A Futurist’s Take on Weather Safety Communication

By Joe Tankersley, Futurist & Storyteller/Unique Visions, Inc.

This month marks the 8th anniversary of StormStruck: A Tale of Two Homes® at Epcot® at the Walt Disney World Resort. FLASH’s groundbreaking experiment in social change communication represents the first time entertainment and story-telling were fully employed to inform and inspire the public to take action to be better prepared for extreme weather. At the time it was considered a big step and, for many, a slightly crazy idea.

Today, more than 5.5 million people have visited StormStruck since it opened. That number alone is a testament to its importance in the evolution of the weather mitigation movement. For those of us who had the privilege to be part of the project, the real measure of success was reported in a recent study conducted by behavioral science researchers from Carnegie Mellon University.

“This study included a pre-and post-exhibit survey and a 12-month follow-up survey with attendees at the Disney experience, StormStruck: A Tale of Two Homes. The purpose of the study was to measure individuals’ change in knowledge, perceptions of risk, feelings of preparedness, ability to name concrete precautionary actions, and subsequent behavior as a result of going through the StormStruck experience.”

The study found that a majority of the participants “gained critical action knowledge” and “retained that knowledge for 12 months.” Critically, “over 50% took some weather mitigation action.”  The results were so impressive that one of the researchers commented that “we just don’t see this kind of numbers in social change communication.”

Not surprising to those of us who worked on the project, the study concluded that empowerment was a motivational key prompting participants to take preparatory action against severe natural events. “Specifically, our data show that greater feelings of empowerment after visiting StormStruck lead to stronger participant intentions to pursue critical preparatory action upon return home.”

Since helping bring StormStruck to life, I have worked with a number of organizations to help them envision new ways to use the latest communication technologies to create powerful behavior change messages. From these experiences I have compiled a short list of strategies for what comes next.

Social messaging will become increasingly experiential. In the future, a fully immersive social change experience like StormStruck will be the expected, not the exception.

This will be driven in part by the coming explosion in virtual and augmented reality technologies. The number of consumers experiencing virtual reality will grow from just over two million worldwide today to 24 million by 2018. Augmented reality, thinkPokémon GO, will grow even faster, reaching a billion users worldwide in the next four years.

Storytelling of all sorts will become increasingly mobile. Users will expect access anywhere, anytime, and for any amount of time – from a 30-second video break on Facebook (ok, I know those still turn into hours lost) to a weekend spent binge watching the latest Netflix release, consumption habits will become personalized. The era of the PSA will effectively be over.

Authenticity will replace authority. We are seeing an increasing shift from top-down change communication to bottom up – driven by interested individuals and “amateurs.” Just take a few minutes to browse the 300 plus hours of new videos uploaded to YouTube every second and you realize that not all of them feature funny cats or performances by amazingly talented 2-year olds. Individuals are coming together to co-create change messages on topics they care about personally. These “handcrafted” messages are increasingly being favored by audiences over the standard “expert” communications.

One thing that will remain the same with all these new technologies; social change communication will be effective only when we give audiences/participants the tools to make themselves the heroes of their own stories. No matter what technology you use or how you engage your audience to help create your future social change messages, the key findings of that Carnegie Mellon study will remain true. “Greater feelings of empowerment” will lead to actual changes in behavior. Ultimately, that will be the longest lasting impact of that crazy idea FLASH introduced to the world eight years ago.

2015 Florida Mayor’s Resilience Symposium: Local Leaders Rising to Meet the Wicked Problem of Resilience

frDuring the summer of 2012, I delivered a workshop on disaster mitigation as part of the Florida League of Mayors/League of Cities Annual Conference. I always reflect after a speaking engagement, and while I perceived that the audience was interested, I wasn’t sure I generated “edge of the seat” engagement. Understandably, Mayors are constantly balancing a long list of important priorities, and presenters just like me are always competing for their attention.

Fast forward to the summer of 2014 when I spoke again at the same conference. The audience was not only engaged, but they were on their feet. Mayor Ashton Hayward of Pensacola told us about wind mitigation retrofit programs. Mayor Sam Ferreri, an architect by profession, detailed flood mitigation infrastructure projects in his Palm Beach County community of Greenacres. All present joined the discussion of sea level rise impacts and the bipartisan South Florida Climate Action Pledge.

So what changed from 2012 to 2014? Clearly, resilience had “arrived”. Indeed, it had moved to the top of the long list of mayoral “to do’s”.

To keep the momentum going following the 2014 conference, we forged an official partnership with the Florida League of Mayors to advance our shared commitment to resilience. During May of this year, we convened the first Florida Mayors Resilience Symposium where we connected our groups and delivered a day-long program of information on disaster and climate resiliency from all angles.

In my talk, I outlined the essential elements for strong, safe, and resilient communities. Namely: strong, well-enforced codes and standards; consumers and leaders who understand, value, and demand stronger, safer buildings; higher education that includes building codes and mitigation; incentives (insurance, real estate, and tax); innovators in all sectors; and research—building, social science, and more.

