Aim of the project
The project assesses how the ability of networks of organizations involved in the prevention and management of cascading disasters can be explained by variations in their organizational structures and processes of decision making under conditions of risk and uncertainty.

“Cascading” disasters (also called complex, compound and multiple, see Cutter, 2018), are extreme events in which effects increase in progression over time and generate unexpected secondary events of strong impact (Pescaroli, Alexander, 2015). According to the UN Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (2019), in the period 1997–2017 multi-hazard disasters affected 88 million people, with floods alone devastating the livelihoods of 76 million. Furthermore, during the past decade, emergencies stemming from natural hazards have displaced an average of almost 24 million people, and are likely to form the main trigger of displacement in the future.

Cascading disasters present combinations of pre-existing vulnerabilities and unforeseen shocks (earthquakes, floods, pandemics, cyberattacks, industrial disasters) that can set in motion so-called social cascades - compound disasters with severe and enduring repercussions that deeply affect the social fabric and interconnectedness of community, organizational and institutional life. The Tohoku earthquake which triggered a tsunami and resulted in the Fukushima nuclear plant failure, or the Hurricane Kathrina sequence of catastrophes (hurricane, levee failure and floods) form clear illustrations of cascading disasters. One of their distinguishing features is that they present a combination of risky events (in which the likelihood of the outcome is known) and uncertainty, where not all the possible outcomes are known nor their probabilities. This creates an additional layer of complexity for decision makers and actors responsible for the prevention and the intervention in case of disasters.

An effective response to cascading disasters must be flexible and proactive, and must involve many interconnected actors, operating at different levels in different roles and embedded in different contexts. Such a response will become easier if there is a shared understanding of the current disaster, a shared perception of the potential secondary effects (“cascades”) it may trigger, and a clear attribution of tasks and responsibilities. There is increasing awareness among scholars and practitioners that current organizational structures and processes may prove inadequate to achieve these objectives. They also recognize the need for new organizational forms, crediting so-called high-reliability inter-organizational networks (HRNs) with potential advantages compared to standard forms of emergency response (Berthod et al., 2017). An inter-organizational network is considered as highly reliable if it is able to securely anticipate and contain critical incidents in the course of their operations, but also to maintain effectiveness during crises. HRNs can be designed and shaped around the whole disaster management cycle, and they can be used to improve understanding and awareness of risks, enable an effective response from the affected populations, and increase societal resilience, while tempering social cascades. Nevertheless, little is still known about their incidence or the conditions that favor or hamper their creation, functioning, and effectiveness.

The Veiligheidsregio’s in the Netherlands, the Department of Civil Protection in Italy, the Johanniter in Germany are all examples of inter-organizational networks involved in disaster risk preparedness and management. These collaborative networks have the potential to reduce vulnerability and build resilience for time scales beyond the duration of single events. But to what degree are these networks highly reliable? What would it take to strengthen and stabilize their reliability?

Theoretical Background
This project aims to contribute to the current understanding of crisis management and post-disaster resilience by combining sociological theory on network governance and hazard response (Berthod et al., 2017; Heyse et al., 2019) and philosophical inquiry in two ways.

First, drawing both on ethics and decision theory, the project will perform a conceptual analysis of the notion of cascading disasters and their implications for the allocation of relevant roles and tasks to agents in multiple organizations. The complexity of the decision situation increases due to the number of stakeholders and their heightened interdependence. Coordination and cooperation failures may be the result, for example because the various responsibilities are diffused in a network of (organizational) actors, or because of diverging risk assessments.

Second, the results of the conceptual analysis will be used in combination with recent advances in the theory of network governance (Berthod et al., 2017:366). Effective response to disasters requires the involved stakeholders to switch from supportive, participatory forms of coordination to assertive, centralized procedures and back in different phases during the disaster prevention and mitigation cycle. However, little is known about the effectiveness of such governance forms in situations of cascading disasters, like for instance when a pandemic and one or more natural disasters happen at the same time. Two categories of hypotheses will be elaborated and tested. First, at the system level, the working hypothesis informing this project is that the effectiveness of HRN’s depends on the ability of the involved agencies to combine participant-based and directive governance modes through the processes of layering and switching. Layering consists of informal processes contributing to a smooth combination of a hybrid form of governance combining decentralized and centralized decision making, whereas switching reflects the ability to abruptly change back and forth between centralized and layered forms. Second, at the task level, the working hypothesis is that performance reliability will increase if cross-organizational task interdependence is embedded in informal network relations, because social embeddedness will align actors’ perceptions of risks and responsibilities.

