Mind over Manufacturing: what do to when the system defeats you.

I have many hobbies, one of which is sewing, and lately I’ve become enamored with Japanese folk textiles. Specifically boro. (Special thanks to Sri Threads for many of the pictures.)

I like boro textiles because they are burdened with more than the “waste not, want not”, Great Depression-style resourcefulness I grew up with. The Japanese (from my limited understanding) have a more nuanced relationship with waste, repair, and beauty. That Wikipedia link above includes tangential concepts that are beautifully exemplified by boro textiles. For instance: kintsugi or the practice of repairing broken pottery with gold which has come to symbolize that history is what makes a piece beautiful. Or the exclamation “mottainai” which means “what a waste!” and comes from a Shinto belief that objects have souls. (Remember how Marie Kondo thanks her shoes for doing a good day’s work and some how–even though she knows it’s silly–it makes her feel better about herself and her possessions?) Westerners–especially this new generation of self-sufficient, economically/ecologically conscious ones– we may hate waste, but do we lament waste as a minor death?


Take a look at these boro textiles again and their sashiko stitching which both strengthens the delicate hemp cloth and beautifies it (we might call it wabi-sabi, perhaps). Did you know that sometimes, the Japanese would recycle thread from old clothes to do this? Imagine painstakingly pulling out each stitch so you could reuse the thread instead of simply cutting the seam apart.

So, as an artist, I got all fired up about the sustainability of hand stitching when my heater broke. True, it was an old heater, but if it was old, it should be simpler to fix, no? Just a matter of finding an expert. But I couldn’t fix it. No one made the parts for it, and I couldn’t get to the broken bit anyway. I was left with a blanket around my shoulders helpless to save the world from our booming landfills.


An early 19th c. American quilt made out of feed sacks. A western frugality. Courtesy of QuiltHistory.com

Then, I went on the internet and happened to discover planned obsolescenceor the strategy of shortening a products usable life by design. Sometimes this means aesthetically (clothes and cars do this since their materials often are more durable than fashion houses and auto brands would prefer. Although, don’t get me started on fast fashion: so shoddy that even Africa is starting to reject our secondhand clothes.) Sometimes planned obsolescence means simply designing things that can’t be repaired. Like clothes dryer drums molded to the machine so you can’t replace the part that breaks; watches and phones that are one piece so you can’t get inside to replace a battery without destroying them; or printer ink cartridges that lie about how much ink is left.



Credit: Ray Van Eng Photography | Getty Images

As an Emergency Manager and socially-conscious person, I’m trained to promote self-sufficiency and sustainability. We commonly think that it’s a matter of laziness; that if we can get people to care enough, they would make an emergency kit, build up a pantry, and stop living so wastefully. But I do care. I love boro cloth and I still can’t stop living wastefully. 


Kate Fletcher wrote a paper about emotional durability. In it, she critiques our focus on durability as a product of good design, material, and construction processes and suggests that psychological factors also make a thing durable.

The logic goes like this:

  • Some scientists have claimed that you can get people to hang on to goods longer if you cause them to form an emotional attachment to the object.
  • That’s true, but usually people who form attachments to objects collect them and store them instead of using them.
  • Fletcher did some ethnography and claims:  “… while mending and altering were common, the physical durability of the garment per se appears less critical to the piece’s durability than a user’s habit of mind fostering long-term use” (p.231)

In other words, durability has more to do with how you treat an object than how long its materials last. Here’s an example Fletcher gives in page 232. I do recommend clicking through so you can see the picture:

A Life of Action “I call this my three stage jacket. It began about forty years ago as a very slim waistcoat that was given to me. I knitted a panel and put it into the back just to be able to fasten it together at the front, you see. And then about fifteen years ago I added sleeves and a collar and some trimmings. And then, only about five years ago, I became a bit too big to button it up so I added latchets across to the front so that I can fasten it.” (Figure 1)

She goes on to recommend (with others) that the fashion industry–and I would add, society at large–change from “ownership” to “usership”. Fletcher urges the fashion industry to design garments that require collaboration with the wearer; that can be used for more than one occasion or fashion period; that can be altered and passed down. I think that that applies to all objects. Before you bring an object in to your house, think about whether or not you would enjoy using it as opposed to whether or not you would enjoy having it. Changing your identity from an owner to a user opens up many possibilities for adaptation in the future.

Of course, it’s also your responsibility to develop (or find someone who has developed) the technical skills to make those adaptions such as knitting, gluing, composting, and hammering. It also means you are responsible for properly cleaning, maintaining, and storing your objects. This summer I was the recipient of a 50 year old cast iron pressure canner in near-mint condition because the original owner was meticulous about cleaning it. I mean: marine-level clean. It’s perfect. And now it’s my turn to keep it that way.

But it’s all worth it. Just ask any crafter how much fun it is to reuse a thing you thought was dead.

Credit: clothing designers CoolHunting

Ants Don’t Satisfice.

I stumbled across a new report on ants that is –not to mix metaphors–getting some buzz. Here it is in a nutshell: researcher’s out of Arizona University (and this source says from Japan) painted tiny dots on ants which were the size of a capital I then used timed cameras to take 5 minute snapshots of ant activity. Turns out that about 3% of the ants were always working, 75% of the ants worked about half the time and a full 25% were never working. Researchers postulate that lazy ants are nature’s way of building in some overflow capacity.

