The International Emergency Management Society Conference Accepted Talk

The following proceeds from the pivotal stance that uncertainty is a matter of unclear relationships of cause and effect in the emergency manager’s operational context.

The International Emergency Management Society Conference Accepted Talk


I am excited to share the accepted abstract I submitted to the International Emergency Management Society Conference. I am in the process of putting together the slides I will share here later and present online in September at the conference.


This ongoing theoretical research focuses on uncertainty in emergency management and explores how engaging in intentional explanation can help manage it. The following proceeds from the pivotal stance that uncertainty is a matter of unclear relationships of cause and effect in the emergency manager’s operational context. Unclear causality may manifest as an inability to act and make decisions, difficulty developing strategy, a lack of understanding of what is happening in the world, feelings of strangeness, and trouble explaining for as long as the uncertainty persists. Drawing from the work of Humberto Maturana, explanations are presented as a means for managing uncertainty at the strategic level through purposeful engagement in the process.  

Keywords: Uncertainty, Management, Causality, Emergency Management

Causality and Uncertainty

The ability to connect cause and effect is integral to the management of uncertainty. As emergency managers operate, they observe effects such as events, problems, and experiences. In order to transition an uncertain effect to a certain one it must be connected with a cause. The joining of cause and effect brushes away uncertainty as it is no longer unclear why the effect was experienced by revealing its origins. These causal linkages are then instrumentalized as the basis for action by informing emergency managers about how the world they are operating in works. Once the prior is established, the correct action to take becomes clearer.

Emergency managers frequently operate in contexts where uncertainty is high as indicated by the observing of effects without any clear cause. As mentioned earlier, in uncertain environments emergency managers struggle to make sense of and act in the world around them. Intentional processes of explaining are theorized here as a method for managing uncertainty through engaging emergency managers in the development of causal factors capable of producing observed effects. Key insight into explaining can be gained through the work of Maturana.


Maturana has written extensively on the linguistic act of explaining. He presents two components of an explanation: The formal condition and the informal condition. The formal condition is forged from the explainer's experience and is a causal mechanism or process capable of producing the observed effect in need of explanation. Informal conditions, on the other hand, are generally tacit criteria held by the person being explained to, who could even be the explainer. The informal condition determines if the formal condition is acceptable and therefore shapes the explanation (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008). The question emergency managers are asking others at this point is, "This is what we think is going on in the world, do you?" The answer is dependent on informal conditions, which determine whether or not the formal condition will be inculcated into practice or another one must be created. As the accepted formal condition determines what action will be pursued, dissimilar formal conditions lead to different actions.

Because formal conditions connect an observed effect with a proposed cause, explanations are inherently causal. As the past, present, and future, are explained, explanations tell those who formulated them and those they share them with something about the way the world works; and in doing so indicate what action should be pursued. Explanations manage uncertainty through the making of a world uncertainty has dissolved by reconnecting cause and effect. The next step is to make it a deliberate practice.  


Explanations are part of the flow of everyday life and are generally not perceived (Maturana, 1988). This research intends to make the process of explaining deliberate in contexts where doing so is difficult– where uncertainty is high and joining cause and effect cannot readily be done. The method being developed here is intended for high uncertainty at the strategic level when emergency managers have time to enter into a workshop-style intervention. The objective is to use the explanatory loop to visualize and engage in processes of explaining. Each phase of the loop invites emergency managers to purposefully take part in explaining an effect that initially could not be linked to a cause and therefore left behind uncertainty (see Figure 1). Examples of effects emergency managers may try to explain include the increased destruction of homes by wildfires, workforce retention issues, land and home loss to flood activity, loss of life to heat-related injuries, and so forth. The goal is to create a narrative (this effect is happening because of this cause or causes) that reduces the feelings of awe or discomfort, makes action possible, joins cause and effect for all involved, and therefore manages uncertainty (Maturana, 1995).


The abbreviated account of the research project presented here, of framing unclear causality as the source of uncertainty and explanations as a means for managing uncertainty, is just a sketch, a beginning. Not mentioned here is the "transparent web of time"  (Varela, 1999, p.266) with its retentions and protentions emergency managers exist in that are relevant to the act of managing uncertainty through explaining. Also not mentioned is complexity, which also has bearing on explaining. In need of further elaboration is the process of explanation introduced in the paragraph above. In particular, deserving of further consideration are the practices emergency managers could utilize to develop formal conditions and differentiate between monocausal explanations versus polycausal ones.


Maturana, H.R.  (1995). The nature of time. Chilean School of Biology of Cognition.

Maturana, H. R. (1988). Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument. The Irish Journal of Psychology, 9(1), 25-82. doi:10.1080/03033910.1988.10557705

Maturana, H. R., & Verden-Zöller, G. (2008). The origin of humanness in the biology of love. (B. Pille, Ed.) Exeter, Devon, UK: Imprint Academic.

Varela, F. J. (1999). The specious present: A neurophenomenology of time consciousness. In J. Petitot, F. J. Varela, B. Panchoud, & J.-M. Roy, Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in contemporary phenomenology and cognitive science (pp. 266-329). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.