Consequential public problems are rapidly approaching crisis stage, and governments, communities and nations seem unable to meet these challenges head-on. Under the leadership of Harvard Kennedy School Dean David Ellwood, the Acting in Time initiative harnesses the capabilities of HKS and the university as a whole to examine why particular problems such as mobilizing crisis resources, bridging the knowledge gap in public health, and confronting health care reform are not addressed. By bringing together scholars and practitioners, we will learn more about the analysis, governance, policy design, democratic institutional structure, information, political mobilization, and leadership necessary to generate effective solutions to effect prompt response to fast-developing crises and, in advance, to hasten community recovery planning.

The Program on Crisis Leadership directs two Acting in Time research projects:

  • Acting in Time Advance Disaster Recovery Project: HKS faculty and staff are seeking to identify how societies recover from disasters; researching and disseminating best practices in disaster recovery; making policy recommendations on how to prepare in advance for recovery; and facilitating ways for governments to make policy changes to support these efforts. Elements include advising advance recovery planning initiatives in the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles and conducting action research on ongoing recovery processes in a select mix of communities affected by landscape-scale disasters around the world, including New Orleans, Louisiana; Christchurch, New Zealand; the Tohoku region of Japan, and towns and villages affected by the 2010 earthquake and tsunami in Chile.
  • “Taming the Horsemen of the Modern Apocalypse” Project: A research team of senior HKS faculty members is focusing on the challenge of acting in time to mitigate and to respond to the consequences of a broad array of landscape-scale disasters – hurricane, fire, flood, earthquake, accident, pandemic outbreak, and acts of terrorism. Using Hurricane Katrina as a “benchmark,” the team is reviewing the likely consequences, in the context of existing state of readiness, of this set of disasters and considering what broad spectrum, all-hazards forms of response would be most appropriate for preparing for them.


With funding from the US Department of Transportation's New England University Transportation Center, PCL conducts ongoing research on emergency preparedness within the United States' transportation sector. This research initiative examines, among other issues, emergency evacuation planning in major metropolitan regions; the integration of the transportation sector into the broader emergency management community; and efforts to harden transportation infrastructure and assets against the consequences of natural disasters and security threats.


Concurrent with its Asia-specific crisis management education and training programs, PCL conducts extensive research into how disasters and emergencies unfold and are managed in several Asian countries, including China, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. PCL’s examination of community and government responses to public health emergencies, natural disasters and barriers to crisis readiness will bring to light new lessons about handling the unexpected and provide potential options to explore for future risk reduction and advance recovery planning. Specific initiatives include:

  • The Harvard University Disaster Management in Asia Project: PCL co-leads a university-wide seminar series on a variety of issues related to disaster management in Asia in collaboration with the Harvard University Asia Center. The effort brings together leading scholars to examine disaster impacts in the region and to consider policy strategies for improving the disaster loss cycle in emerging Asian nations where catastrophic events strike with increasing frequency.
  • The 2nd Annual Asia Public Policy Forum: Disaster Management in Asia: In May 2012, PCL co-sponsored an international conference that brought together academics, government officials, and members of the business and NGO communities from across Asia involved in issues relating to disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. More than a dozen countries were represented at the forum, which took place in Singapore and was jointly organized by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. The Harvard University Asia Center also served as a co-sponsor of the event.
  • China’s 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake Recovery Assessment: In collaboration with Beijing Normal University and the School of Social Policy and Management, PCL faculty are determining the level of disaster recovery effectiveness resulting from the momentous Wenchuan earthquake. Government operations; mobilization of community and volunteer resources; and, repopulation dynamics are all topics of study in this initiative.


SwissRe’s involvement in managing risk calls for subject matter expertise to craft in-depth analysis of the economic and social consequences of disasters and countervailing measures to reduce their impacts. PCL is partnering with SwissRe to observe systemic drivers affecting responses to crisis and to consider approaches that could yield less post-event damage and social harm.



Rebuilding New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is among the most complex domestic policy challenges that American government has ever faced. Using innovative approaches to governance through broad-based civic engagement, disaster recovery success is newly defined through collaboration among the public, private, and non-profit sectors. Broadmoor: New Orleans Recovery Project, founded by PCL Senior Fellow Doug Ahlers, gives Harvard students the opportunity to work with neighborhood partners on repopulation, education, housing, and economic development as part of the city's ongoing recovery efforts. The project includes the development of HKS case studies for use in courses examining recovery management; the sponsoring of community forums; and funding for post-Katrina research by HKS faculty and affiliates.


A key outcome of the project is the guidebook Lessons from Katrina. Based on the Broadmoor recovery experience, the document provides a phase-by-phase analysis of the planning and implementation process for neighborhood redevelopment.


The Recupera Chile project consists of a coalition of academic, non-profit, and private and public sector organizations dedicated to advancing community-based recovery in the aftermath of the 2010 Chilean earthquake and tsunami. Working in tandem with a set of communities affected by the disaster, the project focuses on the social, built, economic and cultural/heritage dimensions of the recovery process. PCL Faculty affiliate Doug Ahlers founded Recupera Chile in collaboration with colleagues at Harvard and other academic institutions, along with governmental and nongovernmental partners in Chile.


California Earthquake Response and Planning Training

Working with the city governments of San Diego and Los Angeles, California, PCL faculty and staff train interdisciplinary groups of senior leaders in crisis management and recovery best practices. The effort identifies the skills and systems used in crisis situations; assesses how courses of action are established; and explores how complex bureaucracies can prepare effectively for the unexpected.research by HKS faculty and affiliates.


Department of Homeland Security Quadrennial Review

PCL Faculty Co-Director Dutch Leonard served on the Senior Advisory Committee for the U.S. government's first Quadrennial Homeland Security Review.

World Economic Forum

PCL Faculty Co-Directors Arnold Howitt and Dutch Leonard serve on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Mitigation of Natural Disasters. This international initiative convenes leading global experts on extreme events to develop strategic, comprehensive approaches to social risk.

Tsinghua University

PCL Faculty Co-Director Arnold Howitt serves on the International Advisory Board for the Institute of Public Safety Research at Tsinghua University.

Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina

Through HKS’s Broadmoor: New Orleans Recovery Project, students work with neighborhood partners on repopulation, education, housing, and economic development. PCL's Advance Disaster Recovery Project applies lessons learned in Broadmoor to other disaster-prone areas of the country. FEMA/Jocelyn Augustino.