Home Opinion Slow and Rapid Onset: The Changing Pace of Risk

Slow and Rapid Onset: The Changing Pace of Risk

by Brian Sims

Looking at interventions in their own risk management processes with a view to avoiding the inevitable rapid endgame of slow onset procedures is something that risk professionals should always be considering. By way of reference to the recent terrorist atrocity in Nice and the ongoing dynamic being played out Stateside, Phillip Wood illustrates exactly why.

We tend not to notice how those who are constantly in the public eye, or whom we see all the time, both change and age. Conversely, if we haven’t seen someone for a very long time and suddenly meet them or witness a current photograph, it can sometimes be quite shocking to realise how they differ. Change is happening to all of us, of course, but the slow and indistinguishable alterations that occur as we go through life can often only be seen once they’ve accumulated.

In a similar fashion, changes happen slowly in our risk environment. These ‘slow onset’ events concern us all. They’re the focus of some investigation, with the United Nations (UN)*, for example, looking at climate change as something that’s ongoing and has the ability to catch us out if we don’t heed the signs. The UN’s probably right.

Equally significant to the fact that slow onset events do happen is the truism that, if we’re not prepared or feel that the event isn’t our concern – ie “it’s someone else’s problem” – then the impacts upon us may be multiplied or intensified in some way.

Slow onset events are not confined to climate change and the effects of ageing. As I script this month’s contribution for the readers of Risk UK, the world is contemplating yet another terrible attack on innocent people in France in tandem with the failed military coup in Turkey. While these actual events unfolded with unmanageable speed, taking victims and Governments completely by surprise, their gestation has been of some duration.

Whether the actor is a ‘lone wolf’ killer aligned in some way to a Jihadist cause, or a group of disaffected, power-hungry military officers, the road that takes them to the event itself may be long and convoluted, with many bystanders looking on and simply not realising what’s coming.

Identifying the signs

Identifying the signs of slow onset risk events can undoubtedly be a challenge. What sets individuals on a certain path and takes them to their decision point can be difficult to ascertain.

In France, the evidence is becoming far more clear that its colonial past has generated a deep-seated and entrenched rejection by many whose roots lie in North Africa. In his illuminating book entitled The French Intifada**, Andrew Hussey describes the slow burning and building tensions that have not been and have yet to be addressed, and of course it may now be too late to reduce those tensions.

Unfortunately, it appears relatively certain that the terrorist attack in Nice will not be the last manifestation of this developing (and developed) threat. Whether France has ignored or accelerated this home grown threat by being unable or unwilling to address it is something that Hussey considers. Regardless of that, there’s a clear and developed threat requiring intervention from this point.

In the case of terrorist attacks in France, law enforcement agencies have shown remarkable speed, decisiveness and courage. There’s not much doubt that responses have been carried out with professionalism and determination. They’ve shown that the challenge of rapidly developing scenarios – ie rapid onset events – can be met, but this is in stark contrast to the lack of any national ability to address the injustices that many feel affect them, and whose outcome in the worse case scenario is terrible and indiscriminate violence.

Meanwhile, in the US a similar picture unfolds, with increasing occurrences of armed attacks on law enforcement by those who seek to strike back against their perception of victimisation and discrimination because of the colour of their skin. Racism and discrimination are not new to the US, and have been a preoccupation since the days of slavery.

Indeed, the civil history of America is interlaced with the cycle of victimisation and protest. It now appears that this latest phase is what the military term ‘asymmetric warfare’, wherein the powerful and easily targeted uniformed and ‘static’ forces of law and order are attacked without warning at the time and place of the attackers’ choosing.

Like France, the dangers are clear to see when looking at the attacks themselves, but the slow onset that takes us there – the resentment and division that builds over decades, even centuries – is the challenge that requires equal focus, determination and resources to address it effectively.

Considering interventions

Moving away from these horrifying and terrifying events, looking at interventions in our own risk management processes to avoid the inevitable rapid endgame of slow onset procedures is something that we should consider. It’s perhaps worthwhile examining the ‘Why?’ rather than the ‘What if?’ of developing threats and risks from the viewpoint of the non-intervenor. At what point in our risk assessment and subsequent management processes do we begin to understand the fact that doing nothing is very rarely – if at all – an option?

Risk tolerance is something that organisations plan into their culture and processes. Some risks are less able to be tolerated than others, while certain organisations will have the capacity and ‘reserve’ to be able to operate despite a building risk. It’s therefore a considered choice, based upon the recognition of the potential impacts and the reasons why the risk is there, and also why there’s a degree of latitude in the ability to absorb and manage them. Risk appetite runs along with that.

That said, it’s important to recognise and emphasise the fact that, to be effective rather than destructive, we need to understand the risk and its nuances, its causes and effects, and what we may need to do about it should the slow onset manifest itself as a rapid event.

If we fail to plan for intervention and watch blithely as risks develop over time, or if we consistently avoid interventions simply because they don’t align with our own world view, strategy or beliefs, there’s ample evidence to suggest that we’re potentially storing up the causes of disaster. If we consider our lack of intervention – or an intervention that causes us the least possible inconvenience – to be preferable to doing an informed, balanced and targeted ‘something’, we may find that not only is it too little too late, but also that it was never going to be enough or in time.

Recognising and facing up to the slow onset of risk issues is something that needs to be a key skill of any risk or resilience professional. This isn’t about prediction, but rather about perception, and the informed decision-making that will blunt the effect and impact (or at least partially reduce it).

Falling into the trap

The problem perhaps lies in our really admirable ability to absorb developments, and respond to them in micro ways rather than to go for the show-stopping step change responses that may be too much to handle in one go. As we detect changes we see them, but perhaps don’t really see them at all. We don’t express shock and outrage as our hair slowly turns grey (or falls out) as time passes, but if we woke up one morning with a surprise shock of grey hair or no hair at all the effect on us would be different.

We’re resilient, tolerant and accepting of what happens all around us. As a result, we sometimes fall into the trap of those changes catching us out and overtaking our ability to cope with and duly respond to them.

In the world of risk there are many uncertainties, with issues that we know of and those that we cannot see. That being the case, there’s significant merit in taking back some degree of control. Once the rapid event requires a response it’s usually too late to repair the damage. The effort goes into limitation and mitigation. The chance for intervention to reduce the risk is gone.

Whether dealing with the gestation and cause of indiscriminate and murderous attacks on innocent people, attempted Government takeovers or flooding and natural disasters, there’s always a cause to go along with the effect. Dealing with the causes may be speculative, require a degree of investment in resource (for which there’s no easily discernible short-term return) and even go against our beliefs and ideals.

However, it’s probably a foolish individual who looks on while the storm gathers, or who makes a conscious decision not to engage with developing risks in plain sight. Ask Nero…

Phillip Wood MBE MSc is Head of the School for Management and Professional Studies and Head of Department for Security and Resilience at Buckinghamshire New University


*UNFCC Slow Onset Events Technical Paper (http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2012/tp/07.pdf)

**Hussey A (2014), ‘The French Intifada’, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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