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Resilience, semantic satiation, conflation, and Maslow’s hierarchy: I can only take so much!

Joshua Anthony24 August 2022

Author: Dr Chris Needham-Bennett


I am getting worried with hearing ‘resilience’ used incautiously. The word (a general noun) which, once a welcome umbrella term to describe the results of the contributory disciplines of business continuity, disaster recovery, crisis management, emergency response, etc., has become a hackneyed media mantra. The England middle order cricket team batsmen, the Lioness’s England football team are ‘resilient’, a company or local council has ‘built in resiliency’ (whatever that is). The Ukrainians are resilient. My local community needs to achieve resilience. I need to achieve personal resilience for my mental well-being; I am not sure to what?

This blog makes two fundamental points, the first is a conflation of resilience with mental well-being, stress management and associated issues, the second is the overuse of the term and a consequent diminution of its genuine meaning.

Alexander (2013)[1] (noting several other authorities), cautioned that resilience might not have the ‘power’ to be a paradigm, yet almost a decade later—whilst it arguably is far from a paradigm—there is little doubt of a fascination with the phrase and burgeoning academic research[2] (some of which is attributable to climate change research). Moser et al. (2019)[3] note in their abstract that, ‘Resilience has experienced exponential growth in scholarship and practice over the past several decades.…it is an increasingly contested concept.’

The question to my mind is why is there such a fascination with the word? First let us discount hitherto traditional uses of the word which could include its proper application to botany, pharmacology, risk in some instances, material sciences, and metallurgy.

My increasing suspicion is that it is to do with a burgeoning societal self-obsession and narcissism combined with a notion of zero risk. Society appears to have latched onto a phrase which has been hijacked by a quasi-utopian vision which is manifested as follows.

The conflation with ‘well-being’

At the macro level, the OECD measures resilient cities using the criteria outlined below[4]. Some of these seem an expression of good economic common sense. Others such as ‘% of citizens near open space’ seem a little tentative and debatable as to their links to resilience.

 

Four areas that drive resilience. Source: OECD Regional Development[4].

Perhaps as importantly, their definition as to what is resilience is, is tinged with slightly trendy overtones of a ‘brave new world’.

‘Resilient cities are cities that have the ability to absorb, recover and prepare for future shocks (economic, environmental, social & institutional). Resilient cities promote sustainable development, well-being and inclusive growth.’

Sadly, the definition does not really define precisely what the city will be resilient to, rather it is left in vague terms of ‘shock’. It does not mention some of the more critical resilience issues lower down on Maslow’s hierarchy (1943 version; cited by McLeod 2022)[5] such as power, housing, water, sewage, defence, health, and food, without which the ability to live ‘500 metres from services or near an open space or well-being and inclusive growth’ might appear somewhat academic.

At the opposite end of the resilience spectrum, at the individual level, a simple google search of ‘personal resilience course’, offers a spectacular array of over 82 million results. A brief survey of the top five of them indicates that their duration is one day or in some cases half a day. The general view is that personal resilience is a skill or attribute that can be acquired in about 8 hours (the extreme min/max range for the duration of such courses appears to be 90 minutes to a 12-week period).

Robertson et al. (2015) expressed some reservations as to the evidence of the efficacy of such courses. Naturally since 2015 more evidence might be apparent but truly longitudinal studies of the ongoing effect of course completed a decade ago are yet to be available. Their practitioner notes state that,

‘Despite conceptual and theoretical support for resilience training, the empirical evidence is tentative, with the exception of a large effect for mental health and subjective well-being outcomes.’[6]

One BBC report cites Dr Michael Pluess from Queen Mary University of London who is testing for the resilience gene, in which case if discovered it would potentially invalidate the courses cited above.

There is a real danger that resilience, which is a fundamentally practical issue at both the macro and micro level is suborned by the burgeoning but evidentially limited literature on resilience’s relationship to well-being, inclusivity, and mental health. Such links also veneer the unpalatable hard choices that real resilience demands. Put as simply as possible we all might live near open spaces and be very inclusive, but if London’s water supply remains dependent solely on abstraction from the rivers Thames and Lee[7] then it does not matter how ‘positive’ you might feel about the City in about 20 years you will not have enough to drink (perhaps counterintuitively based on a multi-year average, London has only 100mm more rainfall than Jerusalem)[8].

