Design and the future of disaster relief

First published in Blueprint, January 2016
Associated Categories Design Tags: , ,
Disaster relief

I believe in man-made climate change. Yet with or without it, the world needs more growth, not less, if it’s to prevent extreme weather or man-made chaos bringing disaster. The same holds for design after a disaster has struck. We need an approach that’s practical, not preachy.

Attributing particular bits of weather to human agency and much longer-term trends in climate is a mistake. As University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke, Jr, points out in his excellent handbook The rightful place of science: disasters and climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines climate change as shifts in the mean and variability of climate that persist for decades or longer. Climate change can no more cause a particular weather incident than a cricketer’s batting average can cause him to hit a six.

No doubt information designers, along with lawyers, insurers and consultants in energy and engineering, will go on wanting to attribute heat-waves, heavy rain, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and droughts to human malfeasance. Many professional forces, after all, hope to see the developing world ‘gain access to new international climate adaptation funds’, as Kings College London professor Michael Hulme puts it. Designers would do best to forget this boondoggle.

Instead, in preventive mode, they should uphold stronger buildings, the best carbon steel, advanced emergency warning systems (EWS) and more road networks to help people leave coastal regions. Old-fashioned engineering, not trendy ‘awareness’ of The Coming Flood, should be their guide.

Don’t just take that from me. In a 6000-page report, no less a body than the US Army Corps of Engineers admitted ‘catastrophic failure’ in the design and quality of the levees it built to protect New Orleans from floods such as those that devastated the city after Hurricane Katrina (2005). Climate change exists, but it wasn’t climate change that wrought havoc in New Orleans.

It’s time to get as serious about engineering after a disaster as before one. Here are some key technologies that, though they might be abused by military interests or simply hacked, still hold promise for disaster relief.

3D printing of shelters on site

One of the many problems with shelter in disasters is getting it delivered. 3D printing could help here, as well as with the making of complex medical and prosthetic devices. Of course, printers will need to work fast, cheaply and with local materials – quite a tall order. In the meantime IKEA has started shipping more conventional flat pack shelters, which it claims can be assembled in four hours.


At the Flying Machine Arena in Zurich, Switzerland, three quadcopter drones equipped with 120m of high strength-to-weight plastic fibre have been programmed to build an 8m rope bridge without human intervention. It’s a small beginning; but certainly drones will be used to form temporary communications networks in the wake of disasters, and to drop small but critical relief items such as medicines or food. Already Canada’s GlobalMedic, an NGO, has used drones to survey disaster sites in the Philippines in 2014 and Nepal in 2015. Now Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency is about to use 1m long, 3.5kg drones for reconnaissance and mapping after disasters such as tsunamis.


Since 2013, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has sponsored annual contests to develop robots for disaster relief. To get some of DARPA’s $3.5m prize money, a robot’s designers have to make it drive a car and get out of one, open and walk through a door, locate and close a valve, cut through a wall and cross land strewn with debris. The robot also has to be able to work on its own, if, despite the coming of drones, communications networks remain down.

In seriously unsafe buildings, robots could go boring, tunneling or underwater, should those buildings become unsafe. Robots could also help with some emergency healthcare, operated on site or remotely.


Pictures of missing relatives are critical after air disasters, and were a prominent feature of the aftermath of the catastrophic Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in 2015. The way forward? Kiosks through which survivors can search the Web for pictures of loved ones, print them out, and so reconnect with them. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies believes that if such kiosks were made biometric, that could also help people retrieve lost documentation – important if, after a disaster, you want to prove your identity and access assistance.

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