The Human Side of the Natural Disaster Experience


Floods, fires and global pandemics. How can design, and collaborative design research, make a difference? What if we understood disaster recovery as a service that can be designed? After a disaster, people interact with businesses, governments and community sectors. How does that complex ecosystem support people to respond and recover?

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Image: Photos by Joelle Black (Symplicit)
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  • Following the North Queensland Monsoon Disaster of 2019, Thriving Communities Partnership (TCP) set out to understand and evaluate how the service and support ecosystem impacted on the local community's experience and influenced their ability to respond and recover. The purpose of this initiative was to identify actionable, cross-sector, people-centred improvements that support communities to recovery and thrive when faced with disaster. The challenge arose as TCP's partners such as utility providers, banks, insurers and community organisations, acknowledged that improving their own services would have limited impact on community wellbeing unless the other services people need are also improved and aligned.

  • This project applied a human-centred design approach, typically applied to single products or services, to design a new way to understand a whole-of-community journey. Deep contextual interviews were conducted with residents and small business owners impacted by the North Queensland Monsoon. These interviews created more than 2000 data points and we created new analysis methods in response to the complexity of the findings. We developed two community journey maps, with an associated insights report, to illustrate the positive and negative impacts on community resilience. Six community stories highlighted key experiences to build empathy and simplify the complexity for research users.

  • By using people-centred narratives to demonstrate the interconnectedness of residents, small business owners and organisations, we have created a common starting place for understanding and change. The collaborative focus of the research has brought organisations together across sectors. 10 organisations were involved in its development, and over 120 organisations have engaged with the findings, journey maps and case studies. They have committed to actions including developing inclusive communications and aligning responses to ensure everyone can access the support (financial, psychological etc) they need to recovery. Organisations taking human-centred approaches and working collaboratively in this manner build trust and loyalty.

  • A key feature of this entry are the two journey maps that combine the stories that 12 residents and 8 local businesses shared during their interviews to depict a collective community story. The journey maps detail the following: - Incidents, tasks and decisions points occurring along the journey - Critical communication people received - Services people interacted with - Negative service impacts and pain points - Positive service impacts and occurrences - The emotional impact that results. The journey maps are also a compelling way to illustrate the insights developed during the research. For example, the journey maps are used to show how the insight "need for universal design" is apparent in many parts of the recovery process. For example, many evacuation centres are not accessible by default, which leads to additional trauma for some families and puts additional strain on the hospital system in the disaster-affected area. The journey map can be readily used to show how inaccessible evacuation centres have upstream effects for recovery efforts. The journey maps also show how access to electricity is a gatekeeper during recovery. People who have power can stay in place, and early access to power is an influence in so many subsequent activities.