Overflow capacity is something that Emergency Managers often have to grapple with– our jobs are a bit “feast and famine” one minute filled with routine, slow moving projects, and the next filled with urgent 24/7 tasks. How fast we are able to fill the sudden and unpredictable work surge caused by a disaster is directly related to how much suffering our community endures. So looking at how ants handle surges in work could be interesting to both emergency and business managers alike focused on being as efficient as possible. Computer Scientists have known for a little while that machines and mechanical systems work better if they have a little surplus capacity built in. Maybe the same is true for humans and human systems. In fact, the benefits of lazy teammates or what sociologists call “social loafing” is coming into vogue in management literature. One notable book is “Slack” which argues in part that some laziness in the system can prevent burnout.

However, if my time in the workforce is any indication, people who are “lazy” will always be lazy. Work surge doesn’t trickle down to the laziest worker who picks up the slack, instead, the non-lazy workers take on the extra work and begin “satisficing” or using shortcuts to satisfy the need with a solution that is sufficient and satisfactory rather than optimal. This is, in practicality, the corollary of Parkinson’s Law which states “work expands to fill the time allotted to it”.

While researching for this topic, I found an archived Economist report from 1955 when (apparently) Parkinson’s Law was new and cool. The author postulates a mathematical formula which calculates the rate of bureaucratic growth and explains why–despite hiring more people–the work never seems to lessen. In fact, in an era when the British empire was contracting slowly over time with fewer ships and fewer colonies to administrate, the number of workers in Whitehall increased by the same rate year after year. (It’s a bit of a cheeky read; I highly recommend it.) The same is true, anecdotally, in America.

So how do you build surplus capacity in your team without allowing the team’s work to expand to fill it with extra, mundane meetings and mountains of meaningless memos? Maybe you don’t. Maybe time-wasting meetings is the computer equivalent of unused RAM. Or maybe you start by re-evaluating your own workload before hiring another assistant. Do you REALLY need one or are you being a lazy ant?

Pinterest_Ants don't satisfice

*Author’s Note* I want to be sympathetic toward many, many private industry workers who are indeed having to do more work with much less as hours and coworkers are cut. Some blame minimum wage raises, some blame Obamacare, and others blame greedy corporations. But that’s a whole different post.

The Top 10 Ways My Thesis is like Art

10 ways my thesis is art | EMScholar


I spent a large portion of this week trying to understand why seemingly reasonable people allow themselves to believe in unreasonable ideas like FEMA camps, Vaccine TruthersClimate Change Deniers and–most confounding of all–Flat Earthers (start at about 10:00 min). I’ve discovered many opinions ranging from Cultivation Theory to the failing educational system in America coupled with the high valuation of entertainment.

The apparent rise of anti-intellectualism in America is a complex problem requiring perhaps many different solutions, but the argument I found particularly compelling was from historian Richard Hofstadter who claims (in part) that many Americans value practicality over enlightenment. This has caused many high school graduates to choose vocational training over going to a 4-year college (or to enter the work field immediately). It has further caused many college students to avoid the humanities (who can get a job with an art-historian degree?) However, Hofstadter and I agree, that studying the humanities is a very important part of developing critical thinking skills, creativity, and tolerance for new ideas and people.

I myself carefully guided my college career toward the practical imbibing the arts only as a reward, a luxury I just couldn’t give up. Though I do believe that I was being responsible by making sure my degree was marketable, I do not agree that the humanities are worthless skills. Instead, those skills must be translated into resume speak. Just like your (probably unused) high school algebra added to your brain in a possibly unquantifiable way, books, music, art, philosophy, history add to your brain in unquantifiable yet critical ways. They make you a smarter, better, more interesting, person capable of distinguishing fact from fiction.

To prove it, I’ve demonstrated the usefulness of art with my above tongue-in-cheek list. Look how my art classes in college prepared me to write a science-degree thesis. Isn’t critical thinking, part-to-whole and whole-to-part flexibility, and empathy qualities that you want in an employee, boss, or government representative?

Usually, I try to ignore idiocy because I find it a frustrating waste of time to convince willfully ignorant people to believe me and the rest of science. But while responding to rapper B.o.b’s flat-earther comments, Neil Degrasse Tyson said something to change my mind on this occasion:

In a free society you can and should believe whatever you want… but if you have influence over others, as would successful rappers or even presidential candidates, then being wrong becomes being harmful to the health, the wealth, and the security of our citizens.

As the next generation of Emergency Manager tasked with protecting the health, wealth, and security of our citizens, I’m finding a careful balance of practicality and enlightenment more essential than ever. We just can’t afford to be wrong on issues of climate change, vaccines, or the shape of our worlds.

10 ways my thesis is art | EMScholar

PS: I read a lot of material that didn’t make it into this blog, but I think is worth your time. See it below:

Further Reading:

Millennial Tech and the Digital Divide

In August, I volunteered to be Media Director for a local non-profit. It’s been a lot of fun, and a lot of frustrating. I found myself–before I could even get started on typical Media Director stuff–educating the members on the basics of technology. I’ve never felt more like a Millennial than when I tried to explain the difference between a meme and a picture with words on it.