Semantic Satiation

But is there any evidence that the overuse of a word diminishes somehow its value. Broadly speaking yes there is, and it is technically called ‘semantic satiation’. Smith and Klein (1990) noted that ‘Prolonged repetition of a word results in the subjective experience of loss of meaning, or semantic satiation’[9]. At risk of oversimplifying their diligent study, it works something like this; on a relatively infrequent basis I inform my partner that I love her. It seems to cheer her up. If I informed her of my love on a daily basis she would be delighted for a while, then she would suspect that I am having an affair, then she would get bored with it and then perhaps later even angry. The phrase would become increasingly less meaningful and impactful.

At a more serious level it does seem to me to do some harm. In reality a lot of ‘building resilience’ is really risk mitigation or some type or diversification in the case of supply chains. If for instance, we take Markovic’s 1952 diversification theory[10] (disputed by later critics) it does supposedly make an investment portfolio more resilient to market volatility, but the critical issue or activity is diversification which is a ‘thing’ in its own right with a word all of its own to describe it. Now one can make the argument that the end result is a more resilient portfolio, but one should not be tempted to change resilience to an activity which requires it to be a verb. Diversify is the verb or ‘doing word’; resilience is the result. Similarly, if we claim that all activities are resilience measures it somehow diminishes the utility or worth of risk assessments, risk mitigation, plans and responses all of which combine to achieve resilience.

Conclusion

It might be easy to dismiss these concerns as semantic academic posturing yet the power of words, their definitions, associations, and nuances are what will shape the future of resilience. I would wish resilience to remain practical, efficacious, and most importantly simple. Let us leave resilience as an ambition or end state that is achieved through an array of distinct professional activities. Let us also ensure that the fundamental hard and often costly problems associated with resilience are not whitewashed with an ephemera of pleasantries normally found at the higher altitudes of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There may well be benefits to stress or coping management courses but let us call them just that, not personal resilience.


Dr Chris Needham-Bennett is Managing Director at Needhams1834 Ltd and Visiting Professor at University College London.

Email Chris at: chris@needhams1834.com


References

[1] Alexander, D. E.: Resilience and disaster risk reduction: an etymological journey, Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 13, 2707–2716, https://doi.org/10.5194/nhess-13-2707-2013, 2013.

[2] https://ensia.com/articles/what-is-resilience/

[3] Moser, S., Meerow, S., Arnott, J. et al. The turbulent world of resilience: interpretations and themes for transdisciplinary dialogue. Climatic Change 153, 21–40 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-018-2358-0

[4] https://www.oecd.org/cfe/regionaldevelopment/resilient-cities.htm

[5] McLeod, S. A. (2022, April 04). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

[6] Robertson, I.T., Cooper, C.L., Sarkar, M. and Curran, T. (2015), Resilience training in the workplace from 2003 to 2014: A systematic review. J Occup Organ Psychol, 88: 533-562. https://doi.org/10.1111/joop.12120

[7] https://web.archive.org/web/20150325074128/http://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/water-strategy-oct11.pdf

[8] https://www.sdjewishworld.com/2011/11/20/rain-in-jerusalem-almost-as-much-as-london/

[9] Smith, Lee, Klein, Raymond Evidence for semantic satiation: Repeating a category slows subsequent semantic processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol 16(5), Sep 1990, 852-861

[10]  Portfolio Selection, Harry Markowitz – The Journal of Finance, Vol. 7, No. 1. (Mar., 1952), pp. 77-91

 

 

The Disaster of War

David Alexander17 March 2022

Bombs bursting on the Fortress of St. Malo, France, 1944. Photo from Lee Miller.

By convention, when we study disasters we exclude warfare. It is not easy to find a completely logical reason for this. It is more a matter of convenience and a feeling that to conflate the two phenomena would lead to problems because not all generalisations about the one are applicable to the other. At the same time, there is always the basic truth that war is a disaster in its own right because of the casualties, suffering and destruction that it causes. Moreover, as we are seeing in Ukraine and surrounding countries, it is all too often accompanied by a major humanitarian emergency.

