Facilities and Public Spaces conference offers answers to ‘wicked’ problems

New Zealand Security Magazine - October-November 2019

Secure Public Spaces

Conferenz’s Safe and Secure Facilities and Public Spaces conference in August was the first in a string events this year exploring the ‘wicked problem’ of securing ‘crowded places’ from attack, writes chief editor Nicholas Dynon

When I was asked by Conferenz to chair their two-day conference in Wellington, I jumped at the opportunity. At the very least it was a free pass to an event featuring around 26 of the brightest minds in security from New Zealand and further afield.

The security event calendar for the second half of 2019 looks a little different to that of previous years. In addition to the Conferenz event, there is the arrival of other first-timers, including September’s Crowded Places NZ event (Marcus Evans) and November’s Venue and Community Safety and Security conference (Aventedge) in Auckland.

The common theme shared by these events is ‘crowded places’ or ‘public spaces’. The Australia-New Zealand Counter Terrorism Committee defines crowded places as “locations which are easily accessible by large numbers of people on a predictable basis.” 

The trigger for the appearance of the events is, no doubt, the 15 March Christchurch mosque attacks and, consequentially, the questions the attacks raise in relation to protecting people in the places they tend to frequent.

The mosque attacks have provided security managers around the country with a new problem, or set of problems. Their employers and customers are now asking them: “How do we make our sitting-duck venue, which is easily accessible by large numbers of people on a predictable basis, secure against the extremely unlikely possibility of a terrorist attack? And how do we do it cheaply?”

It’s a problem that conference speaker Dr Bridgette Sullivan-Taylor describes intriguingly as a “wicked problem”.

A wicked problem is a problem that is ‘complex’ rather than just ‘complicated’. It is essentially novel and unique to the extent that every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one shot operation’. Wicked problems are often intractable, with no clear relationship between cause and effect. Solutions are neither right nor wrong.

Social, economic and political problems, such as poverty, economic failure, political instability, climate change, are regarded as wicked problems, although the latter has been described more precisely as a ‘super wicked problem’ because those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it.

Ultimately, wicked problems are problems for which there is the great practical reality of there being no hope of a solution. But, importantly, they are problems for which there is a great moral expectation that a damn good attempt at a solution is made. The New Zealand public, for example, justifiably expects that ‘something be done’ to minimise our collective vulnerability to another mass casualty weapons attack.

In her presentation, Dr Sullivan-Taylor also mentioned Black Swan Theory, or the Theory of Black Swan Events. This theory was named for the black swan, which was thought for centuries to be a fiction until actual black swans were discovered in Western Australia.

A Black Swan, wrote proponent Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is an event with the following three attributes. Firstly, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Secondly, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Thirdly, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, “making it explainable and predictable.” 

According to Taleb, a small number of Black Swans explains almost everything, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our personal lives. They are events are the product of “unknown unknowns” – a term made famous by Former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld.

Post-15 March, there has been the inevitable attempt by many to concoct explanations for the attacks after the fact, and these explanations are generally inadequate and simplistic. The event represented an intelligence failure, or a border security failure, for example, or it was a consequence of South Island racism, imported-from-Australia terrorism, or online extremism. Singularly – or even combined – none of these explanations are particularly useful.

A Black Swan Event can be said to represent a “failure of recollection”, and 15 March can be seen as such because the attacks are widely regarded as ‘unprecedented’ and because they are seen in terms of a national loss of innocence.

But this, of course, assumes that terrorism wasn’t a thing in New Zealand prior to that event. This assumption, as conference speaker Dr John Battersby points out, is wrong.

In his upcoming article in the inaugural issue of the Massey University published National Security Journal, Dr Battersby notes the spate of terror events that rocked New Zealand during the Vietnam War. In 1969, for example, four men succeeded in detonating a gelignite bomb at the Waitangi Flagstaff. “Their actions were motivated by the perception that peaceful protest against Vietnam was getting them nowhere so they “had to bring the war home.”

Following this, over a dozen bombings occurred in 1970 alone targeting mainly military bases and government buildings. 

The first act of international terrorism in New Zealand, notes Dr Battersby, occurred in October 1975 when three adherents of the Ananda Marga religious sect broke into a quarry in order to steal gelignite to bomb the Indian High Commission in Wellington.

In 1976 two “fringe members” of the Hare Krishna movement were killed in Auckland when the bomb they were making exploded prematurely. They had planned to bomb a local meat works.

During the 1981 ‘Springboks’ tour of New Zealand resulted in the exploding of five bombs, the locating of four undetonated improvised explosive devices, and the making of multiple bomb-threats were made against various locations. Since then, multiple well-document incidents have occurred in Whanganui, Wellington, Christchurch and Ashburton, among others, including the infamous bombing of the Rainbow Warrior.

If New Zealand’s collective ill-preparedness for the 15 March Christchurch mosque attacks reflected a ‘failure of recollection’, it was also, according to conference speaker Dean Kidd, a “failure of imagination”.

Gaining currency in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the US, “failure of imagination” describes an inability to imagine the possibility of a low-probability outlier event occuring.

The 9/11 Commission found that this failure to “connect the dots” and imagine what was being planned was an important contributing factor to the September 11 attacks, stating “the most important failure [concerning the 9/11 attacks] was one of imagination.”

The question in relation to Christchurch – as it was for 9/11 – is ‘could the dots have been joined?’ It’s a question that the current Royal Commission of Inquiry is looking into.

But perhaps the more relevant question, particularly for New Zealand, is ‘even if we’d joined the dots, would anyone have been listening?’

Part Two of this two-part article will be featured in the upcoming December-January issue of NZSM.