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We all are moving fast. The baby-boomers (1946-1964) are coming of age … retirement age. If the silent generation (1920-1945) was the generation that absorbed the car and the telephone as routine communication tools, we would expect the baby-boomers to take information and communication technology (ICT) as their routine communication channel.

That is the case and, when dealing with today’s problems, the expectation becomes a truism. We all jump into using ICT to solve many of the aging problems that baby-boomers encounter. And, as it happens, this is the view that the European Commission holds: ICT is here to solve the ageing problem.

If we take the use of internet as a yardstick, the reality is that only 45% of the +65s use internet once a week or more in Europe. Descending to country level, the differences are striking: in Norway that figure is 82% and 12% in Bulgaria.

So, should we jump from analogic to digital in the blink of an eye or are we going to find the swimming pool empty? Wouldn’t it be more realistic to work on long-term structural change from analogic to digital transition, similar to the energy transition favored by the UN in the current COP25?

A transition of that kind will ensure that nobody will be left behind, a very important factor when we are talking about 55% of the +65s Europeans.

Flood risks

A few weeks ago, in September 2019, Spain’s south-east was hit by a coldfront, flooding several villages and cities along the Segura basin. The images of devastation were breath-taking. One of the areas that suffered the most damage was the San Javier-Los Alcázares villages in El Mar Menor.

By no means was it an unexpected event. The Spanish Meteorological Agency had warned of the possible devastating effect of the coldfront. Was the damage due to the fact that the area is not considered floodable?

Directive 2007/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council, of 23 October 2007, on the assessment and management of flood risks states in Article 7.5 that “Member States shall ensure that flood risk management plans are completed and published by 22 December 2015”. Spain in general, and the Confederación Hidrógráfica del Segura (entity in charge of the management of the basin) in particular, has complied with the provision of the article and, in March of 2014, issued the flood risk maps.

Let’s have a look at the one for the area in question in which the red marks mean more floodable areas:

And know have a look at Google maps of the area:

Just notice that the red on the first picture coincides almost exactly with the built-up areas of the villages of San Javier and Los Alcázares. So, the area was clearly floodable.

Maybe this event has been an isolated one and that is why nothing has been done to prevent flooding. Wrong again! In 2016 there was also extensive flooding in the area and six historical floods have been reported in the area according to the flood risk maps.

So, why has nothing been done? Why do residential buildings exist in an area that is floodable and that has gone through extensive damage several times in recent years? It may not be due to climate change but, whatever the underlying reason, the fact is that Spain is going through a period of more heat waves and more flooding. And, sadly, the fact is that nothing has been done and nothing is being done.

Either because it is mandatory or out of the realization that a disaster, natural or manmade, can put the soundest enterprise out of business, almost all big companies have a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) for proper Disaster Risk Management (DRM). Is it the same for SMEs? I am afraid it is not the case.

I have written before about how individuals should take control of their own safety. This post is an extension of the need for SMEs to be an active part of a disaster resilient society.

So far, I haven’t been able to identify too many actions directed at helping SMEs implement actions enabling them to be prepared for a disaster. As a matter of fact, according to a paper by Juan Pablo Sarmiento et al of the University of Florida (USA), only 14,1% of business with fewer than 100 employees had a BCP in place (2013). The recent flooding in south-east Spain, one of the vegetable gardens of Europe, has shown that only 37% of the 50,000 damaged hectares have something as simple as an insurance policy, let alone a BCP.

Are we going to do anything about it? If we look at the last issue of the H2020 WP in Security, this is something that has not even been contemplated, except for cybersecurity risks. Do we assume that SMEs are not an important part of society? This is not the case. According to Eurostat, SMEs provide 66,3% of the employment in EU28, approximately 137 million people. Imagine if we could get 137 million people involved in a resilient society? Imagine if we could get 99,8% of the total number of enterprises involved in a resilient society?

Maybe it is worth a try.

Taking control

Most people in the developed world rely on the authorities for most of their basic needs, be it daily needs, such as healthcare, or emergency response, such as forest fires.

Healthcare professionals are intent that we, as individuals, take a more active attitude in preserving our health. Obviously, those most interested in preserving our health is we ourselves.

Is it the same when we face emergencies? Do we take responsibility for acting as knowledgeable first-responders in case of an emergency? I want to underline KNOWLEDGABLE; I am not talking about acting for the sake of acting. Most of those impromptu UNKNOWLEDGEABLE actions are nothing more than running around like headless chickens, making noise without any contribution to ameliorating the consequences of the event.

This is the gordian knot of emergency prevention and response: should citizens be the first first-responders in case of an emergency? Taking control of our lives seems to be a good winning strategy; consequently I would say that citizens should be able to respond efficiently in case of an emergency. They are in the front line of the incident. If they know how to behave, critical time can be gained with a prompt and efficient response before professionals arrive.

Furthermore, a knowledgeable citizenry is essential in the prevention stage. Forest fires could be prevented if people take responsibility for keeping forests clean, clearing up plastic bags, glass bottles, underbrush and so forth.

Assuming, as I and most people do, that informed citizens should be a goal in our societies, why is it that in developed countries -with the possible exception of Japan- authorities have been neglecting actions to train citizens in emergency prevention and response? I don’t have the answer, but something should be done soon if we don´t want to hear again “our response emergency protocols should be re-evaluated”.

REACHING OUT

Dealing with the unexpected is always difficult. It is difficult for the individual, and it is more difficult for society. Faced with the unexpected, predicting how people behave becomes almost impossible.

