Designing Change in Emergency Management: Why emergency managers need to make history

The problem is not only that others live with risk but what they do while they live with it as well (Coppola, 2015). What is needed, then, is a fundamental change in the way people understand and act in the world around them that can comprehensively address how we live with risk.

Designing Change in Emergency Management: Why emergency managers need to make history


The first post in this series introduced the need for emergency managers to instigate sustained, risk-driven change in the way people perceive and act in the world around them. This post will further unpack this call to action, briefly explore history-making,  and provide a rationale for suggesting emergency management professionals work to create history-making change.


As described by Arturo Escobar in Designs for the Pluriverse, history-making is “engaging in conversations and interventions that change the ways in which we deal with ourselves and things” (2018, p.112).  The text from which this concept originated titled Disclosing New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action, and the Cultivation of Solidarity provides a more-in depth overview:

Though this term is frequently used in a fairly insignificant way as when we say that Hank Aaron’s last home run was history-making, we nevertheless retain a sense that the term ought to be reserved for events that are recorded in the history books that nonspecialists read to find out about the nature of their country or culture. But  even this sense of history-making is too weak for what we have in mind. While the dates of each presidency are found in U.S. history books, for example, the election of each new president is not history-making. Something that makes history, we shall argue, changes the way in which we understand and deal with ourselves and things (p.2; emphasis added).

History-making changes how the world “shows up” for others “prior to [their] reflective judgments” (p.2) of it.  Consider how this might look in the context of emergency management: If historical change was made around risk, a community might see risk around them where before there was just scenery and take requisite action. This is of course the ideal goal of any risk communication, though it may not always be made explicit (Wisner, Blaikie, Cannon, & Davis, 2004).

However revolutionary this idea seems, change is only historical if it is experienced as being consistent with one’s past:

“All of these types of change are historical because people sense them as continuous with the past. The practices that become newly familiar are not unfamiliar. We contrast, then, our notion of historical change with discontinuous change. When, for instance, a conqueror imposes a whole new set of practices on a people or a people is dispersed and must adopted wholly new practices to survive, such a change is discontinuous and is beyond our range of interests (Spinosa, Flores, & Dreyfus, 1999, p. 28).

The types of change referred to in the above are the three ways provided in the book that history can be made: Cross-appropriation, Reconfiguration and Articulation. These three ways are outlined roughly in the below:

Cross-appropriation: When practices are taken from one area of life and carried over to another. For example, the use of cell phones moving from a strictly business context to a family one.

“Soon the practice of using the cellular phone has been appropriated by the family. The whole style of the office  does not come with it, but what primarily enhanced efficiency in the office furthers togetherness in the family (Spinosa,  Flores, & Dreyfus, 1999, p. 27).

Articulation: Takes place when something or forgotten is brought to the fore:

John F. Kennedy retrieved the identity of the pioneer by joining it to a technical engineering education. Science studies replaced religious studies as the endeavor that was expected to produce new futures. Astronaut cool became a style of American masculinity….Even more important, Kennedy set in motion a way of understanding ourselves that put our sense of our national identity at risk….History-making acts such as Kennedy's-which we shall call articulation-help us retrieve a way with dealing with ourselves that lost its prominence and relevance – in this case the pioneering way- and find a new way of making it worthwhile (Spinosa, Flores, & Dreyfus, 1999, p. 3).

Considering how the pioneering spirit re-articulated by Kennedy may fit the needs of the emergency manager seeking to change behavior in the wildland-urban interface or along the coast.

Reconfiguration: A change in perception that creates an opening for a new way of life. The example given in the book is that of a working parent who finds that staying at home to raise their child is more meaningful than their career. In the example provided this shift in meaning is not imposed, but is rather born out of a consistency with the parent's nurturing management style at work that now becomes dominant in their parenting style. Reconfiguration appears to be focused on "rearranging" intangible facets of everyday life in such a way that a new way of living is created (Spinosa, Flores, & Dreyfus, 1999).

Why do Emergency Managers Need to Focus on Making Historical Change?

The motivation behind putting forth this type of fundamental change as a goal emergency managers should pursue is found in the following from Daniel (2008):

Successful wildfire risk mitigation then requires a concerted and sustained effort as long as the threat exists- that is, for as long the grass grows, the trees and bushes regenerate, and people chooses to live among them (p.114).