In recent years there has been increasing interest in trying to understand the intersectionality between war and other forms of disaster. The other forms are natural hazard impacts (please do not call them ‘natural disasters’ as they, too, are largely the result of human agency), technological failures, social movements (riots, crowd crushes, unplanned mass migrations, etc.), intentional disasters (essentially terrorism) and composite events. Such is the complexity of modern life that the last of these categories predominates. We live in networked societies and disasters tend to be events with cascading consequences.

In recent days, vast numbers of women, children and the elderly have crossed international boundaries as they have fled the fighting in Ukraine in what has become Europe’s fastest mass migration since the 1940s. As a result, we have a humanitarian emergency that encompasses primarily Ukraine itself and six countries on its western borders but potentially the whole of Europe. In Ukraine the challenge is to provide basic necessities under highly dangerous conditions and via an infrastructure that is becoming more and more damaged and fragmentary. Outside Ukraine it is a matter of accommodating hundreds of thousands of refugees, most of whom come from families that have been split up by the war.

Gone are the times when war was fought on a battlefield between assembled armies. There is no room any more for a Napoleon or a Wellington. In modern warfare everyone and everything is a target. Grain, fertiliser, gas, oil and minerals are casualties as well as people, and so are those who depend on these commodities and are deprived by shortage or rising prices from accessing them.

In a world that faces grim challenges in dealing with climate change, ecological catastrophe, loss of the carrying capacity of the land and problems with the vulnerability of technology, the last thing we need is a major war. Nothing can compensate for the loss of life and destruction of people’s living conditions that it causes, but it may yet accelerate the transition towards more sustainable consumption and more rational ways of living. Amid the lies and manipulations that lie behind the aggression, there is also solidarity and rationality. Let us hope that in spite of everything these admirable qualities will prevail. We need them so that we can confront the next disaster.


David Alexander is Professor in UCL’s Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction. He is a citizen of Britain and Italy.

SLaMA Solver Frame: facilitating earthquake risk reduction with a computer app

r.gentile@ucl.ac.uk18 January 2022

Earthquake-induced direct and indirect losses tend to be high in highly populated earthquake-prone areas, especially in countries where most of the existing buildings and infrastructure are designed or built according to pre-seismic codes (if any). Therefore, there is a dire need to develop holistic strategies for mitigating and managing seismic risk. On the one hand, this involves risk understanding and quantification (e.g., risk/loss assessment methodologies). On the other hand, there is a crucial need to develop and implement strategies and techniques for repairing and retrofitting existing structures, which should be structurally effective, easy to apply, cost-effective, possibly reversible, and respectful of the architectural, heritage and cultural conservation requirements.

Both in the “diagnosis” and the “prognosis” phases, procedures to assess the structural performance under earthquake loads are paramount. Among many possibilities within the literature, choosing an appropriate assessment procedure depends on a simplicity vs accuracy trade-off governed by technical, economical, and time constraints. Moreover, various stakeholders have different needs on this matter: private owners likely need a detailed assessment focused on individual buildings or small portfolios, while government agencies or (re)insurance companies might look at large portfolios tolerating a lower refinement level and accepting higher uncertainties.

It is fundamental to select a procedure that can highlight the structural weaknesses of the considered structural system, so that it is possible to design retrofit solutions to specifically fix those. One procedure complying with this requirement, while being easy to apply, is SLaMA – Simple Lateral Mechanism Analysis.

Although SLaMA is normally applied using spreadsheets, it allows for defining the nonlinear force-displacement capacity and the sequence of local and global mechanisms of a building. It was introduced for the 1st time in the 2006 version of the New Zealand Society of Earthquake Engineering, NZSEE, Guidelines for the “Assessment and Improvement of the Performance of buildings in earthquakes” (NZSEE 2006), and revamped in the 2017 version (NZSEE 2017), after a substantial amount of research (Gentile 2017, Pampanin 2017; Del Vecchio et al. 2018; Gentile et al. 2019;  Gentile et al. 2019a; 2019b; 2019c; Bianchi et al. 2019). SLaMA is essentially mandatory in New Zealand, since it is required as an essential step before any other seismic numerical analysis is carried out. Its scope, however, is geographically much larger: more than 15 world-class companies (in New Zealand, Italy, Netherlands, UK) are using this method.

