A panel discussion on design for disaster Matt 08 Sep 2005

19 comments Latest by Dan Boland

“Can Design Prepare for Disaster?” is a panel discussion with seven designers about how design fits into discussions of terrorism, subway safety, national identity cards, cataclysmic storms, and survivalism.

Michael Rakowitz, artist, on car safety in the 70’s:

In Victor Papanek’s “Design for the Real World,” there’s a great anecdote about car safety in the 1970’s, which was totally ignored by Detroit-based companies for a while. In order to raise visibility of the fact that bumper design was not going to cause an increase of, like, $500 per car if they went ahead and did a better bumper, he sandwiched together beer cans and two shelves and drove it into the Senate building to show that you can make this bumper out of makeshift materials. And that raised a kind of public discussion about design.

Masamichi Udagawa, partner, Antenna Design, on the power of artifacts:

A designer can take two hats. One as a professional problem solver, but we can step out of our profession and put on another hat, which is concerned citizen, and use our knowledge and skills for whatever the cause. However, the dangerous thing about that approach - the artistic approach, provocation - is that the alarmist voice will fade very quickly. If you just keep saying one thing over and over, then nobody will listen to you. I think the designer’s power is through the artifact. We can change - maybe it’s subtle change - but we can change people’s attitude and we can influence how they conduct their daily lives, maybe bit by bit, without resorting to the alarmist approach.

19 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Darrel 08 Sep 05

Can design prepare for disaster? What kind of question is that?

I think the better question is ‘Can americans invest in better design instead of going with short-term financial gain thinking?’

KirinDave 08 Sep 05


When you rephrase it that way, you make it sound so bleak. American society doesn’t usually reward companies for being “safer.” They often reward companies for “making us feel safe.” Sadly, the two don’t always overlap.

Darrel 08 Sep 05


I agree.

There was an interview on NPR a day or two ago with some leader in the netherlands. He was saying that we simply need to invest in protecting our coastline. The interviewer said ‘but wouldn’t that cost a lot of money’.

And that seems to be our stock answer to everything.

Better fuel efficiency? But wouldn’t that cost a lot of money?

Better mass transit? But wouldn’t that cost a lot of money?

Reducing Green House Gasses? But wouldn’t that cost a lot of money?

Better Health Care system? But wouldn’t that cost a lot of money?

Not supportin Wal-Mart? But wouldn’t that cost a lot of money?

KirinDave 08 Sep 05


At least the fuel economy issue is solving itself. It costs more money to have poor fuel economy now. :) Hybrids are in such high demand that you have to go on a waiting list to buy a Toyota Prius.

Ian 08 Sep 05

I think most companies err on the side of caution and using good design to try to prevent disasters. A tort lawsuit is just too costly.

I think market forces are working in our favor in this age. There are other factors at work besides the price tag preventing us in the US from having universal health care, low pollution, and good mass transit.

ek 08 Sep 05

American society doesn�t usually reward companies for being �safer.� They often reward companies for �making us feel safe.� Sadly, the two don�t always overlap.

That is a terrifically astute observation KirinDave. One of the attributes that has undeniably driven the surge in SUV sales in recent years is the perception of safety, this even though data acknowledged by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (the big auto lobby that represents all of the major manufacturers save Honda) shows that SUV occupants are actually more likely to die when involved in an accident than are car occupants.

This data is publicly available and, as noted above, not disputed by the car lobby and yet otherwise intelligent people continue to buy SUVs based on the baseless belief that they’re safer. And there’s a despicable logic at work here as the underlying thinking of an SUV buyer is that my family and I will will fare better in an accident because we’re in a bigger, heavier vehicle — tough luck for anyone I happen to hit.

Data collected by the government shows that this part of the equation is chillingly accurate: In collisions with other vehicles SUVs are nearly three times more likely to kill other drivers than are cars. So, not only do SUVs kill more of their own occupants, they kill far more of the poor saps unlucky enough to get in the way of their drivers.

Clearly there is a disconnect between the reality of SUV’s safety and the perception.

The interviewer said “but wouldn�t that cost a lot of money” … And that seems to be our stock answer to everything.

I’m pretty sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but the frustrating thing about this, Darrel, is that the full question that the interviewer asked should have been “but wouldn’t that cost a lot of money in the short term?”

Certainly, hindsight is 20/20, but there’s no question that the cost to shore up the levies to be able to withstand category 4 or 5 hurricanes would have been a tiny fraction of the total cost of the Katrina relief, recovery and rebuilding efforts in New Orleans alone.

Same goes for all of the other points you brought up: We can put down a sizable, but absorbable investment now or pay an enormous penalty later. We’re constantly shown the perils of ignoring this reality, but we keep on repeating the same mistake.

