Anticipate, absorb, and adapt—introducing the societal resilience research agenda

This post has been republished via RSS; it originally appeared at: Microsoft Research.

Animation of icons and words depicting the four key levels of Societal Resilience--Individual resilience: Protecting the rights of marginalized, exploited, and vulnerable communities. Institutional resilience: Supporting the operation and cooperation of business, government, and civil society. Infrastructure resilience: Sustaining the sociotechnical networks delivering essential goods, services, and utilities. Information resilience: Reducing barriers to data sharing, collaboration, and evidence development

The genetic sequence for COVID-19 was first published in January 2020. Before the end of the year, new vaccines—which typically take five to ten years to develop—were approved for emergency use in multiple nations.

This astounding achievement is emblematic of a “reset” in the relationship between science and society. Faced with a frightening health crisis, the world called on scientists and researchers for help. Their solutions are protecting millions of lives from the virus and offering hope that the disease will soon be contained. This has profoundly changed the way people look at science, seeing it as not just an academic endeavor, but one that is critical for crisis response, recovery, and future resilience.

I am deeply inspired by the global science community that came together to accelerate knowledge discovery and fortify humanity against the pandemic. And yet, it’s clear now that we have much more to do. Given how much we have learned about resilience over this last year, I want to share some of the research projects, technologies and ideas that emerged during the research ecosystem’s response to the pandemic.

This is science’s time—preparing for the inevitable unknowns

As they have throughout the pandemic, researchers will continue to play a crucial role in what I call crisis response science in the years ahead. That starts even before a crisis emerges, as we continuously conduct research and publish the results openly, for the good of humanity.

But the current urgency surrounding scientific research represents a paradigm shift. Science is no longer confined to academia; we must now work more quickly at times, balancing futurism with current needs. Discoveries that would typically unfold over several years within small academic circles are now thrust into the public spotlight in mere months or even weeks. During the pandemic, every advancement—large or small— has faced public scrutiny. Research findings would drive crucial political decisions, public opinion, and global adoption of healthcare practices.

Given the potential of global crises to threaten communities and institutions, the response can easily become politicized. Thus, our pursuit of objective and enduring truths—publishing research findings whether or not they contain the expected outcomes—becomes more important than ever. There is a certain radical candor to the way we work. This culture of authenticity is further supported by our process of scientific discovery, which operates untethered from expectations of immediate profit or productization.

The growing landscape of existential threats to humanity—climate change, unravelling democracies, food insecurity, and disinformation—promises that this paradigm shift is permanent. The research community will have to embrace this new culture of ‘livestreaming’ their work in the way my son and his friends seem to livestream every aspect of their lives. Our honesty, objectivity, and neutrality will enable us to convene collaborators across government, industry, nonprofits and grassroots organizations and build consensus to support critical advances in science. Just as we have always been devoted to the truth, we now find ourselves duty bound to help nurture more resilient, sustainable societies.

We can’t delay our acceptance of this new role. Urgent challenges require unexpected breakthroughs, not incremental advances. We need a new and reliable way to anticipate the technology we’ll need for the next crisis and to prepare communities to adapt and deploy those solutions when the time comes.

That’s why today we are introducing a new Societal Resilience research agenda at Microsoft Research.

Fostering resilience at every level of society

Resiliency is a broad term that spans many fields, including ecology, psychology, and engineering. We define resilience as the capacity to anticipate, absorb, and adapt to disruption.

Disruptions like we saw in 2020 were unprecedented, but not unpredictable. We have long been warned about risks like infectious diseases, cyberattacks, inequality and injustice, and the precariousness of our institutions and natural world. If we don’t acknowledge our risks, we can’t anticipate them and prepare for them.

Identifying patterns and commonalities across our societal problems will help us find the solutions that can be used most widely. Implementing those solutions across a broad ecosystem of collaborators, and building the capability not only to respond and recover, but also the resilience to withstand an unstable and risk-laden future, will help us better manage systemic shocks when they occur.

This process is continual and will only succeed if we actively monitor new threats and risks and adapt to them over time.

The team’s initial series of case studies addresses resilience at four key levels of society – individual, institutional, infrastructure, and information. These studies examine issues like healthcare equity, human trafficking, and workplace productivity, while exploring technologies for implementing evidence-based policy responses.

Images depicting the four key levels of Societal Resilience--Individual resilience: Protecting the rights of marginalized, exploited, and vulnerable communities. Institutional resilience: Supporting the operation and cooperation of business, government, and civil society. Infrastructure resilience: Sustaining the sociotechnical networks delivering essential goods, services, and utilities. Information resilience: Reducing barriers to data sharing, collaboration, and evidence development

A good example is our study of changes to work relationships and networks during the pandemic. Using network machine learning, the study tracked organizational interactions and analyzed shifts in productivity, collaboration, and workgroup stability in remote and hybrid work environments.

This past year, we witnessed how new technologies can play a crucial role in building capacity for resilience, by amplifying organizations’ ability to reach and support the many communities of individuals that make up our global society. The relationships between technologies, organizations, and communities are therefore foundational to our approach and they inform our seven guiding principles for societal resilience research which you can learn more about here.

Science-based solutions for a resilient world

I have been humbled and impressed by the countless ways the scientific research community has come together at unprecedented speed and scale to provide solutions as part of the global response and recovery efforts. Those solutions don’t come from a single person, company or country, and the global challenges ahead will require similar global efforts to solve them.

For scientists and researchers, our task now is to be ready for the next big challenge, while also maintaining our focus on long-term improvements. To enable more societal resilience, we need to create new science, deepen our partnerships with communities, and become more resilient ourselves. Whether the next crisis is a massive drought, a giant power failure, or an asteroid hurtling toward earth, the world will call on scientists for help. We need to be ready when they do.

Thank you for your continued dedication to the advancement of human knowledge and the betterment of all societies.

I encourage you all to visit the new Societal Resilience research page, read the case studies, and download the open-source tools on GitHub to get started.

The post Anticipate, absorb, and adapt—introducing the societal resilience research agenda appeared first on Microsoft Research.

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