Chronicle about UR 2018 and CDMX

Part 2: The UR Conference

“Art and science bring the issue of disaster risk alive. It’s like an explosion of understanding when you marry those two halves of human perception”

James Balog

The opportunity to attend the 2018 UR Conference, an event I had been following since its first edition, created huge expectations to me. However, none of them were enough: being there felt something very similar to a dream came true.

In this first part, I’m going to highlight some of the themes and topics that had an impact on me, as well as experiences and some anecdotes of situations that an event like the #UR2018 in a city like CDMX can create.

First of all, I would like to start with the plurality and accessibility of the Conference. People from all over the world attended the event, and everyone’s openness impressed me. No matter who you are or what you do: if disaster risk is your thing, in the UR you are part of the Understanding Risk community.

Entering into conceptual aspects, several dissertations blew my mind away. For this, it is important to say, the way the UR organisation planned the agenda was key, giving a lot of space to aspects such as risk communication, decision making and uncertainty. In that sense, the historical recovery of narrative as a risk communication tool given by Gabriela Warkentin, Robert Soden and Andrew Revkin was touching and insightful. History should be an important aspect of DRR and these experts proved that with their life experiences as evidence. Regarding technology, listening to Dara Dotz, Stephen Winchell, Melanie Warrick and Nell Watson, speaking about deep learning, tech philosophy and data analysis, but even better learning from their experiences on the field about how artificial Intelligence, machinery learning and 3D printing are being used, was something outstanding. Because technology has become a great tool but more importantly than thinking tools, is having clear what social functions technologies can, and should, have. Lisa Robinson’s presentation, which reaffirmed that communication is a process, not a product, was impeccable. As interesting as this, was the concept of “foreseeability” (as probability without numbers) applied to development, explained by Mickey Glantz in a World Bank short-film, and his analysis focusing on change behaviour and ideology within disaster risk.

Another emotional section was the “Communicating risk through film” side event, led by Anna Hicks from the British Geological Survey. Besides the warmth and passion for volcanoes that Anna transmitted, this two hour event showed the strong power of audiovisual communication to create awareness and help coping with trauma. The presence of Iain Stewart and Issac Kerlow explaining the backstage of their short-films, was truly an added value. Related to this, the final keynote in charge of the photographer James Balog, was also very illuminating. His concept of “human tectonics” is remarkable to understand human relations within the disaster risk universe.

Not every presentation was as serious as it sounds. Erin Coughlan, Andrew Kruczkiewicz and Pablo Suarez did some games to help understand the cognitive processes behind the decisions that humans make in uncertainty. It would not be possible to assert risk communication issues without involving risk perception aspects, and this talk spotted that.

Returning to one of my first points, it is very meaningful to talk about how huge organisations opened up during the UR2018. To name two: the Met Office with Paul Davies and the British Geological Survey with John Rees, whom, with their activities in parallel sessions, gave us the chance to know deeply their work in science communication.

Another chapter is needed to mention NASA. David Green and the Disasters Program team assembled not only a beautiful stand, where you could play and learn and ask, but strong presentations that were focused on social applications of NASA’s products. As I had the chance to participate in NASA’s Strengthening Disaster Risk Reduction across the Americas (DRRA) Summit in Buenos AIres in 2017, it was very good to see Green’s efforts continuing stable in disaster risk prevention and communication, such as networking, developing capabilities and improving outcomes.

Finally, two last things:

- The 23.22 minutes of the Climate Music Project was an experience impossible to describe. Based on a staging of science-guided music and visual support to inspire people to engage actively on climate change, this band broke our emotions and showed us two possible scenarios: the worst, and one where we could live in. Music at its finest, and risk communication as effective as it can be.

- To have had the chance to evacuate preventively by seism, not one but two times during my 15 days in Mexico, gave me the chance to see how people (both mexicans and foreigners) reacted and the civil protection system responded.

See you all in Singapore 2020.

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