Daniel's words can of course be carried over to other contexts in emergency management including general preparedness (disaster supplies need to be replenished), flood mitigation (drains need to be cleaned), cyber security (ensuring proper protections are in place), and of course the basic maintenance of an awareness of risk (paying attention to severe weather warnings). In other words, living safely with ever-increasing risk posed by hazards requires sustained efforts by community members. At the same time, it is also in the course of everyday life that risk can be magnified by the individual and collective decisions made by communities that manifest in increases in exposure and vulnerability through the adoption of certain practices, building in certain areas, and gravitating towards individualistic lifestyles. The problem is not only that others live with risk but what they do while they live with it as well (Coppola, 2015).

What is needed, then, is a fundamental change in the way people understand and act in the world around them that can comprehensively address how we live with risk.  History-making seeks this type of change and provides a means for approaching the problem other than by policy and enforcement alone. While the pure policy route has clear merits, policy alone does not necessarily change how the worlds appears to others nor does it create sustained change without ongoing enforcement and incentives (Spinosa, Flores, & Dreyfus, 1999). An ideal approach might involve braiding together policy and history-making. If used together, history-making may take on the role of helping the law make sense to others in a manner akin to the non-smoking adds and campaigns by deployed in parallel with the passing of major legislation by politicians. In order for the law to make sense and not seem oppressive, change must have already taken place (Spinosa, Flores, & Dreyfus, 1999).

At the same time, without direct access to policy making, emergency managers may find the ultimate goal of changing other's linked structures of perception and action through messaging and the design of services and experiences a worthwhile pursuit. While this goal is surely already being pursued throughout emergency management, making it explicit and attending towards it changes how problems are framed and solution pathways devised (Dorst, 2015). For example, if a hazard/human interaction is framed as a problem of how the world is understood, the work of the biologist turned philosopher Humberto Maturana suggests the following intervention should seek to change the emotions associated with the interaction (Maturana, 2016). The idea here being that changes in emotion provide an opening for a new manner of being to emerge.

Moving On

We find ourselves in an ethically dubious situation where we must call for people to change the way they understand and deal with the world around them. Consistent with the core literature, emergency managers may begin by identifying a disharmony between disaster losses (e.g., home loss) and the dominant narrative of communities. For example, home loss seems at odds with the observable survivalist, independent narrative found in some Colorado mountain town communities. This disharmony serves as an access point for beginning to engage in discourse that can create history-making change. Consider the following example from Spinosa, Flores, and Dreyfus (1999)

“[Mothers Against Drunk Driving did not] involve themselves with the interests of drinkers or argue with drinkers in an attempt to change their behavior. Rather, they were in the business of achieving their goals by appealing to their fellow citizens’ concerns about responsibility (p.95).”

Here, the author's suggest,  MADD did not argue with others about their drinking and driving. Rather, they talked about drinking and driving relative to a preexisting concern for responsibility.

The MADD mothers began to see that the responsible stance that mothers have toward their children pervaded their sense of justice, and that such a sense of responsibility profitably fit with the hard-working  ethic in subworlds surrounding them (Spinosa, Flores, & Dreyfus, 1999, p.164).

History-making is not about changing mental models or narratives outright - it is a type of change that is consistent with what is (or was) already present but may have been forgotten about or moved into the background. History-making, at least as it is interpreted here, is about attaching to something already in existence. For example, the slide below from one of my presentations provides a number of ways for talking about risk that do not use risk as the primary object.

A slide from a presentation I delivered earlier in 2019 discussing history-making change..

To some extent, this approach is a way of practicing the following insight found in Wisner, Blaikie, Cannon, and Davis (2004).

"When considering how people perceive risks and understand vulnerability, it is also very important to remember that ordinary people already have knowledge and experience. Whatever form this takes, it must be the starting point for risk communications in the form of a dialogue, not a monologue" (p.332).

All this to say, when we go to make history, we have to start with where others have already been.


Coppola, D. P. (2015). Introduction to  international disaster management (Third ed.). Waltham, MA: Elsevier Inc.

Daniel, T. C. (2008). Managing individual response  Lessons from public health risk behavioral research. In W. E. Martin, C.  Raish, & B. Kent (Eds.), Wildfire risk: Human perceptions and  management implications (pp. 103-116). Washington, DC: RFF Press.

Dorst, K. (2015). Frame innovation: Create new thinking by design. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Escobar, A. (2011). Sustainability: Design for the  pluriverse. Development, 54(2), 137-140. doi:10.1057/dev.2011.28

Maturana, H. R. (2016). Reflections by Humberto Maturana for RSD5, Toronto. Retrieved from:

Spinosa, C., Flores, F., & Dreyfus, H. L. (1999).  Disclosing new worlds: Entrepreneurship, democratic action, and the  cultivation of solidarity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wisner, B., Blaikie, P., Cannon, T., & Davis, I. (2004). At risk: Natural hazards, people's vulnerability and disasters.(2nd, Ed.) New York, NY: Routledge.