At the same time, I got distracted with learning how to hand spin wool and make my own lye. I’ve never felt more like a Millennial than when I texted my friend the instructions on how to make lye. “It’s easy!” I said. “Or we could just buy it…” she replied (#NotAMillennial).

Millennial Tech and the Digital Divide|EMScholar Blog
What the Digital Divide means for resiliency

I can’t decide if it’s a function of my personality, my generation, or my career, but I find myself straddling the “hyper-new tech” world and the “tech of the 18th c.” world. Survivalists have long taught electricity-independent homesteading skills while Hipsters have made traditional crafts cool again, thus the rise in classic skills. However, in order to be a functioning member of this society, you need at least a basic understanding of mobile phone, internet, and word processing skills. (Like more traditional forms of education, the more you learn, the better you get paid.) Besides that, technology continues to evolve and expand at exponential rates. It’s exciting to look ahead at what might be. Did you know they’re beginning to 3D print organs? Did you know they’re constructing the “Hyperloop” a super-fast pneumatic train track that can transport people, cars, and semis by air pressure that has basically no waste and no traffic jams? “Hmm…” I thought, “we’re adding new technology to the landscape, but the old tech isn’t disappearing. Except for 8-tracks. Vinyl stayed, but 8-tracks disappeared. Huh.”

This Thanksgiving, we went to visit my in laws and on the agenda–besides lots of yummy food and long, rowdy board games–was “show Mom how to use her new smart phone.” Her very first smart phone. She was dubious. Her son is an IT nerd, and she’s used to being lovingly lectured by him. I’m sure the whole idea seemed daunting. But when we got there, she’d already taught herself how to take pictures. “Hmm..” I thought, “maybe the Digital Divide is not as insurmountable as I thought”.

Later we went for a walk, and she expressed some concern over the pace of technology. “Don’t worry.” I assured her, “Technology is additive. Did you know people are making movies without CGI still? For the art of it. I mean, look at how good CGI is getting, and they still like non-CGI stuff*. Or look at radio now. It’s still around.”

But I was wrong. Technology is not additive. As Neil Postman wrote in the 90s, “Technology is ecological.”  John D. Cook quotes from Postman’s book: “In the year 1500, fifty years after the printing press was invented, we do not have old Europe plus the printing press. We had a different Europe.” This is why we still have vinyl but not 8-tracks. Vinyl changed the world by storing music. It’s still valuable to audiophiles because it’s the only uncompressed way of storing music (which sounds better) while the only value that digitally-storing 8-tracks had was storing MORE information on one device than vinyl which was quickly overcome by cassettes, CDs, and MP3 players. Thus, 8-tracks have worse sound quality than vinyl and worse data storage capacity than MP3 players so they’re gone.

If technology is ecological, than the Digital Divide is a big problem. As Margaret Rouse writes:

The digital divide typically exists between those in cities and those in rural areas; between the educated and the uneducated; between socioeconomic groups; and, globally, between the more and less industrially developed nations. Even among populations with some access to technology, the digital divide can be evident in the form of lower-performance computers, lower-speed wireless connections, lower-priced connections such as dial-up, and limited access to subscription-based content.

Here is a graphic of internet users worldwide as a percentage of the country’s population in 2012. (**Citation)


Even in wealthy, heavily-connected America, the Digital Divide is a reality. Rouse writes, “A June 2013 U.S. White House broadband report, for example, showed that only 71% of American homes have adopted broadband, a figure lower than in other countries with comparable gross domestic product.”

If technology is ecological, than that means that places without good access to good tech are not evolving the same way that places with tech are. Who cares? Well…banks care, but–more importantly–social activists care. “Proponents for closing the digital divide include those who argue it would improve literacy, democracy, social mobility, economic equality and economic growth.” (Rouse). The Digital Divide makes being poor–already one of the most expensive things to be–harder. For instance, Kindle textbooks are cheaper than real ones. Finding jobs is easier with Monster.com rather than hitting the sidewalk. Getting help is easier with a mobile phone than running for it. Organizing revolutions is easier over Twitter than by word of mouth. Transportation is easier and cheaper with GPS (which could help your country make more money by delivering things faster).

So what does that mean for Emergencies Preparedness? Three things, at least:

  1. Helping to close the digital divide makes the world a better place in general.
  2. Making your country resilient (able to recover from disasters) means closing the Digital Divide.
  3. Both high-tech solutions (wiring money to a victim) and low-tech solutions (knowing how to purify your own water) will be needed for an Emergency.

Here’s a (partial?) list from Wikipedia of people who are helping close the digital divide. Maybe you’d like to help too.

Groups devoted to digital divide issues


*The non-CGI movie is just something I heard once. The internet doesn’t seem to know what I’m talking about, so it probably never happened.

** “InternetPenetrationWorldMap” by Jeff Ogden (W163)Own work, based on figures from the Wikipedia:List of countries by number of Internet users article in the English Wikipedia, which is in turn based on figures from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for 2010 (updated to use figures for 2012 on 28 June 2013).
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This vector image includes elements that have been taken or adapted from this:  BlankMap-World6.svg.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Further Reading

Researcher on the Road: Sneaky Resilience

Read the first in this series here for some context.

