The Calm Before the Storm: Design for Disaster, from Resilience to Emergency

The world is facing unprecedented environmental disasters. Design can play a precious role in their management.

Credits: Nathaniel Tetteh on Unsplash.

Climate change has a knock-on effect on climatic disasters. Climatic disasters are direct side effects of the Anthropocene on air, water, and soil. As highlighted by recent scientific reports, they are increasing both in quantity and severity. By now, they will be regular troublemakers, presenting the world with crucial challenges to address.

The situation is increasingly concerning. One could argue that humankind is now readier than ever to face it, thanks to technological and scientific progress. But at the same time, the impact of climate change varies from a country to another. There is a strong inequality in how prepared they are to face climatic disasters. Indeed, less developed countries face a double sentence:

Yet, even the richest countries are under threat. Los Angeles, Shangaï, or Tokyo are some of the cities the most threatened by natural disasters. Canada is facing dramatic heat waves, and the Miami-Dade county elected the first-ever “chief heat officer”. These signals confirm that the challenge is worldwide. It will require efforts at a global and local scale.

Design has a role to play in the management of environmental disasters. It can make the difference between life and death, as illustrated by the following examples.

Before the disaster: foresee and prepare

A time-stretched period exists “before the disaster” whose potential is to anticipate. It allows us to prepare for what is ahead and, sometimes, avoid it. Often, initiatives blossom from the lessons learned from past disasters. They contribute to being more ready for the next one. Solutions deployed in this period of time have the ambition to be sustainable and last long.

Prevent rather than cure: when data & algorithms can save lives

In the past decades, ICT and IoT facilities have expanded. This allows for the deployment of beacons that detect natural disasters. When coupled with algorithms, such systems can foresee what might turn into a flood or a forest fire. Over the years, the patterns are refined, allowing for greater forecasts accuracy.

The reed bends but does not break: disaster-resilient architecture and urban planning.

Statistically, some unforeseen climatic events are unavoidable. Solutions are developed to minimize their impact or even benefit from them. Initiatives alike are often implemented by local governments or NGOs. However, they are sometimes the fruit of the ad-hoc citizen co-creation process.

When disaster strikes: coordinate and rescue

Often, disaster cannot be avoided and strikes. First things first: saving lives requires coordination, rapidity, and reliability. The solutions at hand must be efficient and straightforward at the potential expense of sustainability.

SOS: coordinate in a state of emergency

In times of emergency, information and coordination work hand in hand. Knowing exactly where to go and how to get there or notify your location can make a difference. A well-thought Design can multiply one’s chances of making it out alive through efficient public signage, self-powered emergency phone cabins, or user-generated maps, per example.

Straight to the point: Design for rescue

Design has a role to play in thinking efficient, reliable, and fast solutions for rescue operations. Whether you can or cannot open a fire extinguisher in a matter of seconds can change everything. These solutions have to be ready to use straight out of the box, whether they are designed for professionals or not.

“Past forward”: towards more resilience and more readiness

The “old world” and its infrastructure haven’t been built with contemporary environmental challenges in mind. Humankind has abstracted itself from its natural habitat to be less vulnerable. But in doing so, it has built a world that has no slack for natural disasters.

But farther in history, civilizations tried to make the most out of natural events rather than prevent them. A good example is the floods of the Nile back in the Antiquity. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that “Egypt was the gift of the Nile”. Because the river overflowed its banks annually, the surrounding land was very fertile. It allowed for the wonderful economic prosperity of the Egyptian civilization. Examples of resourcefulness alike exist in different civilizations, in different times.

This mindset can be brought back from the nights of time. In an era where resources will be scarcer, and any natural event could be benefitted from. A disaster could be turned into an opportunity. And Design could play a role in this shift.

For more design initiatives that engage in a more inclusive, equal, peaceful, safer, and healthier future, check out our radar!

PS. Here, we didn’t talk about what happens after a disaster, because it depends on a combination of factors. The situation can be very different from a disaster to another. It encompasses a lot of other subtopics to which other articles will be dedicated.




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Pierre-Xavier Puissant

Pierre-Xavier Puissant

Currently Design Researcher @ College of Humanities, EPFL, Lausanne.

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