“Being an engineer called Jo da Silva, people often expect a Brazilian man!”

It’s OK Jo, we didn’t.

Jo is becoming something of a celebrity in the urban development community, and her CV is impressive. She founded Arup’s International Development business, a not-for-profit arm of the Arup Group, and has worked in many post-disaster contexts; including the Rwandan Genocide, Hurricane Mitch, and the Indian Ocean Tsunami.  She is also the first female ever to deliver the famous Brunel Lecture, which spawned the LSE Cities Group talk I attended last week.

In the context of natural disasters, many of us hold the unfounded perception that cities are the safest places of all. There is also a common misconception that engineers are invincible, that somehow they can build barriers against nature. Jo suggests a real need to adopt “a new culture of safety”, whereby the concept of failure is understood as an unavoidable uncertainty, quantified and mitigated.

Earthquakes represent 60% of all disaster deaths, and these are exacerbated by the built environment. Particularly hard to fathom is that there is still no seismic planning within the Indonesian post-tsunami re-build scheme! Mostly due to the lack of communication between architects and engineers, this factor has been entirely overlooked, which really emphasises the importance of interdisciplinary exchange in the post-disaster environment.

Here in the Science Policy Centre, we have recently been viewing natural disasters through a greeny blue lens (our new project, Human Resilience to Climate Change – is broadly focusing on ecosystem based approaches to reducing disaster risks). It was therefore fascinating to hear about improving disaster resilience by altering and improving the built environment; and that most disaster related deaths are actually now attributable to the negative disaster effects upon the built environment, rather than caused directly by the natural events themselves.

An earthquake really wouldn’t be that deadly if you remove buildings from the equation….

During the LSE Cities Group talk, not only was the importance of grey so clear, but Jo also awakened my whole understanding of resilience itself. Not only should this mean human resilience in the starkest sense, as in just basic human survival, but also community and societal resilience. This requires a functioning economic centre within a town or city to be preserved, as well as its people. The importance of investing in homes as well as business developments was stressed – or there will be no-one to turn up for work! It is the entire system which needs to be protected, from people, to houses, to utilities (power, water) to supply chains and transportation. In order to allow a quick and efficient post-disaster recovery.

Many countries are making good progress on this. Take Chile for example. Just a few months after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, which killed 300,000 people, there was an even larger earthquake in Chile, yet only 1000 people died. Why the difference? Seismic planning incorporated into the built environment. Not only did fewer people die, but supply chains were uninterrupted and the country recovered from this disaster more rapidly. With investment in a stable built environment, fewer deaths go hand in hand with a functioning business centre.  Notice the amount of responsibility that falls into the hands of civil engineers.

As we see an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, and given that rapid urbanisation means that more people now live in cities than in rural areas, urban planning and resilience in the built environment will become even more vital.

We might pay ‘grey’ a little more attention in future.


“By our actions we either compound disasters or diminish them”

Ban Ki Moon, UN General Secretary, Global Platform, 2011.


The podcast of the LSE Cities event can be found here.

We are currently in the early stages of a project exploring human resilience to climate change and climate-related disasters. For more information please visit the project page.

2013 is the year of science and industry here at the Royal Society, see our collaborative activities here.