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Humans and Technology at the Resilience Interface

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From advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics to new methods for emissions reductions, the development of new technologies provides fertile grounds for innovating impacts in industries of all kinds.

This is also true for the intersection of disaster preparedness and climate resilience, where Elizabeth Petheo, EMBA ’14, an expert in the field, has worked for the past two decades. From her operational experience responding on the ground to devastating global crises to her training in evidence-based management practices at MIT Sloan, her focus has been on how best to apply and couple technical expertise with real world use and impact.

Elizabeth Petheo, EMBA ’14

Currently a senior principal at the global engineering and humanitarian firm Miyamoto International, Petheo innovates with experts from various fields to discover new approaches to address risk management and preparedness. Though technology is rapidly advancing, Petheo maintains focus on the human-technology interface to deliver impact.

“Technology is connected to everything we do, so it is important that we keep a grounded perspective on these discussions integrating solid judgment to rethink our work and processes —starting with where we wish to go, what we wish to create, and be able to articulate why it could achieve a greater good,” says Petheo.

“That kind of conversation leads to a roadmap that must be informed by context and purpose,” she adds. “We are still the guide to navigate these professional changes. We need to focus on how we can broaden what we can do with the support of these advancements, so we can just do it that much better.”

3 principles for staying focused on impact

To say there is a lot of “hype” about AI right now—especially generative AI and the large language models (LLMs) that bolster it—would be an understatement. From major tech companies and well-funded startups to less technology-enhanced firms, adopting these innovations is in vogue.

Petheo believes the potential impact of these technologies is momentous and reaffirms the importance of management principles and a results-driven focus when determining best use in the development and assistance context. “The reaction tends to be jumping to the latest technology development or tool, rather than beginning with the challenge, the context and the needs,” she says.

With a practitioner’s lens, Petheo highlights these core management principles which can be applicable across fields:

  1. Keep focused on the problem you’re trying to solve. A good understanding of the problem and operating context can both drive opportunities and highlight constraints. Organizationally, spending time defining this can yield new insights.
  2. Build awareness and understanding. Integrating new ways of working is often about supporting a broader change in mindset and culture. Therefore, also spending time building awareness of why change is needed is important. In the response readiness and resilience context, Petheo notes this is often the hardest part: Building upstream awareness and urgency to prioritize the conversation around change while also building momentum for a new range of approaches.
  3. Encourage systems thinking in operationalizing new tools. Understanding technology introduction or adoption as a part of a system is important to keep in mind for mainstreaming its effectiveness in the longer run.

“I have seen this in disaster resilience work globally. It is not just one intervention alone, whether strengthening the built environment or the policy environment, or the operational training or tools of teams to think and behave differently. It is all the above working together to drive a new culture. That is when we can start to have an informed dialogue around appropriate strategies and a new mindset for positive impact,” she says.

Petheo also notes that she has seen most successful models at the country and project level when there are leadership roles that focus on “translation” and integration—this means positioning both people with the skills and range to straddle the “old” and “new” to shepherd the process forward.

“Having key people positioned to capture, translate, and accelerate the new thinking and action to more effectively bridge what has existed and what is emerging is critical to avoid the siloing of initiatives and encourage co-creation,” she says.

Petheo speaking at an Economist Impact-hosted event on resilience in Dubai, United Arab Emirates

A more hopeful—and informed—lens

Generative AI and other promising new technologies will undoubtedly change the world. They already are. As OpenAI CEO Sam Altman said during a campus visit in May, “If we could see what each of us can do 10 or 20 years in the future, it would astonish us today.”

Petheo agrees, noting that it is impossible to predict what the next decade of technological advances will hold.

“To capture these benefits, we must keep learning and changing with new approaches. This is true not only for companies and governments, but also for international organizations operating in the development and assistance space.

“Success will require continued curiosity and the ability to “connect the dots” between seemingly disparate ideas. It is important that we shape the ever-changing human-technology interface to maximize human strengths and skills alongside those of emerging technologies and work towards the best impact on real lives and livelihoods,” she says.

For more info Andrew Husband Senior Writer & Editor, OER (617) 715-5933