The Global Village – London’s community resilience and lessons from elsewhere

Marshall McLuhan coined the term “the Global Village” over half a century ago. The inference was that everywhere had become our neighbourhood. Through media coverage of other countries we know something of what it is like to be threatened by ISIS, to suffer extreme weather or to be exposed to fallout from a nuclear accident. In effect, what happens “over there” doesn’t stay over there. We cannot insulate ourselves from the dynamics that affect resilience elsewhere in the world. And because these dynamics are always in motion we cannot simply apply existing solutions in order to maintain resilience. For example, we know that cyber attacks can disable essential services and we have a sense of how civil unrest, terrorism, increased frequency and severity of storms and flooding can adversely affect our resilience. But have we considered the possible impact of some sort of new urban tribal extremism that may result? And is the incidence of knife-crime in London an indicator of something more than itself, or is it a self-contained phenomenon? And how about the potential for post-Brexit threats to the green agenda, the increasing issue of personal loneliness, difficulties in accessing health services and fewer care homes? Health issues – including mental health – may end up being as important for their adverse impact on community resilience as anything else.

McLuhan also asserted that nothing is a singular discipline.  In effect, to make matters worse, things don’t happen one at a time.  In today’s language, everything is “networked”. McLuhan also described how cause and effect can be simultaneous. Social media provides a modern catalyst for that phenomenon.  And while social media can help resilience by rapidly sharing information and enabling timeliness of response, it can also adversely affect resilience through spreading alarm – sometimes based, wittingly or otherwise, on disinformation.

By comparison to the rather more immediate and severe challenges to resilience faced by communities in, for example, the Middle East, London’s problems seem “first world”. But it was not always so. The Blitz threatened London’s existence. And, rising to the occasion, Londoners were perhaps at their resilient best during the Blitz. Thus adversity and the cohesion and resilience of suffering communities can be in direct proportion to each other. More locally, there were heart-warming displays of resilience during the London Bridge and Borough Market terrorist attacks of June 2017. Speed of response by the emergency services was impressive; lessons had clearly been learnt since “7/7”. And people seem on the whole to have accepted the need for increasingly intrusive security, dating from the days of IRA bombs in London – though some resent the ubiquity of CCTV cameras.

That said, apparent resilience at the time of an adverse event masks the longer-term “tail” which can delay recovery. The bomb-sites associated with the Blitz were extant for many years after World War Two, and many of the shops in Borough market that did not have insurance cover in the face of enforced closure in the weeks following the attack are now out of business. The “tail” is thus an insidious threat to the good morale, confidence and trust in the authorities that is important for resilience.

Bearing in mind McLuhan’s assertion that everywhere is our neighbourhood, there are certainly some rough neighbourhoods out there. So how do some of those other cities and communities try to maintain resilience? Can we draw any lessons?  McLuhan, were he still alive, would note that the world not only watched the events that adversely affected some of these foreign neighbourhoods, but that we took part in them through the immediacy of the media. Some would go further, arguing that the actions of governments elsewhere – including our own – have helped to drive those events, making them worse rather than mitigating them. Everywhere is indeed networked. But while the consequences of our actions on communities outside our own country may be unintended, there is more that we could do more to foresee and indeed to forestall them.

Perhaps similarly to London in the Blitz, the people of Sarajevo demonstrated impressive community resilience during its siege by the Bosnian Serbs. Their houses destroyed, people queued patiently at public water standpoints without protection from mortar and small-arms fire. They made efforts to look and dress well despite – or because of – their circumstances. I remember seeing a particular example of strong community support in the immediate aftermath of a mortar bomb attack that wounded several civilians. Cars stopped, drivers loaded the wounded into the boots of their cars in less than a minute – the boot lids left open – and took them quickly to hospital. Valuable time was not wasted in waiting for ambulances.

Does religion help some communities in other parts of the world to be resilient? Do the tenets of some religions help more than others and can that apply to secular Britain today? If members of some communities believe that death will bring a better life, then perhaps that will impart to them greater psychological resilience. In the Middle East there is also a strong cultural emphasis on hospitality to neighbours and to strangers. That enables the sort of mutual support that might have been in the mind of Prime Minister Cameron when he promoted the Big Society, a concept relevant to resilience and arguably all too quickly discarded.

Which leads me to ask whether the psychological determinants of resilience – such as those that we have examined above – are more or less important than physical factors – and indeed whether they can be disentangled from each other. As well as his point about the Global Village, McLuhan provided us with the concept that “the medium is the message”. This suggests that the success – or otherwise – of efforts to build physically resilient communities will be dependent on how those who live there feel about the concept. In other words we need to ask how those communities that are physically optimized for resilience will influence the way in which their inhabitants interact with them on a psychological as well as a practical level. In effect, our mental response is as important to resilience as its physical components. We shape the communities and they in turn shape us. It is an evolutionary process and the interaction between the psychological and the physical is continuous and circular.

That drives the notion of a balanced approach. Our government has tried to achieve this with its CONTEST strategy, devised to counter terrorism, which – as we have seen, can severely threaten our resilience. CONTEST is characterized by the four “Ps”: Prevent: to counter the drivers of terrorism; Protect: the provision of security; Prepare: crisis management planning; and, Pursue: pursuit of the perpetrators and their networks in Britain and abroad. I will close by looking at “Prepare”. One of the greatest threats to resilience is being caught by surprise. To quote former US Defence Secretary Rumsfeld, shocks to our resilience are “known unknowns” – they are thus “predictable surprises”. We may not foresee the timing or exact nature of these shocks, but they will happen. We can prepare for them through thought and planning – through horizon-scanning and evidence-based analysis of all relevant information, and by imagining – based on that analysis – what might go wrong, and by having crisis plans in place to deal with things when they do.

Changing the belief of ‘it won’t happen to us’ is a difficult but necessary step towards this sort of preparation. According to the London Prepared initiative[1], 84% of managers agreed that having a business continuity plan helped reduce business disruption. Yet only 27% of SMEs have such a plan in place.

Plans cannot cover every single contingency because no one would read them if they did – and they would rapidly be out of date in the face of developing threats to resilience. But having plans – however generic – and thinking through the application of those plans enables “the prepared mind” – borrowing Louis Pasteur’s dictum that “fortune favours the prepared mind”. It provides the foundation for thinking and acting in a more agile and preemptive way. Having – and acting on – the prepared mind and ensuring that this attitude is community-wide is thus the most important element of resilience.

John Deverell CBE