The trouble with disaster response is that decisions have to be made at the wrong time — because all times are the wrong time.
Either civic leaders must act in the midst of an emergency, when damage is mounting and emotions run high, or they must make choices when there is no emergency and everything seems fine. Harvey Hill and Jason Smith, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Institute for Water Resources, describe this as “cycles of complacency and panic.”
At the Growing Sustainable Communities Conference held recently in Dubuque, Iowa, Hill, a policy fellow for the Corps, and Smith, a civil engineer and planner, presented a method designed to lift disaster response above those predictable cycles: by gamifying it.
In the flood- and drought-prone watershed of the Cedar River in the region of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Hill and Smith gathered several dozen decision-makers for a daylong exercise they called the Multi-Hazard Tournament.
Using the Corps' tournament framework, the participants were divided into teams of 5 or 6 players, competing with each other to find the best ways to reduce the effects of a multi-pronged disaster. Presented with a scenario — a hundred-year flood followed by a drought or a "water quality event" such as a concentration of nitrates — the players could suggest actions to take in response. Then state-of-the-art statistical modeling provided by the Corps allowed everyone to see the sometimes surprising effects.
The computer program helped evaluate their choices’ impact on protection of property, total nitrogen, aquifer recharge and recreation, among others.
A tournament playbook was provided to lay out the situation "without providing the answers," Smith said. This was needed because natural disasters can have effects that go far beyond the obvious. A flood can shut down a power plant, leaving response teams working with only emergency power. A drought can create a poor harvest, which ultimately leads to a reduced supply of corn ethanol fuel. It can also leave nuclear power plants without enough water to use in cooling.
In the face of these complexities, each group had the opportunity to make several decisions — but the game got more difficult as it went on. With each turn, a portion of the budget would be spent, reducing the available money for the next turn.
When all the money was spent, each group defended its actions and was scored by other teams on a variety of metrics. How much damage was done to public infrastructure? What about privately owned structures? What was the effect on farm incomes... on the availability of public services... on compliance with the Clean Water Act?
It’s complexities like these that make a gamification exercise more valuable than simply reading reports. “It’s a tool and a technique for encouraging systems thinking,” Hill said.
No winner was declared, but the participants valued the opportunity to try innovative solutions in a controlled simulation with a built-in reset button.
"Decision-makers don’t normally get the luxury of safely failing," Smith said.
Over the past six years, the Multi-Hazard Tournament framework has been used at numerous training events across the U.S. and abroad. For more information, contact the Institute of Water Resources at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.