We spend our entire lives in connection with others. Before birth, we are physically joined with another human being. As infants, we are fragile creatures, only able to survive when fed, clothed, and sheltered. When those basic needs are met, we might also be fortunate enough to be nurtured and loved by family and caregivers.

As life progresses, we continue to come together in many different ways—in the context of home, playgrounds, schools, workplaces, healthcare settings, places of worship, and myriad other physical—and, increasingly, virtual—spaces that shape who we become, and who we might be in the world. We also, over time, learn about our connections to the past and how the history of our community, culture, or nation shapes our present conditions and future possibilities.

Coming together. That is what people do. Our interdependence with each other and our ability to learn from others is what makes society possible.

It is also what makes change imaginable.

The Challenges We Face

In the hazards and disaster field, we spend a lot of time working together to assess problems. Problems related to rising economic losses and growing social disruptions from disasters. Problems stemming from the root causes of those losses and disruptions—whether they are social and economic inequality, climate change, unsustainable development, poor land use planning, or environmental degradation. Problems with warning diverse publics and evacuating vulnerable populations. Problems in emergency management and mitigation actions that emerge from the lack of public funding for the public good. Problems of injustice in long-term recovery processes.

Hazards researchers, emergency managers, mitigation professionals, public officials, and many others have long worked to understand these interconnected challenges.

Coming together. That is what members of our hazards and disaster community do.

A Case for Convergence

This summer at the 44th Annual Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop, we will focus on the theme of Convergence. Specifically, we will make the case for convergence as a vehicle that can drive the framework where we effectively come together to characterize the mounting natural hazards threats we face and, importantly, where we identify the actions that will address the many drivers of disaster risk.

Convergence research, which has been championed since the early part of this century by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the National Science Foundation, involves teams working together across disciplinary boundaries. It is important to underscore that—as the nascent literature on the Science of Team Science points out—a team is different than a group. A group is a collection of individuals who come together to coordinate their own individual efforts. A team, on the other hand, is made up of members who are committed to a shared goal and, crucially, to one another.

Once teams are formed, convergent approaches to problem solving go beyond interdisciplinary research or applications. Often these projects involve forming entirely new processes for team work and collaboration and can lead to novel practical interventions that address the most vexing social, environmental, and technical challenges of our day.

To put this more directly, think of it this way: Imagine you are struggling with reading. If a medical or educational professional diagnoses you with dyslexia, you would then expect that professional to recommend a course of action. Even if there isn’t an immediate cure, you would still want to know what steps you could take to lessen the impact and improve functioning and learning so you could ultimately thrive. Convergence is like that. It is about using the best tools and methods to identify a challenge, as well as offering a path forward that addresses the issue at hand.

In the context of complex social and environmental problems, such as those that culminate in disaster, this sort of problem diagnosis and collective movement toward a cure is an ever more urgent need. And for all the suffering and loss that disasters generate, they also serve as a sort of forcing function that draws together diverse partners to take life-saving action in the immediate term and to reduce disaster losses in the longer term.

We can point to many such successes in the hazards and disasters community—the adoption and enforcement of better building codes and standards, wise land use planning, and enhanced warning systems, to name a few—that have led to a dramatic reduction in the number of disaster-related deaths in the United States and in many nations around the world. These are examples of where teams of researchers, policy makers, and practitioners have come together to not only characterize rising hazards threats, but also to take steps to respond effectively.

This is what convergence is all about. It is about working across borders and boundaries, while moving beyond problem identification to identifying actionable steps that address or otherwise ameliorate threats.

This summer at the 2019 Natural Hazards Workshop, we have invited individuals to share their stories of convergence. Specifically, we want to learn more about how and where teams are working together to address a specific problem while also collaborating in new and creative ways to offer potential answers.

French protesters at the Arc De Triomphe demonstrate against rising oil prices. The protests show how seemingly sound solutions to social issues can have reverberating impacts. Photo by Nicolas Economou, 2018.

Just as problems are complex, so are potential solutions. A seemingly brilliant fix for one issue can create an entirely new challenge. For instance, curbing climate emissions through taxation can provide an incentive for change, but it also may further disadvantage rural citizens, the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, and other marginalized populations. These are not just hypotheticals, as the yellow vest protests in France recently showed us. Or as the unfolding conflict in Portland, Oregon illustrates—where efforts to save lives through the retrofit of unreinforced masonry churches, businesses, and homes for earthquakes simultaneously threatens to disenfranchise and displace communities of color. We pull one thread, and suddenly yards of cloth unravel.

But if we bring people together in thoughtful, methodical, and purposeful conversations, we have a chance to patch these holes in the fabric of our society. In the course of that action, maybe we can even create something that is more beautiful, meaningful, and life sustaining. This is also what convergence is all about. It is about listening to and learning from one another. It is about recognizing the many places where expertise lies, and then ensuring that different perspectives are invited into the room. This is hard work, but we are facing a planetary crisis and it requires a new way of acting, doing, being.

As always, we are looking forward to learning from the members of this community about how and where you are engaging in convergent action. We share a growing sense of urgency to ensure that these conversations are captured and catapulted into action. Through this year’s Workshop, and the new National Science Foundation CONVERGE initiative here at the Natural Hazards Center, you have our commitment that we will work beside you and always continue to uplift the work that you do.

Please take care of yourself and others.

Lori Peek, Director
Natural Hazards Center