While we went to the coast to talk to citizens about what they knew about Tsunami preparedness, we ended up talking a great deal to our fellow Emergency Managers (EMs) and hazard scientists (i.e. geographers, seismologists, meteorologists, etc who specifically study disasters). Much like veterans, we shared stories and groused about our common difficulties.

A common difficulty for EMs is funding. There’s never enough money for mitigation projects (like building a vertical evacuation tower where it’s needed or creating a cache of emergency supplies for the community), especially in smaller communities which a) don’t have much money and b) want to invest the money they do have in other problem areas like industry or housing.

Creative Commons via PSD
Creative Commons via PSD

Another (related) common difficulty for EMs is generating support for preparedness. It’s really, really hard–we’ve found–to get people to do anything about disasters. Humans are expert procrastinators and it’s hard to get worked up about something which might happen especially when current problems exist (like no industry or housing). And let’s face it, disasters are pretty much the vegetable of our world: important, but not that much fun to think about. When (blessedly) a few people in the community do take an interest and do some advocacy or preparedness work, EMs are over the moon. But inevitably, these little groups fall away. Though they are powerful forces for good, they are fragile and easy to dissipate after a while. So how can we get them to stick around?

It turns out that the solution is the same to these two problems. More than one EM and hazard scientists said the same thing. You have to embed preparedness into the fabric of the community. There’s two ways to do that. First, you design everything you build to be dual use. For instance, at the Long Beach and Ocean Shores areas, there are no paths up the hills for foot evacuation. Instead of building an evacuation path (a low priority for most people), build a walking path for visitors and residence who like to hike. Add nature signs and little benches next to stunning viewpoints. Tourists would love that. Residents would love that. And–as long as the path ran up hill–EMs would love that. Tourism is the honey on our resiliency-carrots. It makes it go down easy.

Secondly, you embed preparedness into the fabric of the community by using standing institutions to spread your message. Single-purpose fledgling groups are hard to maintain because they have few resources, few connections, high turnover, and too many other external pressures. Libraries, however, will always be around. Every community needs a hospital. Schools and churches crop up naturally wherever there’s people. These kinds of institutions are long lasting and serve a broader purpose. By doing so, they have access to lots and lots of people and more resources. So they make a powerful voice for preparedness advocacy. In one group, we had two librarians from two different, sister libraries. They had hosted some preparedness events and wanted to know how to help more. They felt strongly that their constituents needed tsunami evacuation information and had the power to make that happen for us.

These concepts–I’ve noticed–aren’t that much different from environmentalism ones. We use an old cottage cheese container to plant seeds in. Why can’t we make a hiking path serve as an evacuation route? We’ve also seen this in fitness and weight loss programs. The weight stays off when your exercise becomes embedded into the rest of your habits. A community is like that too. It needs resilience to be a part of every choice, not an alternative choice. We need to sneak it into community development like Mom snuck vegetables in to our lasagna.

When resilience is veggies, we have to be sneaky.
When resilience is veggies, we have to be sneaky.

On Militant Prepping

I have a problem with the militant style of prepping. What I like about survivalists is: their enthusiasm, ingenuity, vast practical and theoretical knowledge, and their willingness to discuss the possibility of apocalyptic events (where the human race is all but extinct). However, what I don’t like are proponents of a aggressive us-against-everyone-else attitude. Perhaps you know what I’m talking about. The people who spend a lot of time thinking about how to be the top dog in a dog-eat-dog world. People who know 9 ways to booby trap their house and have this by their beds:

Table turned weapon via Survival Life

But I don’t believe disasters work like that. First of all, it’s a common myth that people turn to lawlessness and looting during a disaster. As this writer and field expert at Emergency Management Magazine states,

While personal security and family safety are valid concerns, the vast majority of people around you will not be a threat. In fact, though looters gained a lot of media attention after Hurricane Katrina, there were far more stories of heroism and of people making new friends through shared adversity. We suggest a balance between personal security needs with the desire to help others.

It’s far more likely that we’ll need to work together to survive and rebuild. I want a different kind of militant prepping. A “no one left behind” kind of prepping. We need to prepare our selves and our community to be useful to each other, to defend each other, to share food with each other. We are always at our best when we work together instead of tearing each other down. And when times are hard, we’ll need to be at our best. Robin Wheeler–homesteader and survivalist–says it beautifully:

“Several community members have reminded me that if I put up food for the winter, ‘Men will come with guns and take your food.’  Well! The first time I heard that, you can imagine the huff that caused in me.  Who were these poorly raised sods, that they sit on their bums, watching bad sitcoms no doubt, only to come and loot my last three jars of peach chutney when times get tough?  Who raised these people?  I wanted a word with their mothers and fathers.  And when the fourth person said this to me, right after apple butter time, well, I got into a real snit.  I decided to go find these people lurking away outside of our healthy community, and give them a piece of my mind.

