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From natural hazards to cyber resilience: Moving beyond traditional risk analysis

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Image: The Concept of Embodied Uncertainty as visualized by Sword-Daniels et al. (2018)

Affluence and vulnerability are often seen as opposite sides of a coin – with affluence generally understood as reducing forms of vulnerability through increased resilience and adaptive capacity. However, during the past ten years, my research with a range of colleagues has consistently highlighted the need to re-examine this dynamic relationship in the context of climate change, natural hazards, and associated disasters. A new collaboration recently provided an opportunity to develop this work further, by applying resilience thinking from the realm of disaster research to another pressing research topic: cyber security.

Understanding Embodied Uncertainty

The varied and, at times, hidden aspects of social vulnerability have always been central to my research as a disaster geographer. This focus led to a unique opportunity in 2013, when our mutual selection as World Social Science Fellows by the International Social Science Council (now the International Science Council) brought me together with social- and political scientists Victoria Sword-Daniels, Emma Hudson-Doyle, Ryan Alaniz, Carolina Adler, Todd Schenk, and Suzanne Vallance for a week-long immersive experience of the challenges of living with natural hazards in post-earthquake New Zealand.

The topic that gained traction in our group work was the concept of “embodied uncertainty”. We distinguished embodied uncertainty from objective uncertainty by unpacking how uncertainty is internalized at the individual level, where it is subjective, felt, and directly experienced. This approach, which we describe in an article in the Journal of Risk Research, provided us with a conceptual pathway to better understand how individual characteristics, social identities, and lived experiences shape how individuals and communities interpret and contextualise risk. Drawing on our respective research, we explored embodied uncertainty in four contexts: social identities and trauma, the co-production of knowledge, institutional structures and policy, and long-term lived experiences.

The Intersecting Scales of Risk, Privilege, and Disaster

The following year, Gregory Simon and I deep-dived into an empirical study of the long-term lived experiences of disaster in the East Bay Area of San Francisco, California by interviewing survivors of the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm. The intersecting scales of risk, privilege, and disaster that we encountered in the interview narratives resulted in a new concept: the Affluence-Vulnerability Interface (AVI). While vulnerability is typically understood as a condition besetting poor and marginalized communities, it became increasingly clear to us how these perspectives frequently ignore the experiences of those who live in more affluent areas. Our article in the journal Environment and Planning A therefore sought to more closely explain vulnerability at its interface with affluence.

In challenging uncritical explanations of vulnerability, we offered alternative ways of conceptualizing vulnerability as a material condition and social construct, which acknowledges broader cultural, ecological, and economic conditions that may offset, maintain or deepen true risk exposure. From the interviews, a suite of vulnerability categories emerged, which had intersected in the years after the firestorm to create two concomitant and competing conditions. First, vulnerability is variegated between households within communities, including those in more affluent areas. Second, household vulnerability is collectively altered, and oftentimes reduced, by the broader affluent community within which individual households reside. By paying closer attention to the AVI, our research revealed a recursive process, which is significant in the context of building more disaster resilient communities.

Challenging Uncritical Explanations of Vulnerability

In collaboration with Tim Prior and Florian Roth, and with funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation, we developed more nuanced understandings of the AVI during a workshop at ETH Zurich with 11 international experts in 2018. By expanding the focus to different national contexts, the importance of acknowledging rather than diminishing the complexities of the AVI stood out during the workshop in Switzerland. This result echoes the study on embodied uncertainty, which emphasized the acceptance (rather than the dogmatic reduction) of uncertainty in order for multiple meanings to be understood, and new understandings and solutions to be constructed.

In an article in Climatic Change, we argue that material wealth can have both a mitigative and generative influence on social vulnerability. We also show how the AVI can be a condition of spatial difference where acute forms of social vulnerability are nested within and alongside areas of considerable material wealth. They are thus often hidden from view within conventional social vulnerability indices, which inform much climate change and disaster risk reduction policy and practice. Furthermore, the AVI is an area of intentional inquiry that can provide useful insights about individual and community hazard vulnerability while drawing attention to psychosocial coping capacities critical to effective emergency management. To this end, we particularly recommended that three methodological approaches – historical structural analysis, intersectional analysis, and psychosocial analysis – are given further attention within research, policy, and disaster management settings.

Building Resilience through an Interdisciplinary Uncertainty Discourse

I took up this analytical challenge upon joining the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zürich in 2020. During stimulating coffee conversations, Myriam Dunn Cavelty and I started to view cyber security through the AVI lens. The key question guiding our enquiry was: How can a focus on socio-technical vulnerability and uncertainty make cyber security more resilient? To answer this question, Ben Scharte also provided theoretical insights on systemic resilience. The result is a newly published article in the Journal of Risk Research, in which we conceptualise cyber security as a “social problem + technology” instead of its usual framing as a “technical problem + humans.”

In our article, we show how cyber security and resilience thinking co-evolved through their connection to critical infrastructures, and how the ensuing dominant technical focus inevitably always falls short due to the diverse societal values that under¬pin their critical social function. We argue that a sole focus on aggregate systems neglects the important differences in how cyber threats are experienced and dealt with by individuals. We then draw on the insights provided by my previous research collaborations, as discussed above, to establish a better link between individuals and cyber systems. In particularly, we focus on vulnerability and uncertainty to highlight the inherent social nature of cyber security. We conclude by highlighting three ways forward for researchers, policymakers, and practitioners: interdisci¬plinary research, public debate about a set of normative questions, and the need for an uncertainty discourse in politics and policymaking.

Want to Know More?

If you would like to learn more about this research, you can access all of the articles for free online.

Sword-Daniels, V., Eriksen, C., Hudson-Doyle, E. E., Alaniz, R., Adler, C., Schenk, T., and Vallance, S. (2018) Embodied Uncertainty: Living with complexity and natural hazards. Journal of Risk Research, 21(3), 290-307.

Eriksen, C. and Simon, G. (2017) The Affluence-Vulnerability Interface: Intersecting scales of risk, privilege and disaster. Environment and Planning A, 49(2), 293-313.

Eriksen, C., Simon, G., Roth, F., Lakhina, S. J., Wisner, B., Adler, C., Thomalla, F. , Scolobig, A., Brady, K., Bründl, M., Neisser, F., Grenfell, M., Maduz, L., and Prior, T. (2020) Rethinking the Interplay between Affluence and Vulnerability to aid Climate Change Adaptive Capacity. Climatic Change, 162(1), 25-39.

Cavelty, M. D., Eriksen, C., and Scharte, B. (2023) Making Cyber Security more Resilient: Adding social considerations to technological fixes. Journal of Risk Research. DOI: 10.1080/13669877.2023.2208146.

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