OPINION – Why businesses and government need to think thick and rich – not just big

By José Pinto and Zhen Goh

José Pinto is consultant, researcher and PhD candidate (University of Macau). He is also a visiting lecturer (University of Saint Joseph).

Zhen Goh is a consultant, researcher and co-director of the Emerginarium


Communities in Macau and Puerto Rico have historically been exposed to the blows of nature as they sit in the pathways of hurricanes and typhoons.

In 2020, three years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, the island experienced earthquakes and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in quick succession. Hurricane season also set in shortly after social distancing was mandated. How do people evacuate into shelters while social distancing? What are the qualitative differences and complexities of disaster evacuation and management of both types of shockwaves? Whilst Maria was a painful and episodic hammer blow, COVID-19 was more like a slow fraying of the bonds that held the island together through Maria.

A recent study published in the latest issue of Annals of the American Association of Geographers explores the aspects of resilience that communities rely on when broader infrastructure fails. In the study, the researchers undertook a multi-method approach to create a “thick map” of how Puerto Rico responded to the different disasters. The thick map was informed by merging layers of information, and mapping community resilience across different parts of the island. This was further augmented through a scaled ethnographic approach that collected narratives that people shared, which were further indexed to create a quantitative layer of data. Merging the rich stories, as well as statistics derived from these stories helped them to understand how people were responding to the different disruptions. They discovered that when Maria broke the infrastructure in Puerto Rico – everything from the electrical grid and water supply – the community relied on their social capital and community bonds to cultivate the capacity that helped them to respond adaptively. During María, community cohesion was a decisive factor in overcoming the impact of the hurricane; however, during COVID, isolation and the mistrust that it creates, created tears in the social fabric. This study entitled “Integrating Spatial and Ethnographic Methods for Resilience Research: A Thick Mapping Approach for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico”.

(https://doi.org/10.1080/24694452.2022.2071200) utilised an integration of big data, geo-spatial data, and thick data that came from the narratives of the community. The study was part of a multi-pronged project supported by the National Science Foundation to Enhance Resilience in Islanded Communities (Eric21.org). The objective was to develop a data-driven socio-technical framework to provide decision-makers with the ability to assess physical and social interconnections that can enhance resilience in islanded communities. Physical and social data have traditionally formed separate research and data analytics trajectories.

However, this paper described a useful integration across the chasm, and displayed the value of synthesising multiple methods to create a multi-dimensional decision-making framework. Thickmapping provides a useful framework for integrating different data sources to improve decision-making and allow local authorities to understand what measures are more effective in various localities, and allow for more granular and context-responsive governance.

So how may this apply to Macau? Everyone in Macau is stuck at home. This is not done on nature’s authority like a typhoon ravaging the South China shoreline. It is the result of decisions made on limited units of measure and reductionist virus vectors. We are chasing case numbers, and percentages of vaccination for vaccines that might not work for new variants. The tyranny of the numbers becomes a zero-sum game. What is not being measured? How do we expand our sense-making around the virus and its development in our community? 

The virus is mutating, and each mutation creates variants not just in the virus but also in how we should understand and respond to it. In Shanghai, during the recent lockdowns, urban communities brought back the mediating and coordinating role of the “village chief” (团长)to help provide more local level coordination to support resident collaboration and distribution of supplies. This represents an emergent social phenomenon that could provide a more localised capability that can be factored into the future management of pandemic resurgence.

Even in a time when social distancing was the rule, humans self-organised to create local solutions. In Puerto Rico, after Maria wiped out the physical and formal infrastructure, locals self-organised to develop innovative responses to support each other. This story from the paper illustrates ways adaptive and mundane innovation can be capitalised to support adaptation so we can move away from a single, centralised lockdown response:

“I saw a guy in the mountains that had a cistern, a washing machine, and a generator in the back of his pickup truck. He was driving around offering mobile laundry mat services. This is when there was still no power or water service.”

These narratives highlight how local innovation, a growth mindset, and modular technological components can be leveraged locally to provide infrastructure services when centralised systems fail people.

We know from research that humans are gregarious, and our survival and evolution has been accelerated by our ability to collaborate and organise as a species. Our social bonds generate the driving force of survival to fight battles no human would withstand alone. The pandemic is not different; yet another challenge the world has overcome. But, we must overcome it together; not in isolation.