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UEP Colloquium: Disaster Response as Transition Management

Cities@Tufts recently sponsored a colloquium with the Tufts Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning as part of their semester-long lecture series. Dr. Cecilio Ortiz García and Dr. Marla Pérez Lugo joined us from the National Council for Science and the Environment to discuss their work with RISE, or Resilience In Sustainable rEconstruction (RISE), of which they are the Co-Chairs.

Dr. García and Dr. Lugo are both professors at the University of Puerto Rico - Mayaguez, and began their work together a few years ago when they founded an institute with the goal of inserting academic and scientific voices into the energy transition in the territory. But when Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in 2017, they observed how universities from all over the world traveled to Puerto Rico following the storm to study and observe the aftermath, provide humanitarian relief, and essentially use the disaster site as a classroom. They were after what Dr. Lugo refers to as “perishable data,” data with an expiration date.

These kinds of post-disaster academic practices have led to the cultivation of “disaster capitalism” where communities that have experienced a disaster are exploited in the name of research. Communities are used as laboratories, without taking into account their norms, values, governance structures, and local knowledge. Even the financial structure of research contributes to this condition, with grants emphasizing efficiency over values and conditioning aid on the answering of specific questions. All of this leads to the romanticization of resilience. Instead of targeting the root causes of problems that lead to disasters (infrastructure, emergency response, climate change), “resilient” communities continue take blow after blow, while researchers focus on the impact and trauma.

The RISE network is therefore focused on advancing a new architecture of relationships between researchers and communities that promotes co-design, coproduction, and a collaborative sharing of knowledge through polycentric governance. It promotes the transition of researchers from “observers” to “actors.” Instead of treating disasters as single, discrete events, they should be thought of as events of transition, occurring on many different landscapes.

Dr. García and Dr. Lugo believe universities have a crucial role to play in providing long-term research and visioning for emergency management. However, the way they conduct their research must change; they must become actors in the wake of a disaster and coproduce a vision with local communities, rather than on behalf of them. If you’d like to learn more about the RISE network and their annual conference, explore their site here.


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