Emerging Technologies and Emerging Needs For Urbanised Disaster Risk Reduction

Emerging Technologies and Emerging Needs For Urbanised Disaster Risk Reduction

Natural disasters are increasing in frequency, intensity, unpredictability and economic costs. In the last few decades, 4.4 billion people have been affected and 1.3 million killed by natural disasters. Economic losses have been significant, estimated at $203 trillion USD globally (UN 2014). Developing countries have been hardest hit: in 2013, Cyclone Haiyan was the strongest storm on record to make landfall in Philippines, in 2010 Haiti suffered through one of the most devastating urban disasters, killing more than 222,500 people and in the same year, Pakistan experienced the country’s worst flooding and earthquake. Developed countries are also not immune: major urban disasters have occurred in highly developed countries including the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Super storm Sandy that battered the northeast coast of the United States in 2012.  Much the risks are occurring in these highly populated urbanised areas, reflecting a growing need to ensure cities have a central feature in resilience-building within the larger framework of disaster risk reduction (DRR).

The Big Picture: Present and Future Urban Disaster Risks

There is a clear demographic rational behind this trend: since 2005 more than half of the world’s population resides in cities, with urban populations set to double by 2050 to around 5 billion (UN 2014). On average, the rate of urbanisation in developing countries is set to be five times that of developing countries, with most of this growth occurring in resource-poor and highly fragile regions. At present one billion people (one-third) of the urban population live in slums and as much as a fifth of the urban populations in the poorest countries live in hazard-prone environments. Compounding these risks, UNHCR (2014) reported 51.2 million people have been forcibly displaced as a result of natural disasters, many of whom become vulnerable urban dwellers. Poor construction and urban planning, spread of infectious diseases, poverty and crime pose serious threats to residents living in urban areas.

 McKinsey Global Institute (2011) reports that the impending population explosion together with poor governance systems and fragile infrastructure will put even greater strain on cities capabilities to cope with disasters. Such conditions manifest into transportation gridlocks, mass shortages of food and water, growing populations living below the poverty line in slums, strain on sanitation services and the failure of public institutions to cater to growing needs.  Many megacities, especially in places such as Mumbai and Delhi in India, will require trillion dollar investment in infrastructural improvements to effectively manage population growth. 

Resilience Building for Cities

There is an immediate need to increase the capacity for resilience in megacities to contain disasters and health risks that will, without due attention, cause exponential, catastrophic impact on people’s live across the world. However, such trends are not inevitable. Establishing local, national and global discourse on resilience will put the focus on at-risk and affected communities to move attention from supply to the demand side.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent (2015) defines resilience as “people’s capacity to anticipate, prepare for, withstand and recover from a range of shocks and stresses, without compromising their long-term prospects.”

In 2011, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies commissioned a study from ARUP International Development that identified six characteristics that define a safe and resilient community:

A safe and resilient community...

1. ...is knowledgeable and healthy. It has the ability to assess, manage and monitor its risks. It can learn new skills and build on past experiences.

3. ...is connected. It has relationships with external actors (family friends, faith groups, government) who provide a wider supportive environment, and supply goods and services when needed.

4. ...has infrastructure and services. It has strong housing, transport, power, water and sanitation systems. It has the ability to maintain, repair and renovate them.

5. ...has economic opportunities. It has a diverse range of employment opportunities, income and financial services. It is flexible, resourceful and has the capacity to accept uncertainty and respond (proactively) to change.

6. ...can manage its natural assets. It recognizes their value and has the ability to protect, enhance and maintain them.

Solutions Through Next Generation Technologies

In March 2015, the Red Cross and Red Crescent released their paper A Vision for the Humanitarian Use of Emerging Technology for Emerging Needs, which was the result of  global discussions engaging local, national and international stakeholders on how to leverage emerging technologies to strengthen community resilience.

