In many regions of the United States, it is severe weather season. Traveling around the country, you might find yourself facing tropical storms, intense straight-line winds, a derecho, flooding, hail large enough to demand you wear a helmet, lightning, and of course, tornadoes. And just when you thought it was safe to enjoy summer!
In the weather community, many professionals from a wide range of positions both public and private have their eyes and thoughts focused on the communication challenges created by the act of weather forecasting. Small wonder given the formidable list of hazards covered in those forecasts. Nature has the upper hand and sometimes the best thing we can do is duck. But we have to know WHEN to do that.
In many ways, the current weather forecasting and warning system stands as a tribute to the mission and dedication of the National Weather Service as well as to the pioneering efforts of many private industry providers of weather information and the legion of atmospheric researchers.
To a large extent, efforts to improve this system are examined through a lens called risk communication. To remind us of the obvious, severe weather is dangerous, and so, it is a risk to human welfare and human property. You might say it is a threat to well-being and wealth. So, thinking about the communication challenges engendered by informing other folks (some of whom need this information to perform their jobs and some of whom simply need the information to stay safe) about weather and natural hazards as a risk communication problem makes great sense.
But recently I have been thinking that framing the communication challenges only through this lens is limiting us to the consideration of solutions or beneficial changes that fit into that paradigm.
Why does that matter?
Because the way you ask a question predetermines the possible answers. So, it limits your thinking. And while limiting your thinking about a problem has some obvious and powerful benefits, it also leaves us vulnerable to missing possible answers – potentially good answers.
So, I want to suggest that rather than focusing on the creation, distribution, and response to urgent (risk based) messages about weather/natural hazards, we might like to step back a bit and take a bigger picture look at this. What if we adjust the lens we use to focus not on the risk messaging but on the human and social context in which the message lives or dies?
One way to do that is to consider a theory called Diffusion of Innovations. So, you might be thinking, “WHAT innovation?” To answer that, consider that the theory creator, E. M. Rogers, had in mind a broad definition, as quoted here:
Diffusion is the “process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over a period of time among the members of a social system”. An innovation is “an idea, practice, or object that is perceived to be new by an individual or other unit of adoption”. | CLICK FOR MORE
Got that? Innovation can be an idea or a practice. Although we most often think of innovation as synonymous with technology and as having a material form (the laptop on which I am typing this, for example), ideas and practices also alter human perception and the ways we interact with each other and the world. And isn’t that what we hope our warning messages will accomplish? That they will cause folks to alter their behavior (albeit, perhaps, in a temporary or periodic way).
If we adopt this perspective, then we might ask: What ideas need to be in place in a social group in order for urgent, periodic messages to succeed in influencing behavior? For example, in order for a production based economy to be viable, consumption needed to be an idea so well adopted by people that they would receive messages (in this case, advertising) about consuming as acceptable and be influenced to consume – very nearly continuously.
So, what idea (as innovation) might need to be adopted by Americans to make us tuned into the urgent warning messages? I think this is an open question, but let’s imagine one possible answer is “weather ready”. This isn’t the space for a full discussion of this theory, but it seems to me to be a worthy effort to think about the ways in which a group of people, a community, who come to embrace “weather readiness” might be able and inclined to engage weather information. Imagine how much more valuable forecasts and specialized weather information might become in such a setting. Think about how that might lead to increased public funding of research, a demand for private services, and a greater public recognition of the atmospheric and related services.
Is this a long haul approach? Yep. But so is refining and tweaking and reimaging warnings. But if we take both approaches simultaneously and use a double-barreled, strategic approach to addressing this communication challenge, we might just change the playing field to the benefit of all.