Disruptive Emergent Systems in Disaster Response

Kristopher Thornburg


The 2017 hurricanes in the southern United States provided an impetus for wider social technology use than during previous disaster responses. Hurricane survivors rapidly turned to social media for help while physically unaffected social media users crowdsourced crisis maps to generate complex and powerful emergent information systems. Volunteers unaffiliated with first responder organizations conducted rescues based on those systems, converging distinct technologies and individuals to form new response systems. In other cases, new response systems emerged to satisfy other survivor needs, like electricity or food. These new response systems were disruptive to the established response system. That is, these disruptive emergent systems displaced, supplemented, or filled gaps in the established, federally-managed responses.
This research sought to reveal the effects of disruptive emergent systems on established disaster response systems. Four major hurricane responses were selected for analysis: Hurricanes Katrina (2005), Sandy (2012), Harvey (2017), and Maria (2017). These hurricanes represent the costliest U.S. hurricanes on record as of mid-2018. Damage due to high winds and flooding were wide-spread. The scale of the damage and large response areas produced two important effects. The first was that federal response resources were spread thin and dispersed over the affected areas. The second was that the disaster scale, combined with scarce federal resources, provided conditions for need-based emergent solutions. In other words, emergent systems arose based on survivor needs that were not being met in an acceptable timeframe. It is not surprising that emergent systems were developed to provide solutions for the many immediate needs in the aftermath of these each of these hurricanes.
A total of thirteen disruptive emergent systems from the four different hurricane responses were analyzed in this research. A constant comparative grounded theory approach was used to identify properties and features of the disruptive emergent systems. Each system was also analyzed in terms of the National Response Framework’s Emergency Support Functions and core capabilities. The analysis showed that disruptive emergent systems are likely to supplement ongoing response activities or fill gaps in Emergency Support Functions and core capabilities. This research also discovered that these systems emerge based on survivor demand conditions and motivations along with available capabilities and culture.
A total of eight disruptive emergent system features were identified through the grounded theory analysis approach. An ontological diagram was developed from these features to reflect the necessary feature components for a disruptive emergent system within a hurricane response. The diagram, shown in Figure 1, is divided into demand and supply sides with each containing conditions and motivations. Capability and mechanism components form supply conditions while the ability to reduce perceived gaps in response makes up the demand conditions. Cultural components comprise the supply motivations and the ability to respond rapidly to needs falls within demand motivations. This diagram can be used to understand disruptive emergent systems, recognize the conditions and motivations required for these systems to form, and provide a roadmap for the established response system to leverage these systems.
The disruptive emergent systems studied in this research demonstrated supply responses to survivor demand. That is, these systems emerged through particular capability and organizational mechanism conditions to satisfy survivor demands. Cultural motivations provided the call to action for many of these disruptive emergent systems.

Disruptive Emergent System Ontological Diagram

Figure 1. Ontological diagram for disruptive emergent system features.

In addition to these findings, several recommendations can be drawn from the results of this research. First, the established response system should leverage the potential of disruptive emergent systems in future disaster situations by:
• Leveraging existing capabilities: Social media and mobile technologies are readily available to many people and serve as a primary communications platform for some disruptive emergent systems. Social media platforms should be used to pursue integration efforts between systems.
• Leveraging mechanisms: Advanced technologies, like Project Loon or Tesla’s battery packs, were used to fill survivor needs after coordination with government entities. The established response system should leverage fast-track mechanisms to enable public-private relationships that can quickly deploy advanced technology solutions. Coordinate at the lowest level to meet survivor needs in a timely fashion.
• Leveraging culture: Emergent, self-organized groups that provide needed services to survivors should be supported during disaster responses. Before disaster strikes, however, the established response system should adopt an “all-opportunities” approach to promoting community resilience. This approach focuses on people-centric strengths of communities, which may be very location-dependent.
The capabilities, mechanisms, and culture components all reside on the supply side of the disruptive emergent system ontological diagram. Established disaster response systems can also leverage the other side of the diagram to reduce potential demand in terms of conditions and motivations.
• Demand conditions: Investing in resilient electricity generation capacity that does not rely upon a distribution network for fuel or delivery will reduce several immediate needs. Investing in resilient communications networks will provide the ability to disseminate and collect information regarding needs and services. Prestaging supplies with distribution plans in place will also reduce certain demands.
• Demand motivations: Pre-staging water, food, and electricity generation capacity can reduce initial demand for response services.
In general, predictable survivor demands should be proactively reduced before a hurricane strikes. This will reduce the need for disruptive emergent systems from the outset. Second, the established response system should provide support or reduce barriers to disruptive emergent systems that are meeting the highest survivor demands during the initial response. These systems are valuable force multipliers and should be used. Third, the established response system should support the evolving capabilities and mechanisms of disruptive emergent systems, particularly during the transition to recovery. Finally, the established response system should identify successful disruptive emergent systems and understand the system capabilities and mechanisms throughout the response.
The established systems should learn from these successful systems so that future response systems need not be disruptive or emergent.

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