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Design, Disasters and the Value of Thinking Big
Jamais Cascio, 8 Sep 05

As the aftermath of the December tsunami, hurricane Katrina, and countless other recent disasters demonstrates, we've done a pretty lousy job of late planning for catastrophe. Since the next major disaster to hit -- anywhere in the world, not just the US -- is likely not to be a hurricane and flood combination, we should be cautious of attempts to "learn the lessons of Katrina" that focus too closely on the kinds of responses that could have saved New Orleans, but would have little utility elsewhere. Instead, we need to be thinking about the kinds of guidelines for response that could be applied more universally -- our response capacities, if you will. And we need to be thinking carefully about making sure that as many people as possible can play a role.

Figuring out how to maximize both capability and usability is very much the role of a designer. In late December, we addressed the question of Disaster-Secure Design by discussing a handful of guiding rules that could prove useful when figuring out how to build systems for emergency response. It's worth revisiting that list, and seeing what might be added in light of this latest disaster.

The design for disaster list comprises principles from David Stephenson, Dan Bricklin, Adam Greenfield, and Bruce Sterling. The underlying notion is that we should have the tools for our own response in our hands -- not because we can never trust government officials to provide solutions, but because the people in the midst of the emergency can be in the best position for determining the nature of the problem, and can be in the best position to respond quickly. Disaster-secure design is meant to augment existing resources, not substitute for them.

Good disaster design should, in my view (derived from the Disaster-Secure Design list):

  • Be decentralized, and thereby less likely to be rendered inoperative by damage to a centralized facilities, etc.
  • Be in the hands of the general public, so as to leverage technology that is already in use and that people are likely to have with them when disaster strikes, so they can get up-to-the minute information.
  • Be two-way, so that the general public and/or responders who may be the first to come upon an emerging problem can feed information back to authorities.
  • Be redundant, because various technologies have distinctive strengths and liabilities that may render them unusable, or, make them crucial fall-back options.
  • Allow dissemination of information in advance, so they can be quickly activated and/or customized in an emergency (instead of requiring massive data-dumps in the midst of a crisis).
  • Foster collaboration, because multiple agencies and jurisdictions may be involved and will need to share information from a wide range of sources on a real-time basis.
  • Be transparent, so as to determine when changes are needed and that undesired functions are not being performed.
  • Default to harmlessness, so that when systems fail (and they will), they can fail gracefully, in a way which does not itself make problems worse.
  • Be usable by the old and infirm, as the median age is advancing steadily around the world, and the senior members of society have their own ergonomics and anthropometrics.
  • And, of course, the key WorldChanging design value:
  • Make the Invisible Visible, so as to give people a chance to see danger before its too late, whether water-born pathogens, leaks of toxic chemicals, or overcrowded evacuation centers.
  • Too few of these principles were met by the initial Katrina response. The next time we (the global we) are hit by a disaster of a similar scale, we must be better prepared. The above list can be a starting point for figuring out what preparation entails.

    The idea of using design thinking as a way of grappling with disaster is not unique to WorldChanging or its allies. Today's New York Times has a good (but all-too-brief) piece interviewing a group of designers on the question of design as a means of preparing for catastrophe. The designers in the discussion recognize the problem of focusing too strongly upon a single type of disaster:

    Rob Rogers, partner, Rogers Marvel Architects: When we started dealing with security architecture, we met with this very interesting guy from FEMA who comes in and does analysis after hurricanes, after earthquakes. And he talks about an awareness window of about three years, where, after a catastrophic event, new buildings will respond to whatever the last disaster was, whether it was a hurricane or an earthquake or a terrorist event. And then it just begins to kind of drift because it's nobody's favorite topic. And it begins to slip away.

    So it's very episodic and really based on what happened last time, not necessarily what is the most likely event to take place.

    Masamichi Udagawa, partner, Antenna Design: In the 50's, I think Japan, Tokyo included, got hit by a few really big typhoons and the city got flooded. I remember seeing a picture from back then, a little boat hanging from the bottom of the roof, preparing for yet another typhoon hitting Tokyo. But nowadays nobody thinks about a typhoon in Tokyo. They all think about earthquakes; just like you mentioned, people respond to what happened last time.

    Awareness window -- the period during which people pay attention, but too often narrowly focused upon a particular type of problem.

    Designing for disaster means being able to persist beyond this awareness window.

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    Comments

    This is great. I agree with all of these points. To use a military analogy, the generals are always fighting the last war.

    Overlearning is a big problem, especially when it comes to context specific things. However there is a big qualification to this. Preparing for and dealing with disasters do have some common characteristics. What matters more is the process and approach to learning and thinking about these than a particular plan. For instance in our scenario work, there are many examples where people prepared for a particular disruption or disaster, and this preparation also enabled them to better handle, in terms of systems and psychology, other disasters that they were not anticipating.

    As I've been told, the stuff we did with Manhattan based companies before 9/11 made them much better prepared to handle the total surprise that occurred. Computer systems were decentralized, certain staff were located elsewhere, they had well honed procedures for getting people out etc.


    Posted by: Nicole Boyer on 9 Sep 05

    i think I'm going to end up posting on everything on worldchanging eventually. anyway, something that occured to me, taken this comment:

    # Be decentralized, and thereby less likely to be rendered inoperative by damage to a centralized facilities, etc.
    # Be in the hands of the general public, so as to leverage technology that is already in use and that people are likely to have with them when disaster strikes, so they can get up-to-the minute information.
    # Be two-way, so that the general public and/or responders who may be the first to come upon an emerging problem can feed information back to authorities.
    # Be redundant, because various technologies have distinctive strengths and liabilities that may render them unusable, or, make them crucial fall-back options.
    # Allow dissemination of information in advance, so they can be quickly activated and/or customized in an emergency (instead of requiring massive data-dumps in the midst of a crisis).
    # Foster collaboration, because multiple agencies and jurisdictions may be involved and will need to share information from a wide range of sources on a real-time basis.
    # Be transparent, so as to determine when changes are needed and that undesired functions are not being performed.


    Obviously software and the internet is going to play a big part in this type of organization, but having just spent the last hour trying to install twiki (got it kinda running, but my web host requires me to put .htaccess files everywhere to let everything run) is that we might need to consider making open standards for emergency networking or CMS software that are easily deloyable. Taken that previous post on people finder tech people are already thinking along these lines, but we need a quick easy to install wiki, database, WAP compatible, piece of software that can be customized and deployed in mere minutes that can be managed remotely and also can deploy information not just on the net but also on radio and cell phone. this isn't terribly hard these days, a wap gateway for your server can be installed and set in minutes with one cell and a usb cable, radios are cheap these days too. GNU and others could easily piece this together and deploy it in multiple languages. BTW the katrina log or something like that is searching for a way to easily categorize blog posts about nola by neighborhood.

    peace,
    A


    Posted by: andrew jones on 9 Sep 05



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