The proposed theoretical approach advances our understanding of network governance by bringing together the study of hazards and research on the governance of inter-organizational collaborative networks - two areas of investigation that so far have remained largely disconnected. Current approaches are based on post-hoc assessments of existing disasters and their consequences. In contrast, this project will start from a fine-grained conceptual analysis of risk and responsibility in cascading disasters, and subsequently assess how the resulting conceptualization maps on the processes within the organizations and inter-organizational networks under investigation.

Research Design
The research design of this multi-disciplinary project consists of two core elements. First, a conceptual analysis will analyze the notion of cascading disasters and the related ethical challenges. This theoretical exploration will focus on issues of responsibility and risk perception related to complex disasters. The results of this analysis will inform the design of an empirical multi-method multiple case study approach that will be used to (1) determine the extent to which abstract concepts of risk, ethics and responsibility in cascading disasters are embedded into the organizational routines, (2) map (changes in) the collaborative structures of inter-organizational networks, (3) analyze the related processes of intra- and inter-organizational (joint) decision making, and (4) assess their effectiveness in terms of prevention and mitigation of cascading disasters. Data collection will consist of expert interviews, sociometric surveys, content analysis of media reports, archival research, analyses of formal emergency operation plans. The envisioned duration of the data collection is three years. Informants will be drawn from the managerial level, the workfloor, as well as from outside stakeholders who are directly affected by the HRNs functioning.

At the beginning of the project different organizations involved in emergency management in different EU countries will be approached in order to find one or more suitable case studies. The cascading disasters that will be considered for it are pandemics (with a specific reference to COVID-19), earthquakes and floods, but the final choice will be dependent upon the chosen organization. Inter-organizational collaboration and the related task-interdependencies will be elicited using the two-step research protocol developed by Bodin & Nohrstedt (2016). Informed by the conceptual analysis, the student will conduct exploratory expert interviews to identify the relevant actors, issues, tasks, and interrelationships. An analysis of policy documents and a sociometric survey involving a sample of members of the inter-organizational community will provide different kinds of data that will make it possible to test how reliable the interorganizational network is when dealing with cascading disasters.

Braham, M., & van Hees, M. (2018). Voids or Fragmentation: Moral Responsibility For Collective Outcomes. The Economic Journal, 128(612), F95–F113.
Bodin, Ö., & Nohrstedt, D. (2016). Formation and performance of collaborative disaster management networks: Evidence from a Swedish wildfire response. Global Environmental Change, 41, 183-194.
Berthod, O., Grothe-Hammer, M., Müller-Seitz, G., Raab, J., & Sydow, J. (2017). From high-reliability organizations to high-reliability networks: the dynamics of network governance in the face of emergency. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 27(2), 352-371.
Eiser, J. R., Bostrom, A., Burton, I., Johnston, D. M., McClure, J., Paton, D., ... & White, M. P. (2012). Risk interpretation and action: A conceptual framework for responses to natural hazards. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 1, 5-16.
Heyse, L., Morales, F. N., & Wittek, R. (2021). Evaluator perceptions of NGO performance in disasters: meeting multiple institutional demands in humanitarian aid projects. Disasters, 45(2), 324-354.
Mongin, P., & Pivato, M. (2016). Social evaluation under risk and uncertainty. In The Oxford Handbook of Well-Being and Public Policy.
Pescaroli, G., & Alexander, D. (2018). Understanding compound, interconnected, interacting, and cascading risks: a holistic framework. Risk analysis, 38(11), 2245-2257.
Robinson, S. E., Eller, W. S., Gall, M., & Gerber, B. J. (2013). The core and periphery of emergency management networks. Public Management Review, 15(3), 344-362.
Stefanovic, I. L. (2003). The contribution of philosophy to hazards assessment and decision making. Natural Hazards, 28(2-3), 229-247.

Project initiators
Rafael Wittek, Francesca Giardini, Martin van Hees (as duo-project for the philosophy-based project Values, Science and Policy-making in times of crisis).


Sociology, Philosophy

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