They could be saving their own food, or better yet, helping others save food and taking home some of the spoils.  They could be using their great skills to make their community strong, and be part of it, and then I would have less to worry about.  Instead of being my problem, they could be someone else’s solution.  Yes, on a tiny scale, and even a large one, this could work.  I earmarked a couple of the more likely culprits and planned my next visit.  My clever friend Terry heard my rant and thought me up a slogan for my upcoming campaign. ‘Women will Come with Food and Take Your Guns‘.  I liked it and I like the planetary shift I felt when I said it.  It sounded like a big job, but I was willing to chip away at it for a few years.  And if anyone would like to help with this project, that would be great.”

Count me in.

Good public spaces make resilient communities

I happened upon two separate videos last week that changed my perspective on urban planning.

Ew, urban planning sounds boring…

I used to think that too. I thought that urban planning was about deciding where to put housing and how to add an overpass. But it turns out that it’s much more than that. It’s the philosophy of how people use space. And–as it turns out– how we use space has many implications for our lives such as:

  • Subjective happiness
  • Freedom of choice
  • Ability to withstand disasters
  • Global warming
  • Health and safety
  • Economies

Most of us live in places we don’t care about.

James Howard Kunstler’s TED talk is a highly amusing look at what’s gone wrong in America’s urban design–especially suburbia. He takes Boston’s City Hall Plaza as a good example.


And on the other side of the building…

TED talk: 9:02
TED talk: 9:02

And that’s just in urban centers. Suburbia is so much worse. Kunstler calls it a “cartoon” of the country. My brother calls it the “worst of both worlds” because you can’t be self-sufficient as in the country, but you can’t walk to everything you need as in the city. But what can be done about it? Kunstler has some ideas:

Bad design = bad life

Besides being ugly, our badly designed cities are making us sick. Dr. Karen Lee (below)–a public health specialist–says “We’ve inadvertently designed physical activity out of our lives” which costs us money both as individuals and as a society.

Courtesy of Upworthy
Courtesy of Upworthy

She goes on to say,

“In the 19th century and early 20th century, our leading causes of death were infections diseases–diseases like cholera, like tuberculosis. And the way that we that we actually defeated those diseases was through city design. We created sanitation infrastructure, clean water systems. Today, we’ve got a different set of diseases. The way we need to…think about defeating those diseases is actually analogous to our past” (4:59+)

Because our cities are designed for cars. Not people. 

Cars are environmentally unfriendly, take up a TON of space, and force us to use space in an isolated, sedentary fashion.

Courtesy of Planetizen
Courtesy of Planetizen

Think about how hard it is to get into your favorite city: the traffic, the parking, planning around errand locations and rush hours. Now, think about how hard it is to get around in your favorite city: the noise, more traffic, one-way streets, overpasses…

Courtesy Upworthy
Courtesy Upworthy

Now… notice how this city is in this video is set up. [Side note: a quick summary of this video can be found at Upworthy where the two gifs above were taken. Also, Brent Toderian, our tour guide in the video, writes the Planetizen blog from which I took the vintage metro pic above. Lots of really good stuff on his blog and Twitter.)

So what?

What does good public spaces have to do with emergency management?

  • Living locally is easier on our psychology (says Kunstler)
  • Exchanging acres of asphalted parking spaces for useable land (maybe an urban forest which boosts self-sufficiency?)
    • decreases ambient heat build up (which cools a city, reduces energy spent on cooling people, and returns the ecosystem to a normal temperature),
    • and helps with flood management (all that rain water can get into the ground now instead of rushing over the top of miles of asphalt).
  • When your community has a “sense of place” you slow down (as Toderian points out) and get to know your neighbors. Your neighbors are the people who will help you rebuild after a disaster. Communities who are socially interconnected are more resilient.

Resilient communities might start with a space that is worth caring about.

On Creativity and Resiliency

Uh oh
Sourced here.

“Is this ok?”
I was 16 and was showing off a bouquet of flowers from the garden I had arranged for the dinner table. My mom–a wonderful cook and gardener–looked up from the kitchen and said, “It’s perfect! You’re so creative! I can never get flowers to look like that…”

As I grew older, learned some more skills, discovered Pinterest, my mother continued to express a certain mixture of pride and jealousy at my creative abilities. Which completely baffled me. Her meals are always both yummy AND attractive. Her garden is a delight. She sewed a lovely prom dress for me–a very picky and indecisive teen. She helped me solve tricky interpersonal problems as a young adult. How could she think she wasn’t creative? Much later–painfully–I admitted to myself, she might be right. There is a subtle difference between her creative activities (cooking, gardening, sewing, etc) and mine. Her creativity is about following the rules she has learned to make things look nice. My creativity is about using items for a different function than what they were originally intended. Case in point:

 An example of creative problem solving: using a vase as a makeup brush holder.
I recently discovered at Goodwill a nice solution to losing my makeup brushes.

BUT–I learned–that didn’t mean she couldn’t become MORE creative (and she totally has. Mom, if you’re reading this, I love you and think you’re awesome.)

Creativity is becoming an important business and academic buzzword. We’re beginning to recognize as a society that rote-internalization of “best practices” are not working in a turbulent, globalized world. We want to train our kids to think. This is no less important in Emergency Management. A disaster response is fast, changeable, and problematic. It requires creative thinking to solve unusual problems.

