Societal Risk Management program planners draw from philosophy, law
As the department welcomes its first Societal Risk Management (SRM) students this fall, it might surprise some to learn that critical foundational work for this cross-cutting academic program is being led by not only a civil engineer, but also a philosopher and a lawyer.
CEE Associate Professor Paolo Gardoni, who co-directs the SRM program with Associate Professor John Popovics, has teamed up with longtime collaborator Colleen Murphy, an associate professor in the University of Illinois Department of Philosophy, and associate professor Arden Rowell of the University’s College of Law. Their goal: to pioneer a deeper understanding of the interdisciplinary issues of risk management related to ethics, justice and policy. Their work will lay the groundwork for the evolution of the SRM program and the research thrust area that dovetails with it.
“Risk is not something an engineer alone can define or work on,” Gardoni said. “Even though within the past decades there has been a lot of progress in estimating probabilities of failure and probabilities of occurrence from the engineering side, we are now coming to realize that there is much more to risk.”
Each year, natural disasters around the world such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods kill approximately 80,000 people, render millions homeless and result in economic losses of $50 billion-$60 billion, according to a World Bank and United Nations joint report. But the effects of disaster go beyond lives lost and property damaged to numerous other concerns, such as ripple effects on interconnected infrastructure systems and social upheaval. Growing awareness within civil engineering about the complexity of the effects of disasters has led to an increasingly multi-disciplinary approach to understanding them and managing societal risk, Gardoni said.
The SRM program, one of three new cross-disciplinary programs introduced within the past two years in CEE at Illinois, focuses on risk determination, risk evaluation and risk management for natural and human-made hazards, and disaster response and recovery. It offers M.S. and Ph.D. degrees, as well as additional concentration areas for undergraduates. The goal is to develop a new generation of civil engineer with both the technical expertise to develop sustainable solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges and a deep understanding of the social and ethical dimensions and implications of their work.
The team’s plans include organizing a workshop at the University of Illinois on the Societal Risk Management of Natural Hazards in spring 2014 which will bring together leaders in the area of risk management from engineering, philosophy and law. The organizers hope the workshop will foster a deeper and more complete understanding of the ways societal risk management policy and ethics influence and are influenced by engineering. Each presenter will be invited to contribute to an edited volume on the general theme of Societal Risk Management, which the team hopes will serve as a foundational book for continued conversations across the disciplines.
“The idea is to bring in the most prominent scholars in the field who can help shape and contribute to this area,” Gardoni said. “The goal is to develop new ideas, make ideas grow and also start collaboration with some of the key players for future proposals and research.”
More broadly, the team is working to help make the University of Illinois a national and international leader in this emerging area of research and education.
“This work will have far-reaching impact, contributing to the international engineering and scientific community, the integration of research and education, and the safety of society by educating engineers to have a global mindset and to be aware of ethical, legal and policy standards appropriate for a global world.”
Gardoni and Murphy have built a significant body of work in the area of risk management, enhancing the engineer’s traditional, primarily technical approach toward quantifying and mitigating damage from natural disasters with the philosopher’s perspective on the moral dimensions of risk. The addition of Rowell brings in a focus on policy and regulating human behavior.
“Risk management is, at its heart, about finding a way to pull together technical, philosophical and regulatory expertise,” Rowell said. “It requires deep technical understanding of what risks are and what creates them, and thoughtful philosophical reflection on which risks we should care about and why. Finally, it demands a legal and policy-based analysis that inquires into the role of human behavior in managing and reducing targeted risks. What policies regarding risk should we adopt as a society, as individuals, as groups? What should those policies look like? How should they be shaped so that we achieve the best possible risk management strategy? Answering these questions requires more expertise than any one person can have on their own.”
Collaborating across disciplines can be challenging, Murphy said.
“Communication is hard, because the methodology is different, the questions that are asked are different, the interest is different, the way of writing is different,” she said. “This makes it challenging but also extremely interesting, because you realize how relative your own perspective is, even in thinking about the same problem.”
This challenge and the innovative thinking it sparks go to the heart of what CEE’s new cross-disciplinary programs are all about, Gardoni said. As the oldest engineering discipline, civil engineering has continually reinvented itself, finding renewed relevance as society evolves, he said.
“Now we have the opportunity to be at the center of a revolutionary change in the way we think about natural hazards, how we tackle hazards, and how we mitigate and recover,” he said. “Civil engineering can be at the center of that, but at the same time we cannot do it alone anymore. We need to realize that we need to leverage expertise from outside.”