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Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos Pictures / Department for International Development

Chapter 8.1 Communities and technology: choice and innovation

Introduction

Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos Pictures / Department for International Development

Technology is more than construction, equipment, machinery and other forms of hardware and software. It is a combination of materials, tools and equipment, knowledge and skills, organisation and products. DRR planners and project managers have a wide range of technology choices on offer to apply to different aspects of the disaster problem. One of the main areas of technological intervention has traditionally been through structural engineering to control hazards, protect facilities and provide places of safety at times of disaster. More recently, innovations in technical products, processes and services have greatly improved capacity to identify the location and probability of hazard threats, assess risk and vulnerability, provide long- and short-term forecasts of hazard events and estimates of their probable impacts, transmit warnings of impending disasters to populations at risk, assess disaster damage and needs and coordinate emergency response. Many organisations are exploring and developing the considerable potential of internet, mobile telephone and social media technologies as data-gathering, communications and coordination tools.

Box 8.1 Choosing technologies for community resilience-building

A simple framework can be used to weigh up a technology’s risks/costs against its opportunities/benefits, with regard to five key issues:

  • Social: will the technology affect women differently from men? Is it acceptable and accessible to all social groups (religious, caste, age, etc.)?
  • Technical: do people have the knowledge or skills to use and maintain the technology
  • Environmental: is the technology likely to benefit or damage the environment, considering both the short and long term?
  • Economic: are there market opportunities? Is the technology affordable to those who need it most?
  • Institutional: how will the technology be managed to ensure long-term sustainable use? Who has overall control of the technology?
K. Pasteur, From Vulnerability to Resilience: A Framework for Analysis and Action To Build Community Resilience (Rugby: Practical Action Publishing), http://practicalaction.org/media/view/9654, pp. 38–39.

Technology is constantly changing, adjusting to new ideas and skills and to socio-economic pressures. These forces can bring about improvements, and generally do, but the results of change are not necessarily positive. For example, in many parts of the world traditional house-building styles, some of which have been developed over time to provide resilience to known hazards such as earthquakes and cyclones, are increasingly being replaced by modern buildings. The latter may be designed to be more resilient and use more resilient materials, but in practice, like any house, the quality depends on the skills and conscientiousness of the builders who work with them. Where builders are not adequately trained in the use of new construction methods, or build awkward hybrid structures comprising both traditional and modern techniques, there is a strong likelihood that those buildings will fail under stress.

Other factors can undermine advanced technology. For example, many modern apartment blocks and commercial premises have collapsed during recent earthquakes. Construction methods and building standards should have been sufficient to ensure that they did not fail, but, crucially, standards and regulations were not enforced. Where demographic and economic pressures are intense, and government mechanisms weak, regulatory systems may prove inadequate. Technological failures due to weaknesses in design or maintenance can be another major contributor to disasters: examples include the failure of flood defences in the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans in 2005 and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant crisis following the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

Just because a technology is effective in reducing risk does not mean it will be adopted by households and communities, or even that it is suitable for every household, since each has its own needs and priorities. Moreover, technology diffusion does not happen automatically. Technologies of all kinds must be promoted and their users must have the necessary resources to obtain them, and the skills to utilise them. Access to technology can be encouraged in different ways, including giving training to communities and local extension workers, sharing information or collaborating with other organisations engaged in scientific and technological work, and improving people’s own capacities to innovate and adapt technologies in a changing environment.