It’s important for you too. During a disaster, you’ll also need to solve unanticipated problems. They may be as small as: I have one headlamp and a family of 4 that wants to use it. But just because the problem is relatively small, doesn’t mean the solution isn’t impactful for you and your family.

Emergency Hacks from Buzzfeed: headlamp-water jug lantern
Emergency Hacks from Buzzfeed: headlamp-water jug lantern

But we–as my mom exemplified–still think creativity is a type of genius. Not everyone grows up to be Picasso. It’s a talent you’re born with. Wrong. Sort of. There are two kinds of creativity. Dr. Gerrard Puccio, Chair of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State, calls them “Creativity” and “creativity”. Capital-C Creativity is the type of Picasso, Einstein, Michael Jordan genius which might have a genetic component (it’s not something we understand well). Small-C creativity is universally hard-wired into your brain. “You’re human and you have an imagination,” he says. “You are wired to be creative.” This kind of creativity can be taught, practiced, and grown as demonstrated by creativity degrees cropping up hear and there. If you thought, “oh ya, I guess you could you a vase to hold makeup brushes. I bet a cup, bowl, bread loaf tin, or empty coffee canister would work too,” you were demonstrating the innate ability you need during an emergency. You already have the skill. The trouble is, we’ve forgotten how to use it.

So how do you remind your brain to think creatively about problems? These are scientifically-unproven, anecdotally-sound tips from my own life.

1. Don’t panic. Unexpected problems can be scary. Imagine having hungry children and realizing that you don’t have cash and none of the stores’ credit machines are working. It’s easy to panic a little bit, but intense anxiety can get in the way of creative problem solving–just like stage-fright can make you forget your lines. Take a deep, purposeful breath or two. Begin brainstorming. Can you get to cash? Is there someone who can help you? Is there somewhere farther away you can go? Is there a shelter? etc.

2. Believe creativity can be trained like a muscle. Carol Dweck writes in her book Mindset that people who believe that they are born with a finite amount of traits like intelligence or creativity don’t do well in life because they avoid challenges. Failure just point out their limits which is psychologically uncomfortable. But people who believe they can learn and improve on those traits do better because they try their best at challenges and learn from mistakes. In fact, they do learn to be more intelligent or creative. (Side note: this is one of the few books that I can honestly say changed my life. I highly recommend it. It’s a really interesting read on top of being important.)

3. Gather ideas. Creativity is NOT about developing a unique product from scratch (contrary to popular belief). It’s about recycling, refining, combining, adapting, rearranging, reapplying ideas. For a long while, I thought that as a fiction writer I had to sit alone and think about my story so that it would remain pure from influence. But, like water in the Dead Sea, I got stuck. I needed input from as many sources as possible. I needed to dialogue with other ideas in order for my story to be fresh and lively–ironically.

3b. Gather ideas from EVERYWHERE. I’ve talked about Pinterest before, because I think it does a good job of collecting folk solutions or life hacks. My creativity has bloomed since I began looking at other people’s work on Pinterest. But gathering ideas is more than knowing a lot about one topic (which is helpful). Being creative is partially about applying ideas from one field to another. My Brother the Scientist likes to say NO science is wasted; it always tells us something worth knowing. In Emergency Management, we like to apply ideas from Psychology, Marketing, Geology, Engineering, etc. But people like you are doing MORE. They’re applying ideas about Permaculture, upcycling, reusing “trash”, and skills like macrame, sewing, origami to philosophies about resiliency and self-sufficiency. Here are some good examples (see credit links at end–formatting reasons):

3c. Use others. When you get stuck, seek advice or bounce ideas off of others. Two heads are better than one for a reason. Sometimes just trying to explain the problem to another novice is a good way to understand the problem more deeply and stumble upon a solution.

4. Experiment. And fail. Creativity is also a little dependent on experience. Innovations are often on “the fringe” so to speak–past all the common, already-in-the-box ideas. We have to work through all the middle stuff before we can explore the unknown. And in order to explore the unknown, we can’t be afraid to fail a little. That’s how we learn whether it’s a good idea or a bad one! My brother used to say, “If you don’t fall down once or twice, you aren’t skiing hard enough.”

5. Be patient and persistent. You’re asking your brain to do something hard. Sometimes solving a problem doesn’t come all at once. Sometimes you have to sleep on it or think about something else for a while.

6.  Find another perspective. This might be the hardest one. But this is also where gathering ideas can be helpful. If you’re especially stuck on a problem, step back, and begin brainstorming different ways of looking at it. Then, try on those each ways. See if anything pops.

Your creativity might be the most important tool in your disaster response arsenal. Don’t forget to practice it!

What do you think about creativity? How do you practice it? Tell us below!


Links to Gallery

1. Duct tape uses by YearZeroSurvival

2. Food storage for homesteading and the apocalypse by Modern Homesteading

3. Paracord projects by Instructables

4. Paracord project uses by SurvivalLife

5. First aid kit by a SpoonFullofSugar

UPDATE 3/13/15:

After this post went to print, I found this TED talk by a Tokyo-based toy developer who was asked by his boss to develop toys based on market studies. He found that looking at data killed his creativity and made up a game to spark his creative juices again. It’s directly related to point #3 and it’s a lot of fun.

