Unintended consequences

In the context of disaster resilient infrastructure, unintended consequences are the set of outcomes of a policy or action that were not the direct intention of that policy or action.


1. Unintended outcomes are also unforeseen or unexpected (and the terms are often used interchangeably). They can arise from the complexity of the system generating them, thus making them difficult to predict, or from the decision-makers’ failure to adequately consider the full range of possible outcomes.

2. Unintended consequences may be positive, negative or neutral in their outcomes.

3. Unintended consequences are sometimes viewed as “externalities”. The term “externality” is often used in a general sense to mean consequences outside the control of the bodies directly responsible for the policy or action (e.g., the operation of an infrastructure). However, the term “externality” has a more specific meaning in economics, where the costs or benefits of a consequence in a given context are borne by people outside the sphere of the decision-maker’s assessment. Greenhouse gas emissions, the cause of climate change, are an example, where the emitters of these gases do not bear the full costs of their emissions (as the costs are spread globally). 

Impact of Bangkok floods on the manufacturing supply chain (2011)

Bangkok, a delta city close to sea level and the capital of Thailand, generates much of its employment from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Many components essential to manufacturing are made in Bangkok. The impact of the 2011 Bangkok flood had some unintended consequences, triggering regional impacts on manufacturing supply chains in South-east and East Asia.

Western Digital produces a quarter of the world’s computer hard drives. When their offices and facilities in Thailand were flooded, it took a year to resume production to pre-flood levels. This greatly disrupted computer manufacturers’ supply chains. Most of the suppliers affected by the Thailand floods were SMEs that lacked flood resilience measures. Even SMEs that had contingency plans and alternative premises to relocate their stock or plant, had sensitive equipment and supplies at ground-level. Few had relevant insurance cover. Those without access to capital or recovery loans were unable to resume services.