With hurricanes battering the Caribbean and the southeastern United States, and an earthquake rocking Mexico in recent weeks, Louise K. Comfort’s expertise in disaster management is all too relevant these days.
A professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and former director of Pitt’s Center for Disaster Management, Comfort, Ph.D., specializes in decision making under conditions of uncertainty and advocates a sociotechnical systems approach to extreme events. She has done earthquake field study work for more than 30 years, including recent trips to Haiti, Japan, and Nepal.
Comfort recently spoke at the ASCE Congress on Technical Advancement in Duluth, MN, and will soon bring her knowledge and experience to the role of social science editor for ASCE’s Natural Hazards Review journal.
“I have long-time colleagues in both technical and organizational fields as well as in public policy who hold that while hazards may be natural, the consequences absolutely are not,” Comfort said. “This is the kind of message that I hope our journal can articulate.”
Comfort talked with ASCE News about the potential messages she hopes to articulate in her new editorship, as well as how the sociotechnical systems approach can help reshape infrastructure resilience.
ASCE News: Can you explain a little bit about what the sociotechnical systems approach is?
Comfort: “It’s the interaction between the design sciences of engineering and architecture and the organizational studies of public policy, public administration, and business administration. If we’re looking at a built environment, it goes back to [Nobel-Prize-winning political scientist] Herbert Simon’s notion of design, which is that we, as humans, create the environment in which we live. For example, we have the mental capacity to imagine a building that stands during earthquakes. Then, we develop the technical capacity to specify the design for a building that will withstand severe shaking, and the organizational capacity to translate that design into practice.
“The sociotechnical systems approach recognizes that the world we live in is a much more complex, interrelated, interconnected environment than any single discipline can manage. It means recognizing that a structured environment involves both the technical design that specifies the soil, foundation, structure, and envelope for a given building at a particular site, and the organizational capacity to marshal the materials, personnel, and expertise to construct the building. Further, it means the coordination among multiple organizations for the delivery of essential services such as water, power, and communication that make the buildings functional.
“You can’t have a functional building without electricity; without water; or without communication. All of these interlinked systems are necessary for a built community. It’s essential to analyze how these connections are made, which comes first, in what order, and what happens if the power goes out, or the water doesn’t flow, or the sewer line is broken.
“A sociotechnical approach means considering how we create an environment that is adaptive to changing conditions and becomes increasingly self-maintaining, self-organizing, and self-functioning. It means understanding the interconnections among the different disciplines and types of knowledge that are critical to creating and maintaining a livable, humane, responsible, sustainable community.”
ASCE News: Do you think this recent series of natural disasters in the last month will help encourage people to communicate more across disciplines and work on solutions together?
Comfort: “I hope so. I really hope they do. Encouraging communication across disciplines to reduce risk is a vital task that the Natural Hazards Review can do. It is one of the reasons that I accepted this editorship. Collaboration across disciplines to reduce risk is a message that needs to be communicated to every metro region in the world, not just the U.S.
“It was interesting to watch the news and see the analyses following the recent Mexico City earthquake. Mexico City [in 1985] was the first major earthquake that I studied, and I was pleased to see young scholars that I met in Mexico City in 1985 now reporting as experts on the 2017 earthquake assessment.
“I believe the journal can make a vital contribution by articulating not only the concept of sociotechnical systems, but also in serving as a professional forum that can link scholars and practitioners from many disciplines. Linkages are vital between engineers and architects, urban planners and public policy analysts, economists and medical professionals, and local political officials with broader segments of their communities. Building the capacity to manage recurring risks in cities and metro regions is a continuing investment in the future of resilient and sustainable communities. Without that capacity, metro regions will confront escalating levels of costly, catastrophic damage as populations grow and hazards become more frequent and severe.
ASCE News: What can readers expect to see in the journal that can help make those connections happen?
Comfort: “Looking forward, I don’t expect every engineer to become a specialist in public policy, nor every analyst in public policy to become a specialist in engineering or seismology. But I do hope that our journal can serve as a credible, respected forum to explain the current status of risk from natural hazards in clear, understandable language that readers in any discipline will understand. I would like to see the use of language to clarify problems in the science and practice underlying hazards, engineering or public policy, not to obscure actual risk.
“The first task of professionals in any city, in my judgment, is to understand the risk of hazards in the area in which they live. In California, it’s earthquakes. In Florida, it’s hurricanes. In the Midwest, it’s tornadoes. Understanding what that risk is, what is the science underlying the hazard, and what actions are involved in reducing that risk is really critical. We need to make these issues clear to the residents of communities exposed to hazards, so they, in turn, can make informed decisions about how to manage that risk.
“To me, a principal task for the journal is to educate the public to be mindful of the risk in their area; if someone buys a piece of property in California they should know what the seismic risk is and be able to make informed decisions about how to protect their property, their families, or their businesses.
“Risk means acknowledging uncertainty. And uncertainty is involved in every aspect of our lives. We cannot ever eliminate it fully. We need to explore and identify risk in as many ways and places as we can, so we can make informed decisions about how to manage known risk responsibly and how to anticipate future risk, given current knowledge. Resilience is a process of iterative learning.”