all such eventualities at a local, state, or national levels. 

How best to deal proactively with possible catastrophe?  One asset we in the US have which Haiti does not have is the reserve which comes as a consequence of being wealthy. With wealth comes some degree of wiggle room which is simply not available when you are living hand to mouth. The benefits of this permeate into virtually all elements that will be touched by physical catastrophes. Greater wealth allows for more stringent building codes  and the tax base to support first responder networks.
 It allows for those who have some reserve to use saved assets to use them to hire private support systems. Wealthy companies such as Walmart were instrumental in using their supply chains to deliver aid after Katrina. Wealthy people shared their private resources to aid those affected. 

Perhaps the best plan to deal with catastrophe is to create expectations that the best way to survive a catastrophe is to always plan to have substantial private assets which are deployable or have been previously invested to blunt the impact. Governments simply cannot replace the private planning. Furthermore, any policy which encourages the formation of individual wealth may be the best insurance policy for surviving catastrophe that we will ever have.

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