Friday, 2 March 2012

Do we really live in a more uncertain world?

Do we really live in a more uncertain world?

 AEO Marketing and Ops Masterclasses, 6 March 2012 - International Confex, ExCeL London.  Production Theatre 1630 - 1715

As a preface to the aeo ops masterclass which will consider ‘Contingency planning – How to deal with an event crisis’ the speaker, Simon Garrett, considers whether the rising interest in this subject stems from the fact that we really do live in an uncertain world.

There are many years that in retrospect can be seen as being pivotal to world history and where global changes were preceded by times of great uncertainty.  The Russian revolution of 1917 and the collapse of Soviet empire which was the product of that revolution in 1989 are but two examples.  Dramatic as the events in these years were, however, they were in many ways predictable and based on political and economic factors which had been building for some time.  Events these days tend to unfold more quickly.

Who would have thought that the actions of a Tunisian fruit seller would trigger a series of events in the Middle East in 2011 that would lead in the space of a year of the toppling of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya that hitherto had had an iron grip on power for decades?  Many argue that the pace of these events was fuelled by media exposure and the ability of the masses to use social media to organise themselves in a way that would not have been possible a few years ago.  The ‘Arab Spring’ is still an unfolding story with concerns over Egypt and Libya, the threat of a full scale civil war in Syria and the possible spread to sub Saharan Africa. 

For 2012 the political soothsayers at the turn of the year pointed the fact that four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, France, USA, China and Russia are picking new leaders.  Whilst the outcome may be predictable in China and Russia any change in these huge powers introduces uncertainty.  In Russia Putin is the subject of increasingly vocal protest.  China in particular is going to have to change if it is to avoid mass social unrest.  Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter has fuelled protest and civil disobedience much as it has done in the West and in Wukan villagers took over their village prompting a stand-off with the authorities which received global news coverage.  How will the new leadership in Russia and China respond to these challenges? 

On the economic front those living in Western economies have for decades enjoyed the proceeds of growth, prosperity, longevity and free access to education and health care.  The next few years will bring with it the need to share austerity, accept falling living standards and stricter rationing of social infrastructure such as education and health care long considered a basic right.  The rationing of university education in the UK through pricing is just one example.  The riots in London and other UK cities in 2011 is testament to the ability of relatively small numbers of people organising themselves using social media to wreak havoc to the extent that city centres became no go areas and thus subject to mob rule.  We have seen riots before of course but these were largely contained to specific areas.  Are we now seeing the beginnings of a new and less containable social phenomenon?

Whilst risk prediction even a few months out is usually a mug’s game it is hard not to conceive that the latter half of 2012 will see the d√©nouement of the Euro and the whole EU project in some form or another.  The backlash from the dispossessed victims of austerity measures who feel that they have little to lose and much to gain from mass civil disobedience against leaders seen to have long ago exceeded their political mandate is likely to be violent, massively disruptive and unpredictable.  Economic opinion appears to be divided between those that think that the collapse of the Euro is unthinkable and those that believe it to be inevitable.  It is worth considering the former view in light of the fact that before 2008 the collapse of Leman Brothers – a bank that was ‘too big to fail’ - would have been ‘unthinkable’.  Since 2001 when AA Flight 11 smashed into the World Trade Centre the unthinkable became thinkable.  We cannot know what new previously unthinkable crises will arise in future but we can prepare for uncertainty.

In the events industry we are uniquely vulnerable the sudden changes and disruption to civil infrastructure.  Our business is expeditionary conducted at a distance from our base location.  An event organising team can leave its London office to set up an event in Birmingham, Barcelona or Beijing. The greater the distance, the greater the dislocation from our normal environment.  We are highly dependent on meeting tight deadlines.  A factory may lose production for a morning and catch up using overtime. We have no such ability to catch up. We are thus highly reliant on the civil infrastructure and in particular transport links to function normally and efficiently.

The uncertainties of the world around us and our unique vulnerability to unforeseen changes in local conditions, presents both a challenge and an opportunity to event organisers.  It is a challenge to the unprepared and an opportunity for event organisers to expand into new markets where others fear to tread.

We cannot know what the next unthinkable or unforeseeable crisis will be, but we can prepare knowing that the only certainty in our business is the need to plan, prepare and train to deal with uncertainty.