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3 months before coronavirus, a war game called ‘Urban Outbreak’ showed we weren’t ready

March 16, 2020, 8:30 AM UTC

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On Sept. 17, the U.S. Naval War College and the National Center for Disaster Medicine & Public Health began a war-game simulation they called Urban Outbreak. Benjamin Davies, a researcher and game designer at the college, gathered 50 experts in disaster response from the government, military, academia, and the private and nonprofit sectors for two days of exercises at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md.

The aim, Davies told me, was to see how people would respond in real time to “a profoundly dangerous and complex problem set”—the sudden arrival of a deadly pathogen in a dense metropolis. The question, in short: Would we be ready?

Within three months of that exercise, the first cases of illness from a novel strain of coronavirus were being identified in Wuhan, China, a city of 11 million people. In the three months since then, the virus has spread to more than 100 countries, overwhelmed governments and health care systems in cities as far-flung as Seoul and Seattle, and forced the quarantine of an entire European nation more than 5,000 miles away from the disease’s epicenter.

Just as with Davies’s simulated outbreak in the fictional city of “Olympia,” the real-life coronavirus outbreak has revealed a striking, if not unexpected lesson: We weren’t— and still aren’t—ready.

A visual from “Urban Outbreak” a war-game simulation led by Benjamin Davies, a researcher and game designer.
NATIONAL CENTER FOR DISASTER MEDICINE AND PUBLIC HEALTH NAVAL/WAR COLLEGE/JOHNS HOPKINS APPLIED PHYSICS LABORATORY

As Davies explained, that takeaway from the September simulation was a mark of success. The exercise, after all, was designed to reveal the resource gaps and communication failures among the players—the biases and confusions, the inevitable confrontations and areas where leadership and revised strategies are badly needed. The goal was to learn from all that and be ready the next time.

“Games have a wonderful tendency to raise hidden critical issues that remain just under the surface of a problem or interaction,” said Davies, who is also the operations specialist for the Naval War College’s humanitarian response program. “When you get all those people in the same room, and they lay out their plans in front of each other, suddenly all new issues arise: What time of day will the shipment arrive? By truck or helicopter? Where will the helicopter land? What will the military do if desperate people approach them?”

Each question can spiral into confusion or uncertainty, he says, and confound players as they chart the best course of action.

Which brings me to this issue of Fortune. Consider the stories in our April issue as our version of a war game for a crisis that may pose an even greater threat to civilization than the current spread of the coronavirus: the warming of the planet.

The platform here may be two-dimensional, but the goal is the same: to raise critical questions about our readiness to respond; and to shine a light on the gaps and ineffectiveness of the business community’s current efforts on these fronts so that, perhaps, we can mount a more robust response moving forward.

To be sure, global industry—and yes, those of us who rabidly consume the products and services these businesses provide—caused many of the climate and environmental problems we face today. But then, as deputy editor Brian O’Keefe writes in his introduction to the package, business is also in a position to try to fix them. There’s even a $26 trillion market opportunity for those who do, according to one estimate.

The alternative to acting boldly, it should be emphasized, isn’t “business as usual.” It’s “game over.”

A version of this article appears in the April 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “Game Theory.”

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

—How coronavirus is affecting the global concert industry
Politicians around the world are going into quarantine
—Some extreme ways companies are combating coronavirus
—How Europe is adapting to the coronavirus outbreak
—What Xi Jinping’s visit to Wuhan says about China’s virus recovery
Conferences go online amid coronavirus fears
—Coronavirus may not be all bad. Consider the “stay at home” stocks

Subscribe to Fortune’s Outbreak newsletter for a daily roundup of stories on the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on global business.