And I don’t blame the government for this ’ the fault ultimately lies with us, the American people. We are reaping the bitter harvest of our own greed and shortsightedness. In clinging to the conviction that the private interest trumps all, we’re failing ourselves as a society and, while the pain had been largely limited to the poor up till now, it’s slowly creeping up to the middle classes.

Will we wake up to the futility of the course we’ve set before we’re struck by a catastrophe of existential proportions? I’m not very optimistic about our chances.

I think most companies err on the side of caution and using good design to try to prevent disasters. A tort lawsuit is just too costly.

Ian, I think this sort of thinking leads to safe designs, not good designs. That’s why most companies’ designs are deathly dull.

A lot of people were frustrated with the current disaster response including the limitations of technology the way it is designed today and are looking at ways to better prepare for next time.

Nollind, I think part of the problem is our over-reliance on technology. No amount of technology can make up for a lack of planning or a non-existant command-and-control structure.

We love technology because it makes everything seem so easy, but, as in Iraq, when the shit hits the fan, it all comes down to planning, logistics and the sweat and effort of a lot of human beings on the ground.

Nollind Whachell 08 Sep 05

Actually ek, I’m one of the people who doesn’t toot the technology horn. And that’s why more than anything this Recovery 2.0 project was started. Everybody keeps saying how great technology is and how it makes the world better and everything with our 100” Plasma TV screens and everything. It’s a load of crap. A lot of people in the technology community felt utterly helpless and frustrated because they couldn’t do anything to directly aid in the disaster. That’s why this project is underway. The next time this happens, we want to be sure a communication and information infrastructure is in place to keep the critical data flowing.

As for a lack of planning, well uh that’s why their being proactive and working on it now so that they won’t be unprepared next time. :)

As for a non-existant command-and-control structure, that is exactly what we DO want in this project. Centralized command and control operations slow down things and can cost lives as we’ve already seen. Instead efforts will be to decentralize the work and information load but still be connected and collaborating with one another.

As for Iraq, are you seriously telling me that technology wasn’t used there? Hmm, maybe I’m using the terminology here. I’m talking about gathering information and intelligence via technology. To gather that information and intelligence, a “technological” information infrastructure needs to be in place. The faster you can get the information, the more useful it becomes. It’s no different in the army. Actually speak of the army, I’m sure you’ve heard of the slogan Army of One. It’s the same principal of working in smaller faster groups to react to a situation more immediately. The Army even knows it which is why they are changing their faster strike forces to this type of warfare structure.

ek 09 Sep 05

Re: the Iraq thing, I think you missed my point. I think part of the reason why things are so f*cked up over there is that we went in thinking that we could control the country using lots of technology and fewer troops in an application of Rumsfeld’s “transformation” ideology.

The results thus far seem to indicate that tech goes only so far and, ultimately, we need a lot more people on the ground to get the job done.

What I don’t like about this Recovery 2.0 concept is that it seems to suffer from the same fundamental problem as Rumsfeld’s “vision.” The main page of the site cites the goal of the project as being to be ready for the next disaster so people can better use the internet — via any device — to better share information, report and act on calls for help, coordinate relief, etc.

Seems to be putting the technology cart before the crisis horse. If you go into this re-evaluation thinking only in terms of the Internet, you’re going to end up with a fundamentally flawed plan.

In short, technology is not the answer.

Nollind Whachell 09 Sep 05

ek, I really think we are arguing on the same side here. You are right, technology is not the ONLY answer. It is one piece of the puzzle that those people are familiar with that can still help though. I mean are you saying that we should just throw our hands up in the air and say, “Screw this! Forget using technology to help people.”

Yes, people should always be the focal point but they should be using every tool within their means to empower themselves to be able to do more. Again I really think it is a terminology difference that we’re having here. I mean technology implies many things. If you are saying “technology is not the answer” that is a pretty broad statement. That’s like telling the entire army to not use radio communications, rapid transport, and only knives for combat. Technology is utilized in everything we do in our daily lives. Technology is not just a computer and the Internet.

Here’s another example. I agree with you about technology in the sense that what makes the Web so great isn’t the technology but what people are able to do with it. In other words, it isn’t about the technology that is used but the people that use it. I’m a firm believer in that. I myself am more of an idea person than a technology person. Why? Because technology is always changing as it’s just a tool that we implement our ideas with.

Finally with your comment on Iraq, you’re absolutely right. Technology isn’t solving the problem. People still need the brains and plans to figure out what to do with that technology. Without the brains and plans, those tools, the technology, are useless. But that’s why I disagree with your statement that “technology is not the answer” because technology is still a useful tool for people to use. If you had said, “Technology doesn’t save people, people save people” I would have agreed with you wholeheartedly though. The people are still the driving force in making things happen.

