From Helmand to hand sanitiser

Risk and reward: a bomb disposal officer’s journey from a military career to engaging communities and tackling complex problems.

How many times have you thought: “is this really worth it?” Or, maybe you’ve asked yourself: “is the reward worth the risk? Our conversations about risk – and reward – have changed a lot in 2020. A year ago we shrugged off decisions with a relatively simple yes or no thought process. But as the year has progressed many of us have had to think more deeply about some everyday and commonplace situations.

‘Risk’ is a word that we used to hear on the news. But in 2020, ‘Risk’ is a concept we’ve  we’ve had to get used to living with.

And at first glance, you might not think that hand sanitiser and Helmand have much in common and that one is considerably more ‘risky’ than the other. But they both communicate complexity. And we immediately register the challenging scenarios that these words have come to represent.

An invisible enemy?

10 years ago the invisible enemy for me wasn’t COVID-19, but the improvised explosive device (IED), hiding in plain sight. This was a device that was waiting for someone to make the wrong move. But someone needed to clear those IEDs, so that other activities could take place. So, that’s what I did.

The risks where high, but where we could, we weighed them against the potential benefit.

Over time, the more people got injured the more I would personally assess the risk against the potential benefit. Often, for me to approach a single device, hours of preparation and 100 soldiers on the ground were required to make the area safe. That’s quite a responsibility, and I wanted to be confident that the rewards were worth the risk.

I needed to know that my actions formed part of a coherent and comprehensive bigger picture.

Working alongside risk takers I’ve found that people find it easier to do so when it makes operational sense, when they understand the tangible part they play in the wider strategy.

A life after the army

In the seven years since I left the Army, I have worked in locations around the world that struggle with the present and post-conflict realities of war. For example, I found myself in a sectarian conflict assessing ammunition stockpiles in Central African Republic. Here, my job was to work with Swedish colleagues to reduce risk to the capital city Bangui from large and unstable ammunition stockpiles.

The challenge of finding the right balance in complex situations and the scarcity of the right kind of data I needed to support these decisions planted the seed to build something to help me – and others working in similar situations. Together with my business partner, this idea became Remeody. Using our collective – and very different – expertise, we’ve addressed the challenge of planning post-conflict clearance and reconstruction.  One of our driving forces has been a desire to help some of the cities most badly affected by unexploded ordnance and IEDs to rebuild – to build back, smarter.

In order to rebuild well, you need to do so in the right order. For example, hospitals, homes and water pipes need to be rebuilt in a way that will best serve the population. To make these decisions you need to identify priorities – and fast.

And Remeody is a system that tells you where you need to clear first and guides the process of setting priorities. You need to plan, prioritise then build.

In practical terms this looks like a map-based planning tool that brings data to life. A Remeody map has multiple layers and highlights strategic hotspots – like physical assets or transportation routes. With the map and assets in place you can establish your priorities and publish your action plan to a playbook. And when you have your playbook, you have the plan you need to execute and resource your strategy and generate alignment across stakeholders.

Risk and reward

Throughout my time in the military, construction, oil and gas, humanitarian mine action and the health sector, I’ve come to realise the power of putting data on a map for people to see. The clarity it brings is much like standing in a dark room and turning the lights on. First, you have complexity and confusion, but soon this becomes clarity.

And although Remeody was born in the context of post-conflict reconstruction of infrastructure, we quickly realised this had a much much wider application.

In extreme or austere environments: whether it’s war-fighting in Helmand, post conflict reconstruction or the challenges of a global pandemic, the map can often be the start point for sensible decision making. And just over a year ago we started to adapt our planning platform for application in public health.

We called it Plan Spatial.

Recently we launched a trial of thePlanSpatial tool with a youth support organisation in Central London, tackling knife crime and youth violence using data that is is pertinent to them. The organisation uses the data to plan and deliver targeted interventions which maximise the benefit of limited resources.

Plan Spatial isn’t designed for data specialists, anyone can use it. In London it’s being used by frontline youth workers who are able to balance risk (both expenditure and exposure to violent crime) and reward (insight driven interventions they can monitor) in a ground breaking way.

Never has the need for clear and transparent prioritisation and planning been greater. Especially today as we see the impact of COVID-19, a high risk, highly complex challenge that impacts everything from healthcare capacity and the economy, to social isolation and the breakdown in education.

We need transparent planning so everyone one understands the strategy and priorities and so we can execute in unison.

Extreme environments, and survival in them, can teach us a huge amount about how to make good decisions in tricky times. Plan Spatial is an example of that pedigree and our desire as a business to strive for better decision-making and planning.

It’s something that we all need, now more than ever.