October 14, 2020
Q. You are the President & CEO of Disaster Recovery Institute International which, as your mission states, “helps organizations around the world prepare for and recover from disasters.” In your line of work, is there a specific definition of “disaster”?
We define disaster as “a sudden, unplanned catastrophic event causing unacceptable damage or loss”. It could really be anything disruptive from a hurricane to a terrorist attack to a pandemic. Activists in this space like to make the point that hazards are natural, but disasters are manmade. What they mean is that while we cannot prevent a natural hazard like a typhoon or an earthquake from occurring, a disaster is only caused by our failure to adequately prepare and protect life and property from the impacts. The National Institute of Building Sciences released a landmark report after the active—and expensive—2017 hurricane season, which states that every $1 invested in mitigation saves $6 in recovery. Increasingly, the public expects their leaders to take an active approach to prevention and to resilience-building measures rather than accepting the status quo, but there is work to be done. Politicians still win more political points for securing post-disaster funding than for shoring up vulnerable infrastructure that would have prevented the need for such funding. We need to change that perception.
I think these conversations about terminology are especially important in a field where clarity literally saves lives. Early on in my career, I made my mark in this field by wrestling with terminology. I served as the liaison for the first DRI International Glossary for Resilience and as a result of this work, was invited to join the expert working group that created the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction’s Online Glossary, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2017.
Q. Disasters are constantly evolving and often take place without warning. How do you and your team stay prepared to address them?
The key is continuing education. This field is constantly evolving, so anyone seeking this kind of career needs to be absolutely committed to ongoing professional growth. For example, cyber resilience is an emerging area that requires specific knowledge, contextualization, and a new set of skills. Our institute offers training and certification that helps the community to identify right away whether a so-called disaster expert is actually a verified professional with both an academic understanding of the field and real-world experience. This is important in many professional contexts, but especially so in a lifesaving one.
Q. You were a guest speaker at a French-American Foundation webinar in late April about crisis management during Covid-19. With fellow Young Leader Renaud Guidée, you examined the pandemic’s impact on public and private infrastructure and potential strategies to mitigate the damage moving forward. What are some of the new challenges you’ve seen since those first few months?
I fear that we will put all of our collective energy into the Covid-19 response and recovery and ignore all other risks. This is the usual pattern after a large crisis in which we then devote all of our energy to fighting the last crisis instead of taking our lessons learned and applying them more flexibly so that they can be used against a wider variety of threats. What we hope is that organizations will take a more holistic, systemic view of risk. Organizations might finally pay proper attention to what were traditionally regarded as tail risks, because they are happening more frequently now—we are seeing hurricanes, fires, pandemics, etc. all the time. This is in part due to climate change but also to globalization.
There are three areas that I am watching right now in particular:
- Supply chains: We are seeing the reconfiguration of supply chains and in many companies, this is the key driver of resilience. There is some refreshed energy behind localization—a trend that was already occurring—in addition to diversification (i.e. essential goods like pharmaceutical components should not all be manufactured in one or two countries). Some of this is for political reasons, but it is also for practicality and flexibility. Will all this lead to higher costs and less efficiency? Maybe not when you accurately price disaster and climate risk and use technology to build in efficiencies. That said, don’t expect a widespread decoupling from China—it still has capacities that can’t be met elsewhere.
- Work-from-home: Many white-collar workers are still working remotely with no end in sight. It’s not clear that this will be sustainable, productive, or inspire innovation in the long-term. There are widespread reports of burnout, workplace injury, and increased stress. Notwithstanding, many organizations will be inevitably seduced by the perceived cost savings into making some of these changes permanent. This will have an impact on workplace culture and social mobility and the gains are unlikely to be passed on to the worker. It will also have a huge impact on city centers, companies that are built to serve office workers like restaurants and workers who are cut out of the corporate system.
- Schools: Until schools can reopen and stay open reliably and on a full schedule, the painful state of affairs that we are in will continue. Once again, this does not affect everyone equally and while organizations are trying to be flexible, there are limits. Who ends up bearing the burden and what are the long-term implications on issues of social justice and gender equality?
Q. In addition to your leadership positions, you’re a contributing writer at Forbes and a professor at NYU – both of which involve informing the wider public about your area of expertise. What are the greatest rewards and challenges of being an educator in this field?
This is probably my favorite aspect of the job. I love taking complex subjects, breaking them down, and communicating them to a broader audience. Whether it’s through media engagement, public speaking, or teaching, these conversations are fulfilling for me and I hope that they are useful to others as well. One aspect that can be challenging is related to public-private partnerships. I spend a fair amount of time talking to public sector or academic audiences about the business perspective and vice versa, which sometimes means that they end up disagreeing with me or just looking at me in puzzlement. On the other hand, I’m glad that I can share a unique perspective and try to build a bridge between stakeholder groups. In order for this work to be successful, we need those bridges because a disaster usually affects both and we all need to work together to manage through it.
Q. You are a member of the French-American Foundation’s 2019 class of Young Leaders and of its Transatlantic Forum. Could you speak about the role of international cooperation in your work, whether it be through the private sector or government bodies?
International cooperation is a passion of mine and has been central to my career. My ability to build relationships across language, distance, age, and culture propels me. Early on in my time at DRI, I designed our international training network, which involved extensive market research, many hours of global travel, and the ability to engage business leaders, policymakers, and partners in over one hundred countries. I have been to over 50 countries, but outside of my home, France continues to win my heart both for its culture and for its thoughtful approach to risk. For example, it has demonstrated bold leadership by passing the first legal requirement to disclose climate risk with Article 173, requiring major institutional investors and asset managers to explain how they account for environmental, social and governance criteria in addition to the bottom line. Similarly, France is an innovator in cybersecurity. Our nations have had many fruitful exchanges regarding national cybersecurity strategy, but there is work to be done including engaging businesses that have been forced onto the frontlines of the cyber battlefield with little protection. Collaboration amongst nations is key to mitigating global risk, and I value the opportunities presented by this program to engage in the conversation about our shared future with the emerging leaders of France. These kinds of exchanges are vital for insight and essential to building a safer, more inclusive world.