Imagine a building on fire. A lot of individuals will shout out the window for help, making the situation more problematic. Others will run to save their relatives, endangering more lives. Some individuals will even try to be heroes, but with out the proper training and equipment they will end joining the body count. Hopefully, some of the individuals will stay calm, close all windows and doors, and wait for the fire department to arrive; these will be the ones who will, most probably, survive. There is another group of individuals, those who will have their minute of glory in the evening news, reporting on all the things that they haven’t seen and spreading false information or, if you prefer, “fake news”.

How can we make a mass of people behave in a rational way? How can we be certain that people, when faced with the unexpected, will react in a way that will not cause more harm?

I can only think of one solution, and it is something that has been tried for centuries: teaching people how to behave. In other words: prevention. Certainly, prevention has been on the menu for a long time and, still, few people act rationally. We must conclude that the way we are trying to bring prevention to people is not the correct way or, alternatively, we are not reaching most individuals.

Since public authorities and NGOs spend quite a few euros on prevention campaigns, let’s not assume they do not know what they are doing. As a matter of fact, there are quite a few examples of very good media campaigns. We are going to focus on the second cause: not reaching most people. We have reached a level of information about almost anything that, to say the least, is overwhelming. But most of the time we must look for the information, the information does not come to us. The information is there but we will seek it out only if we are aware of our needs.

Take earthquakes: Unless we live in certain areas of the world, no one will seek information about how to behave in case of an earthquake. The result is that in San Francisco only very strong earthquakes cause human casualties, but a mild earthquake in south-eastern Spain in 2011 caused 9 deaths and 324 injured. Why? Because we, as a society, have failed to reach out to every individual in the region.

Reaching out to each individual and transmitting proper behavior in case of an unexpected situation should be the main objective of Civil Protection (Civil Defense in some countries). It means making effective use of the risk maps that most countries have; identifying the most vulnerable individuals within the area; and reaching out to those individuals and the population at large so that they know how to behave in case of emergency. No small task, but until we devise an effective system to accomplish that, every time there is an incident, there will be talk about “we should update our protocols for emergency response” and real prevention will be, again, forgotten.

Certainly we are living in interesting times. My first “serious” job was as Administrator of the Computing Centre at the Complutense University of Madrid. The centre was equipped with an IBM 360 which had a main memory smaller than my actual smart phone. So here we are, equipped with a powerful hand held instrument that, most of us, use for calling/texting friends and acquaintances, listening to music or watching TV shows. What a waste!

So, people around the world are trying to introduce us to the wonders of apps: smart little pieces of programming that are intended to make life easier for us. From advising us when the next bus is coming to how to navigate those streets we are not familiar with.

But there is another use that is being explored and promoted but still is not part of our lives. I am talking about those apps that are intended to change our lives. According to a recent report (mHealth App Economics 2017 http://www.research2guidance.com) there are some 350.000 health apps on the market. I have not found a similar study for other sectors, for example managing disasters, but a Google search for it gives 262 results, so it is not a fringe issue either.

Anyhow, the fact is that be it 350.000 or 262, the spread of those apps is meaningless. Do you know anybody in your circle using one app for a practical use in health or in security? I do not and I am closely involved with the socio-health sector, and have some connection with security issues.

The only possible conclusion is that the business model on which those apps rely are faulty. Most of them are built thinking of the future, a user that does not exist, either because the app is too complicated or because it is too simple. We are simply forgetting about user-centered co-design. We design things for the user but not with the user. Let´s try in 2018 to change our design mainframe and put the user in the centre of our efforts. That will make our times even more interesting.

On ageing

Ageing is a natural process. People age as soon as they are conceived. And society, so far, has been able to find a place for each phase of the ageing process: the nursery for the child, the school for the teenager, the working place for the mature person, and the bench in the sun for the older person. The division so far has been neat: child 0-12, teenager 13-19, mature 19-65, older person 66-infinite. And here is the problem: when +65 was more or less a homogeneous group, the last division worked reasonably well. But when the over 65 group keeps expanding its upper limit to higher and higher numbers, say 90 or even 100, who can even think that the 67 and the 95 year old have the same interests and needs?

Society has been able to smooth the transition from teenager to adulthood by providing a system for the teenager to start getting involved in adult activities, be it summer jobs or working grants.

But so far society has been unable to provide such a transition from adulthood to over 65. You reach retirement age and you are finished. No more getting up at 7am, no more chatting with colleagues, no more feeling productive. And all that in 24 hours.

Would it be so difficult to develop a system that allows phasing out retirement according to a person’s needs and expectations?

There are two main drawbacks, in society’s opinion, against keeping older people at work. From the employer’s point of view, older people have accumulated so many perks that they are more expensive than younger ones. There is also a pre-conceived idea about older people and their lower productivity. Productivity is the sum of speed and the lack of errors. By that definition, there is no evidence that an older person is less productive than a younger one. This pre-conceived idea about the lower productivity of older people is being revised (see The Economist: Special Report, “The Economics of longevity“).

The solution to these problems lies with the Regulator. Sensible and flexible labor regulation could easily overcome those drawbacks. What is needed is more political will to design solutions and less dramatization of the supposedly insurmountable problem that ageing is bringing to our society. Let´s get trade unions, business organizations and government to do their job and work together towards making the transition from adulthood to retirement smooth.

Enough is enough! I am not going to feel guilty for being over 65 and planning to live as long as possible and enjoying every minute of it!