The 2023 Disaster Challenge throws down the gauntlet | Natural Hazards Research Australia

The 2023 Disaster Challenge throws down the gauntlet

Release date

24 March 2023

The 2023 Disaster Challenge has kicked off and it offers participants ample space to follow their own passions and flex their creative muscles to seek out solutions for a wide-ranging problem that cuts to the heart of what makes disaster response ‘wicked’.

The Disaster Challenge is all about harnessing new ideas and new research to create tangible impacts. This year’s challenge invites participants to rethink how we bring all our collective efforts and resources to bare on responding to a disaster so that we can improve the outcomes for everyone:

In the midst of disruption, chaos and calamity, how can resources from across society be accessed and connected in new and innovative ways to improve disaster response and link those who have the resources and supports with those that are most in need?

I‘m especially excited about this year’s challenge because of the freedom it offers participants to effectively choose their own adventure and really dig into a specific aspect of disaster response that means something to them personally. Interested in the complexities of how we can coordinate and manage the logistics of disaster response in more agile ways? The challenge has got you covered. Care deeply about fairness and equity in how people are impacted by disasters and how help is given and received? This challenge is most definitely for you as well.

One of the first questions that the 2023 Disaster Challenge Working Group discussed when we asked them to think about a challenge for disaster response was: what do we mean by disaster response? It’s a good question, because there are different ways to frame what disaster response entails. The United Nation’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, for example, defines disaster response as:

Actions taken directly before, during or immediately after a disaster in order to save lives, reduce health impacts, ensure public safety and meet the basic subsistence needs of the people affected. Disaster response is predominantly focused on immediate and short-term needs and is sometimes called disaster relief.  

However, in the spirit of innovation, we invite participants to define and frame what disaster response is in ways that are meaningful to them. Further, while disaster response is usually focused on more immediate needs at times of crisis, there is a lot we can do before disasters strike to improve our response to them. We therefore welcome you to pose solutions that can be put into place before a disaster occurs, as well as during and immediately after.

Ther are also many different kinds of resources that need to come together in new and urgent ways during disaster response. This includes people, equipment, information, networks, culture, money, skills and technology. Resources are essentially anything that can be used to satisfy a need or want.    

There are no limits on the type of solution you devise: you can design a new management process, engagement method, communications mechanism, technological development, or piece of crucial equipment. The sky, as they say, is the limit. Just remember, we are looking for proposals that are focused, informed, impactful, credible, innovative, affordable, adaptable, scalable and achievable.

If you are looking for some help to get started, download the Guide for Entrants, which includes some tips for how to carve out an aspect of this challenge question to focus on, and also come along to our online briefings where you will be able to ask questions. All the details are on the Disaster Challenge website.

In the remainder of this post, I want to help get participants thinking about how to make this year’s challenge their own by sharing some thoughts and advice from the 2023 Disaster Working Group.  

What resources are needed to respond to disasters, and why are they difficult to access and connect?

  • There are many factors impacting what resources are needed that entrants will need to think about, such as: What risks and consequences require a response? What needs to be protected? What are the priorities? Who has needs? What are their priorities? Who has resources, assets and capacities? When does the response begin? What needs to be put in place for an effective response? How do we bridge the gaps between where resources are concentrated (e.g. cities) and where they are needed (e.g. rural, remote areas)?
  • Resources are often difficult to access and connect (and deploy) in disasters because of their size and timescale (e.g., rapid onset events). A good example of this was the 2022 NSW floods, where groups of locals used their resources in Lismore to help rescue people in need. The floods were so widespread that emergency response officials could not get to places in need fast enough. I fear that we will see this more and more with more significant and widespread disasters affecting large numbers of people in the same event.
  • Government resources were the first port of call in the past but are becoming more limited given the frequency and rise in different types of disasters. Therefore, expectations are shifting towards community led responses and recovery. This is problematic as rural communities, often the most severely hit by ageing, skills shortages and socio-economic hardships, can therefore be restricted in the resources available to respond to disasters.  
  • With many communities experiencing not one single disaster but multiple challenging events within a short space of time (for example, a drought followed by bushfire, followed by flood, over three to four years), it can be challenging to maintain the health and well-being of staff and volunteers (including staff managing support). It may feel like you have no 'downtime' between disasters and go from being in the middle of recovering from one disaster to managing the next. This means you may need to implement new ways of managing staff and volunteers that assume the regular occurrence of disasters will be a way of life in the future rather than treating disasters as a 'one-off' rare event that you rarely have to manage.

