Rethinking flood risk management: The Chiang Mai Field Lab 2019 experiment

What happens if you put 100 people interested in flood risk management in a room for a full month? This is in essence the question we asked ourselves 18 months ago, when we started planning for the Field Lab. The answer is: a lot!  

The Understanding Risk: Chiang Mai Field Lab, an interdisciplinary “unconference” organized last June, aimed to explore critical design practices in disaster risk management by generating and testing new ideas, tools, artistic pieces, and communication products. Since flooding is an “all-of-society” challenge, so too we sought to bring together people of various disciplines to work together, including engineers, scientists, artists, policy-makers and more. The result was a 1-month event in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where participants created ad-hoc working groups — on topics as varied as risk communication, nature-based solutions, sensing technologies, etc. The event format was flexible to allow for new ideas to emerge and new groups to form. Every day’s schedule was created organically based on the momentum of each working group.

Participants joined from all over the world, staying anywhere from one week to one month. A lot of effort was made to make the event accessible regardless of financial capacity. We raised funds to make the event free to participate, and provided scholarships to nearly 20 participants to join for the entire month (thank you to our sponsors for making this possible!) Our only ask was to: (1) produce something, (2) document the work, and (3) contribute to the community. And indeed a lot was produced in the event, as documented on the website, in blog posts and interactive story maps: from policy briefs and academic papers to physical models of the City of Chiang Mai and original art pieces.

So what did we learn from the experiment? Now the dust has settled a bit, here are four key insights that may apply well beyond the Field Lab.

One month is both long and short. The month-long duration was an essential part of the experiment as we realized that the process of building collaborations and understanding different perspectives takes time. Participants stayed between one week and one month, which allowed friendships to form, an essential ingredient to developing short- and long-term collaborations. The duration of the event enable the flexible format to work with at least one week dedicated to each theme. We typically found that the first couple of days served to exchange perspectives and generate ideas while the remaining days could be used to design and create new products. From one week to another, some of the materials and ideas could also be re-used and refined.

On the downside, even accounting for the scholarships that defrayed the costs for many attendees, we found that only participants with flexible schedules could attend for the full month  (about 20% of the participants). They were mainly graduate students or professors, independent consultants, or individuals in between jobs, which made their contribution disproportionate compared to other participants. In addition, one month felt short to develop some types of products, especially given the constant flow of new people and new ideas. For example, only early drafts of academic papers were written (rather than full papers), possibly because the collaborative activities may have been considered as a better use of everyone’s time. 

Flexibility is a skill, and it can be learnt. The entire event utilised an “open-space” model where participants themselves create the schedule, objectives and work-plan. They were completely empowered to organise their collective work, while we provided tools, advice and resources to facilitate this (as described in more detail here). The flexible schedule, though challenging to some participants, encouraged collective ownership of the event, emergent project ideas, and enabled attendees to contribute based on their skills and experience in ways that a pre-planned agenda would not have. Flexibility does not mean absence of preparation, and if anything it may be more work for facilitators who need to anticipate a range of eventualities rather than a specific development. Yet we found that this skill could be learnt and we heard from participants that accepting the flexible structure became easier with time.

The open structure of the event puts a lot of responsibility on individual participants to independently manage their own schedules, lead projects, and collaborate with other attendees. The ability to do this successfully is influenced by experience and cultural background, and facilitators can play a role in helping ensure all participants are able to have positive experiences. We also found that the flexible structure could become a challenge for working groups. For example, one participant reported in the exit survey that “the fluid timeframe allowed a lot more people to attend, which was great, but also made it challenging to keep momentum for some work as teams were broken and rebuilt many times.” 

Interdisciplinarity can be designed, but it’s hard to fight instincts. One goal of the event was to support interdisciplinary exchanges, recognizing the silos in flood risk management (e.g. the fields of communication, technical assessment, social assessment…) The products of the Field Lab illustrate that this goal was reached, at least to some extent: for example, the personas [link] developed within the nature-based solutions group were derived from the somewhat technical discussions on the role of nature-based solutions. 

On the other hand, we observed a clear self-selection between working groups, with “technical profiles” being drawn to working groups such as sensors or machine-learning. This instinct is hard to fight and the longer timeframe, with ample opportunities to socialize and learn from other attendees, was one attempt to create multiple levels of connection and encourage interdisciplinary collaboration. Another approach would have been to assign participants to teams and oriented projects around challenges that required interdisciplinary collaboration, perhaps losing some of the creativity (flexibility?) in the process.

Focusing the event on the city of Chiang Mai was critical to the success. In a spectrum ranging from local events (focusing on a city or region) to international events (where the host city merely serves as a meeting point), the Field Lab seems to stand in the middle: while some working groups could have worked in almost any other location, Chiang Mai and the region provided inspiration and a “sandbox” to explore new ideas. The partnerships with strong local institutions (e.g. Chiang Mai University School of Public Policy, Oasys lab, FOPDEV) certainly participated in the development of a “sense of place”, with the participants and projects engaging deeply with local people and the environment. 

For the purposes of the Field Lab, this relationship to place seemed to work well. In fact, some of the most exciting projects happened as a result of collaboration with local organizations, as exemplified by the City Dialogue organized by the School of Public Policy. Of course, building the relationships that facilitated these projects required significant upfront investment. Funding for these projects made available by the Field Lab also helped establish joint ownership of the outcomes between the Field Lab organizers and local partners.

So was it a success? By many metrics, yes. And we are grateful for our funders who took a risk in supporting such an unusual project. Our main goal was to test a unique event format and analyze how the process, outputs, and outcomes might advance the practice of flood risk management. The event produced over 100 documented outputs (equivalent to 3 per day!) ranging from draft academic papers, art pieces, new modeling approaches, etc. The lessons above were drawn from the experiment and form part of a larger body of work being documented on the website and in a report and academic paper, which we will continue to explore in our future research. Long-term collaborations were formed, a testimony of the strong links that were created between participants. And importantly, the experience constituted a great opportunity for professional development for all participants, irrespective of their level of experience, since they were all confronted to novel format and dynamics.

As instigators of the Field Lab, the event allowed us to gain insights into the type of “action research” that can positively influence the field of disaster risk management. We presented some of these insights above: balancing slow and fast timelines for deeper engagement, training a flexible mindset, thinking critically about interdisciplinarity, and developing a sense of place for all stakeholders. Bringing 100 people in Chiang Mai was one way to explore these insights, and we look forward to future Field Lab-type events to continue this learning journey.