UPDATE 3/24/15: (wow..like every week, I find something new that applies, eh?)
I just learned about the “Diffusion of Innovations Model” which basically says that where there is a moderate amount of heterogeneity, innovations can diffuse through the population. When you have friends that are a little different than you, you get new ideas. (It can’t be TOO different, or the population will reject it, but it can’t be too much the same or no new ideas exist.). Academia proves #3 again. I love it.

An Unusual Winter: Boston’s trouble with Emergence

A man drags a shovel up Beacon Hill during a severe winter snow storm in Boston
Photo courtesy of Boston.com

This has been an interesting winter for Boston. Yes, lots of other places have had just as bad–or even worse–conditions and I don’t want to minimize that. But Boston has unique problems.

Shouldn’t they have been prepared?

I mean–winter’s happen every year. And every year, Boston has to deal with snow. What’s the big deal? Homeland Security Watch has this to say,

“Boston is a city that can handle a snowstorm.  Indeed, it can handle any single blizzard.  What is causing problems is the quick succession of substantial snow storms in the past month, along with sub-freezing temperatures preventing melting, that has slowly choked the transportation arteries of this densely built city.  This is leading to an unfortunate set of cascading outcomes that normally would not be a concern during normal winter weather.”

From the outside, it looks like Boston is simply incompetent, when the truth is that this is not a normal problem. It is what Harvard professors Dutch Leonard and Arn Howitt refer to as an “emergent crisis.” Emergent crises are especially hard to recognize and treat for 3 reasons.

  1. They look like normal problems. Boston has had snow before. This is a normal problem and has a normal response: plowing.
  2. Since they look like normal problems, the experts sent to deal with it, tend to get tunnel vision. Leonard & Howitt state, “Often, experts (and, perhaps even more so, teams of experts) are not adept at recognizing that their approach is not working. Often, they ignore “disconfirming evidence” (i.e., the flow of data tending to show that what they are doing is not working) and “escalate commitment” to their existing approach. The person or team working on the situation may not only believe that they are about to succeed (with just a little more effort and time) but also feel pressure not to lose face if they fail to handle the assigned situation.”
  3. Finally, emergent crises are especially difficult to treat because they have all of the qualities of a non-standard emergency (…”the difficulty of recognizing novelty, the challenge of creativity and improvisation of new approaches and designs under stress…”), with already deployed teams not trained in this kind of emergency. It can be hard to convince organizations already working on the problem to shift gears.

In a broader sense, emergent crises are a good example of how hard it is for responders to recognize data from noise. As I wrote here, one of the main jobs of cities, organizations, individuals, etc is to process information from the environment. More often than not, the information is meaningless (you don’t care that your shirt is touching your shoulder), but sometimes it matters (if your shirt is caught in a corn husker, suddenly you care it’s on you). But knowing what is important and what isn’t is extremely difficult since we generally don’t have the big picture or know the future (by the way, that’s why teams are so useful–each person holds a different part of the picture. Working together makes it easier to do stuff right.).

So what do we do?

Well… nothing. The human condition is such that we will always struggle a little bit to recognize new problems. But I think there’s a Communications theory that can help a little. It’s called Groupthink– you may have heard of this already. Essentially, when groups value consensus, they tend to ignore data which opposes or contravenes  their decisions and plans. Group Think could be complicating the emergent crisis/data-noise problem. But there is a solution: diversity. When groups value contrary opinions, they avoid tunnel vision and are much more successful at recognizing emergent problems.

Further reading

Wrestling with Slacktivsm

I started this blog post intending to publish a pithy New Year’s “let’s all promise to not do this anymore” post. But it seems to have outgrown my assumptions. Don’t you just love-hate that?

Without further preamble, let me introduce you to an ex-petpeeve of mine: Slacktivism also known as hashtag activism, armchair activism, or clicktivism. Slacktivism is when you support a cause by promoting awareness via the internet–especially social media. It’s meant to have a negative connotation invoking images of self-involved, ill-informed, quickly bored social butterflies flitting from cause to cause for the joy of attention. (Yuck). Slacktivism is Mo’vember, Pink Hair October, #bringbackourgirls, Ice Bucket Challenge. (Or is it? Back to that in a second.)


Here’s what a variety experts say about slacktivism.

