March 11’2011 – it was the first year anniversary of the disastrous tsunami that devastated Hitoshi Abe’s home-town, Sendai in Japan. The award-winning architect, chairing the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, sifted the heart-rending scene for valuable learnings on designing for disasters and human behavior brought out under the circumstances, for the benefit of humanity at large.
Here is an interesting extract from a Q & A interview of Hitoshi Abe by Reena Jana for Smart Planet:
SmartPlanet: The devastating events of March 2011 prompted Japanese architects, engineers, and designers — and those around the world — to rethink how to react to damage from earthquakes and tsunamis. In the last year, what have you learned and observed in this area of design?
Hitoshi Abe: I have learned that modern technology has really helped to expand the current environment we live in. For example, the man-made structures on the coastline like the fishing villages and the ports themselves are the cornerstone of numerous industries of the Tohoku region. Without these structures, it would be difficult to sustain those industries. However, I also learned that there are limitations, and we should not be overly confident about these modern systems.
It has become extremely clear that we have to “negotiate” with nature, and we need to set the right boundary between nature and any man-made environments. Furthermore, these boundaries must be more flexible. In other words, we should not try to work against nature, but what we need to do is create a new type of community and urban design that will make the area more disaster resilient. Of course, it’s not efficient to make every structure tsunami-proof because it’s not economically feasible. But what we can do to minimize future damage is to understand these boundaries — there needs to be certain areas where man-made structures should not be built and areas where the structures are more resilient to natural disasters. An investment into these types of structures is crucial. But in order to make this truly work, we need to be creative and figure out where this interesting, flexible boundary is, so when disaster strikes again, these structurally resilient buildings will be safe and the tsunami will have a natural path where it can come through.
SmartPlanet: The photos from “Moving Forward” show everyday citizens acting as rescuers, in essence “designing” solutions for transporting people or coping with devastation after a natural disaster. How have these photos inspired you as a designer?
Hitoshi Abe: What I realized is that most people in this day are extremely dependent on large systems to sustain our daily lives. These large systems include anything from the government, food supply, police, hospitals, etc. When such a large disaster strikes, the entire infrastructure is affected, or worse, it comes to a complete halt. This has happened in the Tohoku area. The large system could not sustain the new environment, and it became very fragmented. The system that had made all our lives more efficient no longer worked.
The TV reports and news have shown that many Japanese people had to wait in very long lines to get gasoline, food, and shelter, but what was so memorable was how they kept their composure and maintained order in a system that has failed them. From this, a new order has been born with new laws that made the people look to each other for help and support — a new sense of order has emerged among the individuals from within, not by a force from outside of them.
This type of informal network naturally emerged in the case of the Tohoku disaster. For example, the large supermarkets could not restock their items for as long as two weeks while the local, smaller-scale shops were able to replenish their inventory because they did not rely on the “system.” The smaller shops were the ones who were able to continue to provide food for the community. Even Twitter played a huge role — during the disaster, it was difficult to find information. It was hard for individuals to find out if any shops were open for business. With a car, the journey to the store can be about 15 minutes, but without a car, it could take over an hour. Basically, if the store was closed, you would have just lost two hours of your day trying to get there. People were able to use the local network of people through Twitter to share information that the large infrastructures were unable to provide. It really helped the day to day lives of many people.
What is inspiring is that the people adapted to this new community of individuals and created their own network — a community and network that is more resilient and flexible to this type of event. It’s also more democratic. It is interesting because it clearly shows that there is a different way modern society operates, compared to the older society that has been enforced by large systems.
Hitoshi Abe makes several points of learnings. I find two of them particularly interesting, marked in italics below:
* Respect for nature’s awesome force and the futility of a head-on confrontation.
* Faith in and need for modern technology to come up with technically and economically viable solutions:
– Firstly, he points out these solutions would not be one-size-fits-all – not every structure could be made tsunami-proof.
– Next, he also talks about a ‘flexible boundary’ between man and nature that allows in some manner for nature to have its own way past the man-made structures causing none or little damage. Steam-letting by a pressure-cooker in the kitchen comes to my mind, a trivially simplified analogy.
* The most impressive display of equanimity by the common folks and the effectiveness of informal networks forged instantaneously to help each other. What would communities in other cultures do in times of a disaster? Difficult to say. While on this point, hot off the press is an article from Sweden that analyses survival chances of women and children in maritime disasters and if social norms hold up in these events (See Source below).
* To me the most interesting and scary observation that he makes is on our enormous dependency on large infrastructure systems in our lives. And, these systems that spelt efficiency and economy on a normal day are very failure-prone under adverse conditions, with their numerous points of vulnerabilities. A subject dealt with in many movies with end-of-the-world themes where the daring protagonist restores normalcy somehow in the end. Immense forces of nature do not play to such scripts. In sharp contrast, note the success of local solutions in these times.
The failure-proneness of large infrastructural systems is intuitively obvious owing to a) the large number of components required to work together and b) geographic dispersion and the consequent vulnerabilities; there may even be probabilistic models already formulated in the realms of mathematics and engineering to predict the failures in such systems. Tsunami and Abe’s concerns merely dredged it up into our collective conscience.
The good news is we are able to build these systems in a way that failures at one point do not ripple outwards to cause the services to collapse all over. The bad news is as of today usually there isn’t a full-service (or thereabout) back-up from within to kick in seamlessly in the event of a failure at a point.
Local solutions provide some critically needed relief – mom-and-pop stores for provisions, gen sets, inverters and solar panels for electricity, bicycles or boats for transport, etc. However for many of them the odds of survival (or operational readiness) in peace times are stiff – the local mom-and-pop store, for instance, is pitted against the onslaught of the large-format supply-chain optimized store.
Does the solution lie in recognizing the local solutions formally for their important role, incentivizing them for their sustenance and integrating them with the large systems to kick in seamlessly (or near about) at times of need? Or, the large systems would be built with an entirely different architecture to overcome the observed weakness?
While on the subject of large infrastructure systems, other examples of large systems come to our mind, essentially made of large number of components and possibly widely dispersed geographically: community of citizens (!), galaxy in space, human body, VLSI chip, a large piece of software…What constitutes a disaster for these systems and how do they behave and even recover possibly under those conditions? Are there some useful learnings for building large infrastructural systems? Or, they – the man-made systems – too cry out for some re-architecting, suffering from the same infirmities?
Source: The article is available in full at http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/design-architecture/q-a-hitoshi-abe-on-design-lessons-from-the-great-east-japan-earthquake/4873. The paper from Sweden ‘Every Man for Himself! Gender, Norms and Survival in Maritime Disasters’ may be downloaded from http://www.ifn.se/eng/publications/wp/2012/913.
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