“SLaMA Solver Frame” is a free Windows/MacOS app created to enable engineers applying SLaMA using a graphical user interface, and without the need to create ad hoc spreadsheets. This app refers to reinforced concrete frame buildings, which constitute a substantial portion of the building stock in many countries around the world.

As shown in the tutorial video below, SLaMA Solver Frame is completely standalone (i.e., it does not require any other software to be run). It provides a “type and check” environment, in which every time the user inputs a parameter, the app automatically updates specific plots, therefore allowing for continuous cross checks and minimising input error. For each beam and column, SLaMA solver Frame provides their expected failure mode (flexure, bar buckling, shear, lap splice). For each beam column joint sub-assembly within the frame, the app determines its hierarchy of strength, indicating the member-level mechanism that causes its failure. Finally, by composing the results of each sub-assembly, SLaMA solver Frame provides an estimation of the plastic mechanism and the non-linear force-displacement curve.


SLaMA Solver Frame can be downloaded for free (for Windows and MacOS) at https://www.robertogentile.org/en/slamaf/. If you find any bugs, or you have any suggestions/comments, please feel free to report them dropping an email to robstructuralapps@gmail.com.


Disclaimer for SLaMA Solver Frame

SLaMA Solver Frame is provided by Dr Roberto Gentile under the Creative Commons “Attribution-No Derivatives 4.0 International” License. The purpose of SLaMA solver Frame is to cross-check by hand or spreadsheet calculations. This software is supplied “AS IS” without any warranties and support. The Author assumes no responsibility or liability for the use of the software. The Author reserves the right to make changes in the software without notification. The Author also make no representation or warranty that such application will be suitable for the use selected by the user without further calculations and/or checks.

 


Roberto Gentile is a Lecturer in Crisis and Catastrophe Modelling at IRDR.


References

Bianchi, Ciurlanti, and Pampanin. (2019). A SLaMA-Based Analytical Procedure for the Cost/Performance-Based Evaluation of Buildings. In COMPDYN 2019 – 7th ECCOMAS Thematic Conference on Computational Methods in Structural Dynamics and Earthquake Engineering. Crete Island, Greece.

Del Vecchio, Gentile, Di Ludovico, Uva, and Pampanin. (2018). Implementation and Validation of the Simple Lateral Mechanism Analysis (SLaMA) for the Seismic Performance Assessment of a Damaged Case Study Building [Open Access]. Journal of Earthquake Engineering 24 (11): 1771–1802. https://doi.org/10.1080/13632469.2018.1483278.

Gentile (2017). Extension, refinement and validation of the Simple Lateral Mechanism Analysis (SLaMA) for the seismic assessment of RC structures. PhD thesis. Polytechnic university of Bari, Italy.

Gentile, Pampanin, Raffaele, and Uva. (2019). Analytical Seismic Assessment of RC Dual Wall/Frame Systems Using SLaMA: Proposal and Validation [Open Access]. Engineering Structures 188: 493–505. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.engstruct.2019.03.029.

Gentile, Pampanin, Raffaele, and Uva. (2019). Non-Linear Analysis of RC Masonry-Infilled Frames Using the SLaMA Method: Part 1—Mechanical Interpretation of the Infill/Frame Interaction and Formulation of the Procedure [Open Access]. Bulletin of Earthquake Engineering 17 (6): 3283–3304. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10518-019-00580-w.

Gentile, Pampanin, Raffaele, and Uva. (2019). Non-Linear Analysis of RC Masonry-Infilled Frames Using the SLaMA Method: Part 2—Parametric Analysis and Validation of the Procedure [Open Access]. Bulletin of Earthquake Engineering 17 (6): 3305–26. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10518-019-00584-6.

Gentile, Del Vecchio, Pampanin, Raffaele, and Uva. (2019). Refinement and Validation of the Simple Lateral Mechanism Analysis (SLaMA) Procedure for RC Frames [Open Access]. Journal of Earthquake Engineering. https://doi.org/10.1080/13632469.2018.1560377.

New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering (NZSEE). (2006). Assessment and improvement of the structural performance of buildings in earthquakes. Wellington, New Zealand.

New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering (NZSEE). (2017). The Seismic Assessment of Existing Buildings – Technical Guidelines for Engineering Assessments. Wellington, New Zealand.