The dialogue revealed any emerging technology must posses eight of its own criteria:

A Resilience-Strengthening Technology Solution must be:

…is multi-purpose. It is relevant and useful before, during and after emer­gencies as well as in daily life.
…is human-centered. It is developed in consultation with users and de­signed to address their wants and needs. It is therefore, by default, appropri­ate for the culture and lifestyle of its users and stakeholders. It is also support­ed by robust community outreach and education, and it is easy to learn and use.
…is accessible. It is open, inclusive and increasingly affordable for consum­ers.
…is governed by trustworthy leaders, systems and policies. It has ac­cess to relevant data and responsibly manages the data it generates.
…is scalable or replicable. It grows to accommodate demand.
…is sustainable. It is reliable and permanent. It has the required financial resources to support its current use and growth, but does not compromise natural resources or the interests of future generations.
…is resilient itself. It is rugged and able to withstand weather, wear, pres­sure and damage. It is power-efficient and increasingly leverages innovative sources of energy. It is supported by a network of redundant products and services, with which it is interoperable. It leverages the Internet when available but does not rely on it.
…enhances community-level knowledge and health, connection, orga­nization, economic opportunities, access to infrastructure and ser­vices, and/or management of natural resources.

The Rockefeller Foundation (2013) states that:

“Building resilience is not the task of a single actor or a single sector. We need governments creating the right policies, plans and infrastructure investment; businesses to take on some of the risk – and through innovative financing, reap some of the rewards; communities that are flexible, responsive and robust; organizations and individuals who have the core skills required to adapt and cope – and philanthropic dollars to catalyse change”.

The UN’s Global Pulse is an initiative consisting of a network of innovation hubs where research on Big Date for Development is conceived and coordinated, in partnership with experts from the UN, governments, academia and the private sector.

Collaboration and shared value was emphasised throughout the global dialogue. In particular, the report encouraged the private sector to invest in low-resource populations upfront rather than waiting to address needs after primary markets are saturated. When technology companies and entrepreneurs partner with the humanitarian sector this can help secure community participation and scale up DRR activities through local networks.

When communities and households have access to accurate and timely information, available healthcare, social support networks and economic opportunities they will be less susceptible to hazards and recover faster from shocks and stressors (Red Cross and Red Crescent 2015).

In all, five recommendations were established from these global discussions:

Engage local community members in the design, manufacturing and introduction of new technology solutions.
Support consumer access, management and ownership of emerging technologies.
Research the impact of technology on community resilience.
Establish supportive policies, systems and guidance for the development and use of emerging technologies.
Invest first in four emerging technology use cases that address actual barriers to resilience:

Wearable devices for providing early warning, supporting search and rescue, and reconnecting families.
Unmanned aerial vehicles for temporarily restoring communications networks and delivering critical relief items, such as medicines, post-disaster.
Smart home sensor networks for sensing and reporting fires in informal settlements/slums.
Biometric scanners in ATM-like kiosks for restoring lost documentation to prove identity, access assistance and reconnect families.

Recognising the opportunities provided by next generation technologies to harness emerging technologies that people can use and adapt to strengthen their own resilience to crisis and shocks will be essential over the coming years. As Michele Lynch, lead on the global dialogue for the Red Cross, states: ‘[f]uturists and consumers agree that emerging tools like 3-D printers, augmented reality software, biometric scanners, robots, unmanned aerial vehicles and wearable devices are sparking another technology revolution…Preparing for their arrival in the marketplace will help to mitigate potential disruption and increase acceptance, demand, and usage, in everyday life and in disaster preparedness, response and rebuilding.”

While technology cannot provide all solutions to resilience building, considering that the impact of advanced technology can only be as good as the foundational systematic pieces focused on prevention, preparedness and local capacities, they do nevertheless strengthen resilience systems and empower communities by facilitating local participation, spreading lifesaving messages and expediting service delivery.  Furthermore, these technologies can help support effective measures and operations along the whole spectrum of the DRR cycle to ensure decision makers are fully equipped with the knowledge and understanding to make timely decisions and actions. In the end, when utilised responsibly and correctly, such technologies can help achieve the goals stipulated in the post-2015 framework for DRR. 

Be part of the humanitarian aid and development community!

Register now to receive AIDF's newsletter with insights into latest trends, innovations and best practice in the humanitarian and development sectors