I shared my conviction formed from more than 17 years in this movement that Mayors hold a powerful key. They can make the case for policies that prepare their constituents for the future. They can open (or close) the doors to adoption of modern, model building codes, and the resources necessary for enforcement of same. They can give voice to resilience as a top priority in their communities because, like politics, all disasters are local.

Federal and state governments can provide resources to communities to increase resilience beforehand, and they certainly provide resources for recovery after the fact. But the communities that are truly resilient take ownership and make it a priority to put all the pieces together ahead of time in a way that is unique to its culture, history, and values.

That is why mayors are the MVPs on the team for climate and disaster resilience.

We saw evidence of this during Ft. Myers’ Mayor Randall Henderson’s symposium presentation. He shared their waterside development plan that incorporated flood maps, evacuation zone maps, and more. Clearly, their planning incorporated insights from our friends at NOAA.

We also heard a passionate call to action from former county commissioner/now Florida State Representative Kristin Jacobs who riveted the gathering with her clarity on sea level rise and linkage between disaster and climate resilience.

This groundswell of local leadership, along with impressive initiatives to measure and quantify resilience driven by federal resources, is creating excitement and commitment that we need to advance our shared cause. However, we still need all sectors to commit and participate.

Joe Tankersley of Unique Visions, a futurist, former Walt Disney Imagineer, and member of our board of directors led the closing dialogue at the symposium and introduced resilience as a “wicked problem” requiring foresight and strategic decisions. The term “wicked problem” was popularized in the 1973 article Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, and it “refers to a complex problem for which there is no simple method of solution.” [Financial Times http://www.ft.com/home/us]

We agree with Joe. There is no better term when discussing the issue of resilience, and we need continue to create innovative, multi-discipline solutions to achieve our desired goals. So as we expand our partnership with the Florida League of Mayors to mayors across the nation, we will continue to listen to local challenges and needs. We will develop information and tools to empower local leaders. And we will craft innovative solutions to disaster-safety barriers.

When we do this, we will continue our trek down this path to a world that not only survives disasters, but bounces back better than before.

Youth Preparedness Takes Center Stage—White House Style

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In January, I had the great honor of anchoring a delegation of FLASH partners to participate in a White House recognition ceremony celebrating the National Strategy for Youth Preparedness Education.

FEMA launched the initiative in September of 2014 with a goal to bring children into the disaster-safety movement through innovative programs like America’s PrepareAthon!; the American Red Cross Pillowcase Project; and several of our own, including StormStruck: A Tale of Two Homes® at INNOVENTIONS at Epcot® at the Walt Disney World® Resort.

This was not a first-time award or recognition for StormStruck, but it is especially meaningful to us as some considered the project quite risky before opening in 2008. Not everyone shared our vision of using the proven Disney formula for “edu-tainment” to carry the message of disaster-safety and mitigation to guests of all ages. Some doubted that StormStruck could leverage storytelling to empower future generations to prepare and choose resilient structures. Some even considered tackling disaster topics in an entertainment venue inappropriate, not serious enough.

But we were confident. We had committed partners. And we were right.

Millions of happy guests later, we realized we had created something extraordinary—and not just for the kids. Visitors from around the globe, including disaster victims, have come through our 4D storm, played our dynamic rebuilding game, and enjoyed the myriad show elements. And periodic guest surveys demonstrate that they not only get the point of the venue, but they want everyone in harm’s way to come, learn, and enjoy.

Think about it. As parents, we know that our children can influence our decision-making about everything from where to grocery shop to social-change movements. Consider the generation of children who grew up recycling and the impact on the green movement. It’s a two-way formula. Our kids wear seat belts, and eschew cigarette smoking. We could hardly do differently.

In FEMA’s Preparedness in America report, household survey findings indicate that “households with school children who brought home preparedness materials were significantly more likely to report preparing than those who did not receive materials: they were 75 percent more likely to have a household plan they had discussed as a family, and twice as likely to have participated in a home drill.”

One way or another, our kids influence our behavior, and that makes a focus on youth preparedness doubly effective.

Before I joined the disaster-safety movement, I had the privilege to work with highway safety advocates on issues from bicycle helmets to drunk-driving prevention. One day, I learned firsthand how even incidental messaging can affect children. My daughter was about four years old, and frequently accompanied me to safety events. One day right after I had put her in her car seat to head out, I got behind the wheel and picked up my can of Tab (years before Diet Coke). All of a sudden, I heard a little voice from the back say, “Mommy, don’t drink and drive!”

I was amazed. For just a moment, I considered trying to explain the difference between alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, but immediately abandoned the idea. I realized that she had gotten a safety message, embraced it, and was going to share it. I said, “Okay of course,” threw away the soda and drove on.

The experience reinforced for me the power and responsibility we have when messaging to children. In my work since then, I have learned that unlike the scare tactics of the past, today’s successful initiatives put children and adults alike in charge of safety and resilience by engaging without frightening. In true Disney style, we make them the hero.

According to FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, “Children who learn about emergency preparedness experience less anxiety during an actual emergency or disaster. This National Strategy will encourage communities and organizations to give children and their families the information they need to prepare for disasters.”

FEMA has it figured out. Youth preparedness isn’t just about youth. Young people both learn and teach.

And if we’re smart, we will remain their students.