This month's issue of Strategy and Business features an article on Avian Flu that begins with a fairly mild hypothetical future newspaper headline (a scenario 'event' in our lexicon):
Atlanta, November 24, 2008 — The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today attributed two deaths in northern New Jersey and one in Philadelphia to a human-to-human transmissible strain of the avian influenza virus. Although reports of the disease among humans have been accelerating in Asia and Europe, these are the first deaths to occur in the United States. Health officials are calling for the closure of schools in the tri-state region and for citizens to limit all unnecessary travel until further notice... [italics in original]
The authors go on to make an important if somewhat exaggerated observation about resilience:
Pandemics are unique among large-scale disasters; they leave the supporting physical infrastructure of roads and buildings largely intact. Only the people who operate these lifeline infrastructures are affected.
Pandemics are not as unique as the authors would like to make them out (though at scale, we'll admit, they probably are). After the August 2003 New York City blackout, as well as in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, the availability of people for critical functions was compromised by the difficulty they encountered in moving around. In the case of the blackout that had to do with the subways not working and secondarily with the sudden capacity crunch for roads, bridges and even sidewalks as everyone wanted to get home all at once. On 9-11 the crunch came more as a result of security restrictions.
Ultimately, the reason why people can't get where they need to go (to do their jobs and/or to recover from doing them) is less important in thinking about resilience than is the simple fact that they cannot move around efficiently - if at all.
That's something we've written about before in "Dependence on Fragile Networks".
Then there's this data-rich if still hypothetical statement:
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that a pandemic comparable to the 1918 outbreak could cause 1.9 million deaths in the United States. In that projection, there would be 90 million people ill, 1.5 million hospitalized in intensive care, and 742,000 people needing mechanical ventilators to breathe. This situation would put a huge strain on public and private health systems; for example, there are now only 105,000 mechanical ventilators in the United States. In the U.S. alone, economic losses would range between $71 and $167 billion.
It's not clear if the 90 million ill number is all at once or over a period of months (we suspect it's the latter). Either way, that's a scenario that ought to get everyone thinking: What would I do? What would my organization do? What critical services do we take for granted today? (Telephone? Sewer? Water? Payment systems? Electricity? Gasoline? Fresh food? Roads? Police? Fire protection?) Are we really ready for a few months' collective foray into what could look, feel and smell a lot like the Middle Ages? Probably not. Let's hope we don't have to go there.
Then there's this note:
Organizational planners cannot prepare for a pandemic the same way they would prepare for other crises — identifying the most likely scenarios and anticipating ways to deal with them — but only in a more flexible way: building the capacity for continuous sensing and responding, and striving for the resilience that will be needed when disruptions or disasters occur.
That's true if one thinks of scenarios in their more traditional form: as rigidly scripted set-pieces, screened for their apparent likelihood as seen from the standpoint of today. Interactive, modular scenarios by contrast, are far more fluid affairs. They enable (even force) participants to role play, try on possibilities and rehearse together what might be seen as 'unlikely' but which in fact might be completely unpredictable. It is the process of rehearsing together more than the particulars of the scenarios themselves that give participants the awareness and shared frameworks to respond effectively when "the plan" must be thrown out the window.
Side note: The Tradesports contract on Bird Flu being confirmed in the U.S. on or before the end of 2006 is currently trading at 42. That's down from a brief high of 78 shortly after it floated in March. It's still frighteningly credible. That still leaves ample time for a human outbreak to begin in the U.S. - as imagined in the article - before the end of 2008.