UTDSIDSINewsResilience Reflection #13: The value of not throwing away the old

Resilience Reflection #13: The value of not throwing away the old

Recognising the urgent need to respond to rapid societal and environmental change, resilience is one of the University of Twente’s spearheads. As an academic institution, we have a role to play in strengthening the resilience of the social, technological and environmental systems that support us. In this weekly series of the Resilience@UT programme, UT researchers share their personal reflections on current events and trends that impact our daily lives, exploring their implications for resilience. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own. This week Caroline van Bers highlights the importance of rediscovering our skills and knowledge to prepare for and recover from disasters which we are increasingly exposed to in Europe. 

The value of not throwing away the old

Two weeks ago northern Europe was hit by a fierce autumn storm, Babet, causing extensive flooding, especially in eastern Scotland, where friends of mine live. They were okay, apart from struggling to seal doors and windows leaking water from the heavy, penetrating rains. 

My friends also recounted a story of resilience, or rather the lack thereof, when a particularly ferocious storm Arwen hit in November 2021, bringing with it winds up to 140 kph. It was no surprise then that powerlines and communication towers were taken out leaving our friends and their village and much of the region without power for five days in temperatures dipping down to -10C at night. Cars were damaged, public transit was brought to a halt, schools and shops closed. Some villages ran out of water.

The limitations of networked technologies

As they recounted their story it became an inventory of how inflexible we as a society are becoming. We are losing resilience at a rapid pace, in part due to our ever-increasing dependence on networked technologies, which failed under these conditions. In most modern houses, no power means no central heating, no cooking, no warm water (and in many cases no water if pumps are not functioning), and no charging of mobile phones which did not matter anyhow since the entire internet/mobile signal was down. Shops could not operate their payment systems and cash machines did not operate for any cash transactions that might have been possible to purchase the limited stocks of food and supplies still available.             

My friends were among the few who still had an analogue phone - a landline with corded handset - which worked throughout the outage so they could at least contact emergency services if needed and other parts of the UK. While the UK telecom operators are still planning to shut down analogue services in 2025, the government has assured the public that corded landlines will still work in emergencies as long as the telephone exchange is not affected by the outage.

Some relatively new technologies could provide (some) power during such a network outage: the fully-charged battery of an E-car, for example, or solar energy systems with battery storage, but only if configured for ‘off-grid use’, which can be prohibitively expensive. The other option is a petrol/diesel generator, and for heat, a wood stove or open fireplace. However open fireplaces are being removed from social housing in the UK.

Our mindset in the Global North

A more important aspect that this experience highlights is that we as a ‘developed’ society are losing resilience including important (non-digital) skills and knowledge. There is an attitude of exceptionalism in the Global North that we don’t need to prepare for disasters and that public authorities and technology will keep us safe. We have experienced or witnessed enough disasters and disruption to know that we are not adequately prepared. How can we develop the mindset, individually and as a society, to prepare, to act and to subsequently recover in the aftermath?

Europe, like so many regions of the world, is faced with more frequent and more intense storms as well as droughts, heatwaves and wildfires as a result of climate change. Our emergency response units are doing their best to keep up with these rapid changes with the resources available to them. While networked systems (be it electricity, communications or water distribution) offer tremendous benefits, complete reliance on them without any backup or redundancy reduces our resilience. We are developing cutting-edge technologies at this university, so let's put some of this expertise to work in strengthening the resilience of existing systems and maintaining or restoring some backups as a failsafe…including those that were commonplace and common sense a few generations ago.

Disclaimer: I am certainly no expert on this subject but humbly offer it as food for thought as someone who is not prepared!

Acknowledgements: My thanks to Ana and Matt for sharing a detailed account of their experience of vulnerability, and to Marcus for reviewing the draft from the perspective of someone who is more prepared. 

Caroline van Bers coordinates the university's interfaculty programme, Resilience@UT within Strategic Business Development at the University of Twente. 

More information

Find more information about the Resilience @ UT programme at our website