What does 'improving disaster response' mean to you?

  • It means we make the best of a bad situation. It means we don’t reinforce problems and inequities in how we respond.
  • The wicked problem that we focus on in the Disaster Challenge 2023 is to improve the inclusion, coverage, effectiveness and efficiency of our response to these events. A better response will stop incidents from becoming emergencies and emergencies from becoming disasters, set the road for recovery and reduce the widespread impacts of events on our communities.
  • Improving disaster response can mean a number of things – including warning those who are most at risk to protect themselves promptly, assigning and deploying resources to affected areas to assist with evacuations as well as search and rescue operations, and having access to relevant and timely information so that the best decisions can be made on when and how to protect at-risk populations.
  • Often the resources are there in times of disaster but are not channelled well or fast enough to those who need them. Streamlining collaboration across key partners is a key theme recognised globally.
  • A response might look busy but in reality, it is not effective in reaching those who need it for lots of reasons. For example, external organisations may respond with services that don't meet local needs, while local organisations haven't always grasped what is needed in disaster response. Overall, this leads to poorly targeted support. Duplication in the roles by different organisations means some funds are not used efficiently.
  • To think about their own answers to this question, entrants can ask themselves questions like:
  • How are Australia's many assets within and across our communities and systems currently used and optimised in disaster response?
  • What resources are being used well? What is not? Who is supported? Who is not?
  • Who has the power? Who makes decisions about resources, priorities and actions, and who/what is included in having needs?
  • What does an improved response look like across a wide range of events and their consequences: e.g. usual metrics of quality, quantity, coverage, effectiveness, efficiency, equity, sustainability, value-for-money, inclusion, preventing secondary consequences, do-no-harm, addressing needs of neglected populations or issues, etc.?

Do you have any advice for Disaster Challenge entrants to help them grapple with this wicked problem and seek out innovative solutions?

  • To formulate their response, entrants should consider: What are the strengths of their teams? What are the skills, knowledge, behaviours, equipment, resources and contacts they can leverage? What are the official/institutional policies and plans pertaining to their context and problem? Who are the stakeholders from the perspective of assets and those with used or underutilised resources? What are relevant existing and past initiatives? To what extent has your innovative solution been implemented in Australia (or elsewhere)? Can you learn from other sectors?
  • The problem is a conundrum because it can look like there are many options, but this is part of the problem. Where to start? With a wicked problem – it's helpful to ask what is holding this problem in place, or ask questions like, "What is a simple step or change that might deliver an important shift?" and "What would make the most significant difference in connecting the community with potential resources?” Otherwise, this problem is significant and perhaps overwhelming in terms of possibilities. A few constraints might help with a delivery timeline and a budget range for implementation. Could it be implemented in a remote location?
  • Reach out and talk to as many people as you can. Read. We need lots of perspectives (and a bit of energy and enthusiasm), but they need to be grounded in the reality of the many people involved, from responders to those affected, scientists and beyond.
  • Select an area of interest to you/your group and leverage any existing knowledge or contacts to start your journey. Find out existing frameworks and policies and the stakeholders for the topic.

Many thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts for this blog: Jonathan Abrahams and Suzanne Cross (Monash University), Hamish Clarke (University of Melbourne), Julie Houston (Fire Rescue Victoria), Erica Kuligowski (RMIT University) and Loriana Bethune (Natural Hazards Research Australia).

Best of luck to all entrants. We can’t wait to see what you have in store for us.