The role of local knowledge in flood recovery and future mitigation
I write this from a humid and damp Sydney that has been under a weather pattern called an ‘east coast low’ for the past two weeks. This weather system has led to the decimation of whole communities on the east coast of Australia as an already water logged environment is subject to weeks and weeks of torrential rain.
The city of Lismore, which is close to where I grew up, has been one of the most affected. The latest statistic from the Inverell Times is that 2,000 of 3,500 assessed homes are unlivable. The city has been described as looking like an individual bomb has been set off in each house.
Social media has been full of stories of the community taking action in lieu of still-to-arrive authorities. The SES was there (as always), but perhaps not in the numbers they should have been given that the weather system was already showing its form in Queensland as early as February 21. The army has only just arrived in Lismore, to set up for photo opportunities ahead of action according to some on Twitter.
I’ve seen stories of the community of Newrybar setting up its own satellite internet, of an Aboriginal newspaper the Koori Mail fundraising for Bundjalung peoples, of a celebrity who lives in Byron Bay paying for a helicopter to rescue people and to deliver supplies, and of course the Sikh Volunteers who drove up from Melbourne to make food for the community. Everywhere the community is using what they know to take action to rescue, to feed, to clean up, and to support in multiple other ways.
The army has arrived, but I wonder what knowledge they have to act? They’ve already said that they were hampered logistically in getting to the area, which is a worry for an army. As someone quipped on Twitter:
I‘m choosing to ignore the implicit bias in this tweet that somehow the Sikh Volunteers should be considered lesser than the army. The comparison that the author is seeking to make (I think) is one that relates to grassroots knowledge. That is, what the public knows above that of the supposed experts. The Sikh Volunteers knew that the community would need feeding, so they went to Woolgoolga to use the local Sikh temple’s kitchens to cook food for Lismore people. They knew that facilities within Lismore would not be available and that they should cook elsewhere. They know this from years of experience of being with local people under stress. Does the army know this?
Local knowledge has helped get the internet back on in Newrybar where locals knew that it was crucial to coordinating flood rescues and recovery. Local knowledge knew that people with boats should go to particular houses to search for missing people. Local people have used their relationships to build a picture of the current state and take action to solve the multiple problems they are faced with.
Today I have been reading about social constructivist thinking which posits that all knowledge is socially constructed through relationships (Gergen & Gergen, 2008). These scholars point out that what we thinking is of value and what we think is real in our groups is a result of discursive exchanges, it is socially constructed through conversation and language. They also say that the constructivist perspective is pragmatic in that it seeks to understand to take action as opposed to the positivist tradition that seeks to understand supposedly objective theory. Knowing in the constructivist tradition is in the service of action (drawn from the phrase ‘knowledge is in the service of practice’ from the introduction of the SAGE Handbook of Action Research).
In reading more about constructivist epistemologies as a way to ensure my initial data analysis is appropriately handled I’ve been reminded of a few design theorists, including Harold Nelson and Bela Banathy. Harold Nelson (2012, p. 219) says along with his coauthor Eric Stolterman that design is inquiry for action, drawing upon the work of his colleague Bela Banathy (1996) who spoke about the importance of dialogue to set the foundation for strategic inquiry (he called these ‘design conversations’). Understanding is for action and needs to be acquired socially, not individually. This is at the heart of my PhD in that I believe that the collaborative construction of knowledge is essential for taking action within complex situations like sustainable transitions. This is especially so if action is to be done equitably and with contextual sensitivity. The role for a designer here might be in the coordination, choreography, or orchestration of these conversations. In this sense I am drawing upon the work of Valerie Janesick who uses the metaphor of dance to explain the value of creativity in qualitative research. Creativity in research design according to Janesick (2001, p. 537) is a problem posing quality, where the researcher looks at new ways of looking at a problem, and also includes participants in the study as provocateurs in looking at the situation in new ways.
This brings me back to what is happening in Lismore. I wonder what local knowledge the army will draw upon as they set up? Will they use locals to guide what is to be done and to help them see what they cannot see, or do they have their own plans that have been created outside the area? I hope that, as one of my interviews has revealed, that the army do what the rural fire brigades do:
I’m in a local rural fire brigade, and when I go to an area that I haven’t worked in before, if you can tap into the local knowledge and talk to people, you can learn a lot that the experts don’t know.
Here’s hoping this is the case in Lismore and that the recovery can therefore be as swift and contextually sensitive as possible. This is not about replacing professional expertise with local expertise but about working out how to coordinate the coproduction of knowledge for action.
Banathy, B. H. (1996). Designing Social Systems in a Changing World. Plenum Press.
Gergen, K. J., & Gergen, M. M. (2008). Social Construction and Research as Action. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Action Research. SAGE Publications Ltd. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781848607934
Janesick, V. J. (2001). Intuition and Creativity: A Pas de Deux for Qualitative Researchers.
Nelson, & Stolterman, E. (2012). The Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World (2nd ed.). MIT Press. https://doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/9188.001.0001