Pampanin. (2017). Towards the Practical Implementation of Performance-Based Assessment and Retrofit Strategies for RC Buildings: Challenges and Solutions. In SMAR2017- Fourth Conference on Smart Monitoring, Assessment and Rehabilitation of Structures. 13-15 March 2017. Zurich, Switzerland.

 

Seeing and Hearing: Underrated Skills?

David Alexander10 January 2022

There are two things we don’t teach our students but we should: to see and to listen. They are virtues–and skills–that are at least as important as writing and speaking. Some would argue that they are even more important. Pierre Bonnard, the great post-Impressionist painter, said that “many people look, but few see”. How very true! It is one thing to receive a visual impression and quite another to interpret it.

The island of Capri seen from the slopes of Mount Vesuvius (photo: D. Alexander).

For those of us who are in London, a good exercise is to catch the no. 9 bus at Aldwych, go upstairs (it is a double-decker) and travel at least as far as Knightsbridge, if not all the way to Hammersmith. Try it and look up: on the buildings of London there is a wealth of detail that is hard, and sometimes impossible, to see from ground level. There is an astonishing variety of statuary and ornamentation. It is part of the language of architecture through the ages, and its vocabulary is very rich indeed.

It is estimated that, thanks to electronic media, we come into contact with up to 70,000 images a day. Most of them are seen only fleetingly and few of them convey their full message to us. These days it is impossible not to be blasé about imagery. Contrast that with the situation in past ages, when people would travel long distances to view and marvel over a single image. In Florence in 1504, when Michelangelo Buonarroti finished his statue of David, he had it hauled into Piazza della Signoria and left in front of the city hall, Palazzo Vecchio. People came from far and wide to attach the Renaissance equivalent of ‘Post-It’ notes to the pedestal to express what they thought of the work (Forcellino 2009, p. 60). Despite the immense outpouring of creativity in Florence in that period, people were not satiated with images. They had time to weigh up and discuss each one.

Spending many hours each day staring at a small screen we run the risk of suffering from visual illiteracy. Under the constant bombardment of imagery, attention spans easily diminish. More does not mean better. Who now has time to acquire the skills to interpret images? Who now reads, for example, On Growth and Form, or The Story of Art, or The Four Books of Architecture?

To hear a recording of Artur Rubinstein (1887-1982) playing Robert Schumann’s Carnaval is to experience the perfect balance between precision and expression, for Rubinstein was one of the greatest pianists ever. It needs intense self-discipline to acquire that experience: absolute freedom from distraction, even breathing, stillness, perfectly maintained attentiveness. Only then does Rubinstein’s magic work its full wonders. None of these qualities is encouraged by electronic media; indeed, quite the reverse.

We who work or study in universities have one great mission: to interpret the human condition and communicate our findings. This is the acquisition of wisdom, which the OED defines, succinctly, as “soundness of judgement”. Hence, by definition wisdom is the opposite of superficiality. It follows that the quality of the output–shared wisdom–is a function of the quality of the input, the experience and interpretation of knowledge. Fuelling this are the impressions we receive as we live our lives, study and work.

Such is the cacophony of modern life that it may well be true that there is greater virtue  in listening than in speaking. It is never too late to learn to see and hear, to interpret space, form, sound and nuance. Nonetheless, we go to conferences to speak, not to listen. We tap away at the keyboard to write, not to read. This is perhaps not surprising given that the amount of material available to us to absorb is simply overwhelming. The Information Technology Age is of course still very young and it remains to be seen how humanity will cope with it and reach some kind of reconciliation. But as we make our uneasy progress through the ICT revolution, it is time to return to the old skills and develop our ability to understand the many languages of the visual and audible world around us.

References

Forcellino, Antonio 2009. Michelangelo: A Tormented Life. Polity Press, Cambridge UK, 344 pp.

Gombrich, Sir Ernst Hans Josef 1950. The Story of Art. Phaidon Press, London, 688 pp.

Palladio, Andrea 2000. The Four Books of Architecture (I quattro libri dell’architettura, 1570). Dover Press, New York, 110 pp.

Thompson, D’Arcy Wentworth 1942. On Growth and Form (2nd edition). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1116 pp.

Rubinstein, Artur, 2016. Schumann: Carnaval, Op. 9 & Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. RCA, New York (CD).


David Alexander is Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction at IRDR.