Improvisation, Creativity, and the Art of Emergency Management

Kendra, James
Wachtendorf, Tricia
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Disaster Research Center
Improvisation is a significant feature of every disaster, and Tierney (2002) has argued that, if an event doesn’t require improvisation, it is probably not a disaster. Improvisation has had something of a checkered history in the emergency management field since its appearance in a disaster response seems to suggest a failure to plan for a particular contingency. Even scholars who have recognized the value of this capacity have tended to subordinate it to planning. Thus improvisation occupies a somewhat conflicted space in the realm of emergency and crisis management capacities: we plan in detail so that we don’t have to improvise, knowing that we will have to improvise. This paper discusses emerging understandings of improvisation in emergency management and their relationship to planning as well as to other such noted disaster phenomena as emergence, or the appearance of new groups of people organized to meet disaster-related needs. We reconsider the suggestion that improvisation must be positioned with respect to planning in such a way that it somehow seems to be the weak link, or an indication of some failure or dysfunction. We argue that improvisation is a distinct capacity that individuals and groups employ, and that while planning encompasses the normative “what ought to be done,” improvisation encompasses the emergent and actual “what needs to be done.”
Emergency Management , Improvisation