According to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), more than 18,000 mass disasters—including earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, cyclones, ﬂoods, and droughts as well as industrial and technical accidents—have rocked civilizations since 1900. This ﬁgure does not include wars and conﬂict or the many small-scale disasters, such as house ﬁres, that the Red Cross estimates affect about 60,000 households per year in the US alone. Disasters are expensive; the UN and CRED estimate natural disasters have caused nearly $3 trillion in damages over the last twenty years. Disasters also often lead to long-term environmental damage, such as toxic spills, nuclear accidents, or leftover landmines, that make it impossible for citizens to live, work, or farm in the area.
The disaster resilience GGC is closely linked to the governance and security GGCs as well as the food, water, health, prosperity, learning, and environment challenges. Exponential technologies are playing an important role in preventing, preparing for, and responding to disasters. The digitization of the architecture, engineering, construction, real estate, and urban planning industries is helping us design more disaster-resilient cities—constructing new homes and buildings and replacing old infrastructure, including bridges, dams, roads, locks, and ports. These innovations include new types of construction materials and building equipment, software solutions that allow communities to rebuild safely and quickly, and predictive power about what types of disasters communities may be vulnerable to.
Low-cost sensors are also helping people predict impending disasters. These include early warning devices for earthquakes and tsunamis as well as sensors that detect air and water pollution or terrorist attacks. These sensors can be placed in many locations, including cell phones, city walls, poles, and posts, and can also be combined with satellite data. One interesting example is Mexico City-based SkyAlert, an app that provides earthquake warnings to millions of people and connects with smart home devices to shut off gas and alert people through lights and speakers as soon as disaster strikes. Researchers at Japan’s Tohoku University are even exploring ways quantum computers can quickly predict evacuation routes during a tsunami. Also, once a disaster has happened, sensors on satellites, drones, and robots can help assess situations and relay information to ﬁrst responders.
First responders are also using exponential technologies in new ways. Virtual and augmented reality can make rescue workers more effective during disaster responses. More than familiarizing responders with an area, exponential tech can address challenging issues at the heart of the work. For example, the International Committee of the Red Cross has created a virtual reality training in Bangkok, Thailand that helps prepare workers for dealing with dead bodies and other potentially traumatic experiences. In addition, the XPRIZE Foundation and California Governor Gavin Newsom have announced they are working on a new incentive challenge to ﬁgure out how to autonomously and quickly detect and extinguish wildﬁres. These systems are not only more efficient and effective, but they do not risk human lives.
While exponential technologies can play an important role in improving prevention, prediction, and response to disasters, they can also increase the severity of certain human-made disasters. For example, as knowledge and tools in science and engineering become democratized and scale through exponential technologies, opportunities arise for individuals or small groups of people to create or threaten a bioterrorism attack or nuclear attack, which could cause widespread damage or panic. Therefore, it is just as important to address misuse of exponential technologies as using them to create solutions.
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