Nollind Whachell 09 Sep 05

Sorry, one more thing. Matt if you’re reading this, I just want to say that I am happy about one thing. I’m glad you guys cared enough to post this Katrina-related stuff on your website. There are a lot of companies who haven’t put up a single blurb relating to the disaster whatsoever. I’m assuming because they don’t want to get into heated discussions like the ones that we are having and thus have it negatively linked back to their company in any way. Kudos to you guys for being a group of people with a company instead of a company with a group of people.

ek 09 Sep 05

Nollind, I’m not quite sure how you got from “technology is not the answer” to “Screw this! Forget using technology to help people” — are you trying to revive Crossfire?

I’d restate my point again, but, at this point, I think the horse has been beaten enough.

As you said, I think we’re pretty much on the same side here … I think.

Benjy 09 Sep 05

Darrel, I heard that interview, too. I remember him saying that Holland built its levee system to withstand the once-every-10,000 year storm, while the system around New Orleans is built for the once-every-century storm. While it would have cost billions to build to the scale that Holland did, the Dutch official said it’d have been peanuts compared to Katrina’s costs. And would probabaly have saved more lives than the billions spent in Iraq “fighting terror”…

Darrel 09 Sep 05

And would probabaly have saved more lives than the billions spent in Iraq �fighting terror��

Damn those Europeans and their sensible perspectives on things!

Exhausted - Regarding Darrel and Kirin 09 Sep 05

“But wouldn�t that cost a lot of money?” is an entirely legitimate question. You can pound your fist on the pulpit as loudly as you want with proclamations of our “having” to “do better” or that we “must” do this or that, but these things have real costs requiring real funds, and simply continuing to raise taxes to cover them is not a legitimate option - even if you’re so short-sided as to believe that as long as we just tax “the rich” then at least it won’t come out of your pocket. There still isn’t enough money out there to do everything. The fact is, we have finite resources, and as such, the only thing we “must” do is make difficult choices. Attending to this disaster will certainly cost a lot, but securing the entire nation against future disasters, wherever they might appear, would cost infinitely more.

Brian 09 Sep 05

To the people who endlessly complain that the government hasn’t solved every outstanding problem in zero-time, there is nothing that prevents you from increasing your personal taxation rate on your 1040 to 50, 60, 70%. If you want more things done faster, simply donate more money to the cause!

You simply can’t have everything. Even the giant budget requested to solve the levee problem in LA was a 10-15 year restoration project. Had the Bush administration given them exactly what they want, this disaster would have still occurred in the exact same way.

Those people who want it all have never managed anything or anyone.

ek 09 Sep 05

Exhausted, you seem to be making Darrel and Kirin’s points for them.

As you said, we have finite resources. Let’s guesstimate that building the levies to withstand a category 5 hurricane plus investing in the renewal of the wetlands around New Orleans cost $5 billion, which is, I believe, well over the estimates, but a nice, round number.

Now, let’s look at the cost of the immediate recovery efforts alone, which are estimated at $100 billion on the low end. And those are just the initial costs — that estimate doesn’t include the astronomic costs of rebuilding the city, which I’m sure the federal government will end up picking up a fair portion of.

Then, tack onto that the cost of rebuilding the levies to withstand a category 5 hurricane and renewing the wetlands because you can be damn well sure that it’s going to be demanded that that be done if the city is indeed to be rebuilt.

So, you end up with the total cost of the original project plus, say, $150 billion or so added on top.

Where do you think that money is going to come from?

And you said that we must make difficult choices. Seems to me that politicians at all levels (at the behest of their constituents) have neglected again and again to actually make these difficult choices. They defer and defer and defer, asking for study after study after study and, in the meantime, money that could go towards these types of projects is funneled into tax breaks for sports teams, real estate developers, large corporations, et al.

I guess to me, the decision doesn’t seem a difficult one at all. Spend $5 billion now, or $100+ billion later (and they had a very good idea of what the recovery costs would be based on the years of simulations and studies done on the situation). And that’s not even considering the impact in lives or to the economy as a whole.

Anonymous Coward 09 Sep 05

I guess to me, the decision doesn�t seem a difficult one at all. Spend $5 billion now, or $100+ billion later

ek, you’re missing the big picture (which you keep asking us to keep in mind). How many projects could we be spending $5bil on? Probably hundreds and hundreds. There are plenty of communities that need massive infrastructure upgrades, new highway systems, new bridges, etc. I’m sure you can find 5 “must have” $5bil projects per state if you tried.

So, it’s a matter of risk analysis. NOLAs levees never broke before. NOLA was never hit this hard before. Sure, it could happen, but there’s a lot that could happen and there’s a lot of states that could use $5bil for their own “must have for the benefit of all our citizen” projects.

Dan Boland 10 Sep 05

There are plenty of communities that need massive infrastructure upgrades, new highway systems, new bridges, etc. I�m sure you can find 5 �must have� $5bil projects per state if you tried.

Yeah, but I would put “rebuilding levees that will prevent the destruction of an entire city and major seaport” in a higher priority than any other projects.