  1. The Washington Post reports on a new study which states that public “token displays of support” seem to make more of a difference when the supporter has previously made a private commitment. If the supporter’s first act of support is public, it turns out, the support is shallow and short-lived. The researchers suggest that it has to do with your perception of your own identity. When you support something privately, it is internally motivated–you begin to see yourself as someone who supports Campaign A and will take further actions (possibly public) to be consistent with that belief. When you support something publicly first, you haven’t internalized the motivation to the same degree and it’s easier to abandon the support when Campaign B comes along.
  2. Rabbi Mitelman at The Huffington Post found something similar in internal consistency vs. moral balancing. Internal Consistency says that when you do good things you begin to think of yourself as a good person and will continue to do more good things. Moral Balancing, on the other hand, says that when you do a good thing, you feel like you’ve done your good deed for the day and will give yourself permission to NOT do something else. Here, we can begin to see why some people like Slacktivism and others don’t.
  3. Huffington Post goes on to note some pros and cons to Slacktivism
    1. Pro: low cost. Con: low benefit. Since Slacktivistic activities are by nature really easy to do, it doesn’t cost the supporter much (if anything) to do it. Change my profile picture? Done. Upload a picture with a hashtag? Check. BUT, since there’s very little cost (i.e. sacrifice), there’s very little emotional investment and it’s easy for supporters to get poached by a newer campaign.
    2. Pro: raises awareness. Con: doesn’t raise money or volunteers (unless you’re smart or lucky or both… We’re looking at YOU, Ice Bucket Challenge). Many critics dismiss awareness as pretty much useless because it so often doesn’t translate into anything tangible. This HuffPost article states that it can take up to 7-8 exposures to an issue before an individual takes action. Which is a lot of exposures, but not unattainable if you have a motivated, vocal support base. As Rabbi Mitelman states, “Slacktivism does help…a little. Sometimes.” Seems like a balance is the best policy here.
    3. Pro: Campaigns are easy to understand. Con: Campaigns might be oversimplified.
    4. Pro: pictures and hashtags can be uniting and powerful. Con: hashtags can be co-opted. 

I have a lot to say on #3, 4, but first we have to talk about networks, adaptability, and meaningful data.


A fractal is a shape which repeats for infinity.
A fractal is a shape which repeats for infinity. Courtesy of Jonathan A. Reese

There’s a set of theories called Complex Adaptive Systems which really deserves its own blog post (stay tuned) because its vast and complex (heh) and talks about a lot of things. Nutshell: Complex Adaptive Systems is a way of describing interactions between networks. Networks can be between delivery systems (mail, hospitals, stock markets), between people (family, corporations, countries, internet friends), and between people and systems (bureaucracy, business investments, wars). Networks are nested like a fractal–You can zoom in to any level and find a series of relationships/connections. These theories work better to describe globalism than our previous ones.

There are two really cool things about networks. A. They generate a LOT of information. B. They can respond to changes really fast making them flexible and adaptable (pretty much the exact opposite of government which is based on a bureaucratic model. I’m serious: government has it’s own literal theories, you guys. I learned it in school.) The two really UNcool things about networks is that they generate a LOT of information–so much so that it’s hard to sift through all of it. B. The network is SO flexible that it can be really hard to get everyone working in the same direction (really bad for armies which is why bureaucracy still exists). So, like your brain, the network is sensing out the environment, receiving and generating lots of information most of which is what theorists call noise or meaningless data. Like the fact that your butt is touching a chair. Your brain knows it, but it mostly doesn’t care. Until your chair tips, suddenly the fact that your butt is touching a chair and moving is salient data or important to your brain. So…the thing that makes a network powerful is meaning. When all the nodes (participants or things) in a network care about the same thing, they work together in a synergistic fashion that is more powerful than if they worked alone. They do this by sharing information about changes in the environment (stuff outside the network that often affects the network. If a network is figure, the environment is ground–to use an art metaphor.) By repeating the meaning to the rest of the network which both recruits new participants and encourages those already participating.

We saw this work at Arab Spring. We saw this work at the Ice Bucket Challenge. Social media creating real, tangible change. Why didn’t we see it work so much with #bringbackourgirls? or Kony 2012?

Slacktivism + Networks = ?

Ok…now we can talk about #3, 4 from above.

Critics of Slacktivism–especially the hashtag variant–claim that hashtags harm campaigns more than they benefit them with awareness in two ways. First, they oversimplify a complex problem into an easy good-against-evil paradigm (once participants understood more about the situation on the ground, support for Kony 2012 dwindled). Oversimplification is damaging, they say because the actions that the eager, ill informed support base promote might not be the best solution. Or the only solution. Or their simply might not be a solution. Or it might be a long time in coming. (And the social media crowd is not known for their patience.) Secondly, hashtags can be co-opted. Usually in a bad way. This is what damaged the credibility (and usefulness?) of #bringbackourgirls as supporters began to bicker on the best way to show support with the tag. And this is what caused Dr. OZ to duck and cover when his critics took control of his tag.

But what if…

If a picture is worth a thousand words than a hashtag is worth a thousand pictures. No other means of conveying information has the ability of nesting data the way hashtags do (except for maybe poetry). Yes, hashtags can oversimplify a narrative. BUT they can also become iconic–shorthand for a complex story. Hashtags could be the modern equivelant of this:

"Tank Man" 1989, Tienanmen Square. Thanks to ABC.
“Tank Man” 1989, Tienanmen Square. Courtesy of ABC.


And yes, hashtags can be co-opted. We might never have a solution for that. BUT their co-optability also means that they’re inherently flexible. Which makes them a good tool for networks. In a world which changes so quickly, an adaptable tool could give the campaign much-needed longevity.

Let me end with a quote which I think sums up our responsibility as good citizens of the world and of the internet. Taken from Lina Srivastava at HuffPost:

“Is hashtag activism effective or not? To have comprehensive understanding of this kind of activism, a range of questions needs to be explored: What is the value of imagery in today’s social media networks where a glut of images exists? What is the role of social media in addressing injustice on a global scale? Whose participation is important, or determinative? What standards can we use to gauge the success of a social media hashtag campaign?”

Slacktivism or Social Activism? Tell us where you stand below.