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For all the panic and alarm, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, unlike so many other crises and catastrophes, in a sense played in slow motion. New Orleans was built over centuries, below sea level. Its system of engineered protection was widely known to be poorly designed and disastrously maintained. Even the final storm was predicted, accurately, days before it struck.
Though much public and private effort has gone into rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the ensuing years, the signature human response to the worst natural disaster in the country’s history was a stupefying paralysis.
The problem, observable in areas ranging from climate change to health care to disaster preparedness, is an increasingly worrying failure to confront major challenges.
“They share the common feature…where the cost of acting sooner will be far lower than the cost of waiting until much later,” Harvard Kennedy School Dean David T. Ellwood said of these issues at a conference in 2007 where the Acting in Time initiative was launched.
Focused on an interdisciplinary approach, the Acting in Time initiative aims to understand not only the technical solutions to many of these complex problems, but also, perhaps more importantly, the reasons why those problems are not, in many cases, even being addressed.
Christopher Stone, co-director of the initiative, points out that there are technical answers to almost every one of these issues. “The problem we’ve been focused on is not ‘What is the technical answer?’ but ‘Why don’t we do anything about it?’” says Stone.
Through the Acting in Time initiative, research teams – consisting of top practitioners and scholars from a broad variety of fields – have brought their expertise to bear on many of these problems: real-time responses to large-scale natural disasters; the structural challenges presented by distant risks, like global warming; efforts to end pandemics that threaten public health in developing countries; the looming crisis in long-term care; and the future sustainability of humankind’s energy needs.
“The problem we’ve been focused on is not ‘What is the technical answer?’ but ‘Why don’t we do anything about it?’”