Making cities more resilient in the face of natural disasters

  • TECH
  • Wednesday, 16 Oct 2013

VITAL DATA: A 3D city model simulation can help emergency planners preparing for the impact of flooding to see how such an event will affect various infrastructures.


Short-sighted design is at the root of much of the destruction caused by environmental crises, whether it is flooding, earthquakes, tsunamis or other natural disasters.

Buildings and critical infrastructure fail because they were not originally designed to withstand today’s intensified force of Mother Nature. However, technology can provide governments and engineers with essential feedback, offering a better way to predict behaviour of the built environment – or soon to be built environment - during a crisis.

In effect, advanced technology provides a proactive method to more effectively create disaster-resistant communities.

Let’s look at floods and how technology can help reduce the damage they cause. The OECD’s “Ranking of the world’s cities most exposed to coastal flooding today and in the future” lists the Top 20 cities.

Frighteningly, 15 of them are in Asia. The Top 5 cities exposed to coastal flooding are Calcutta, Mumbai, Dhaka, Guangzhou and Ho Chi Minh City. Others include Shanghai, Bangkok, Tokyo and Jakarta.

Floods in Malaysia are a major problem and floods during the monsoon season often lead to landslides, and result in damage to roads, buildings, homes and public facilities, with disruption to economic progress and daily life.

For an idea of the economic impact of floods, consider the following statistics:

  • While average global flood losses in 2005 were estimated to be approximately US$6bil (RM21bil) per year, they are expected to rise to US$52bil (RM182bil) by 2050 (Source: Nature Climate Change Report);
  • Thailand’s economy shrank 9% year-on-year in the fourth quarter of 2011, as a direct result of the country’s worst floods in half a century;
  • In 2009, Malaysia’s Ministry of Works reported that the total economic losses resulting from landslides were estimated at RM3bil over the past 34 years.

Governments must find new ways to prevent and reduce flood damage. This includes development of infrastructure and long-term maintenance and preparedness in the event of a disaster.

Today, technology is available from Autodesk and others that converges architectural, engineering design and geospatial data.

Cities have the capability to use precise geospatial data and apply it across the entire infrastructure lifecycle, including operations and maintenance. This integration has enabled significant changes to be made to address town planning and management needs.

Digital 3D Model of a City

One can only imagine how difficult urban planning and management must be, particularly when there is typically incomplete or obsolete data, and the various systems that house the data can’t “talk” to each other. The enormous challenge for governments is to address issues arising from land scarcity, rapid land development, and increasing demand for land-related data from the public and private sectors as effectively as possible.

This puts a premium on fast decision-making in facilities management, urban planning and public construction projects. Such decisions require government organisations to pull together a wide range of data from internal and external sources; and to truly understand that data, and the dependencies between different structures, assets and audiences.

On a grand scale, the creation of virtual city-wide 3D models can help owners, builders, architects, engineers and even the public understand how and where to prioritise restoration efforts in the wake of a disaster so repairs can be made as quickly as possible. This is particularly relevant for damaged utilities networks, whose “up and running” status is essential for life and business to return to normal. As well, the model can be used to more effectively plan the city’s future build out.

For example, Las Vegas is creating a digital 3D model of the city, with the help of VTN Consulting and Autodesk. The model will include above and below-ground infrastructure. It will be accessible to city planners, surveyors, engineers, public works and others who may need it. City leaders want a system that shows urban development, and helps indicate where the best areas are for future development. The model is being created with Autodesk InfraWorks, Autodesk Civil 3D and Autodesk Navisworks Manage software, with the intention of having a “living” 3D model of the city.

Going a step further, if all elements are incorporated in the model, it is possible to simulate real-life disasters on the 3D-model and visualise how a particular structure is responding to the disaster effects. Such simulation enables greater learning of the environment to create a suitable maintenance plan, or in the event of an actual disaster, it allows emergency responders to be more prepared and be able to deal rapidly and effectively with emergency situations. 

Cities like Seattle are already using city-scale 3D models to simulate earthquakes as officials consider how to upgrade roadways, such as the central Alaskan Way viaduct freeway and sea wall as seen in this video.

For a first responder like a police and fireman, accurate 3D models mean they might no longer need to risk their life exploring an affected site blindly. Rather, they would have at their fingertips a simulated digital environment that provides precise architectural and engineering design data of the building, as well as the surrounding cityscape including underground infrastructure.  

If a first responder crew is equipped with iPads showing 3D models that indicate where gas pipes are before they enter a damaged building, it could be life-saving information.

Returning to the topic of flooding, emergency planners preparing for the impact of flooding could simulate a 3D city model that includes buildings, digital terrain, and intelligent utility and telecommunications network. This would assist planners to determine power, communications, water and waste water facilities that may be affected by floods and be able to use the intelligent utility and communications network to determine where power, communications, water, and other services may be disrupted.

In the absence of a Digital 3D City Model

Even if the government is not willing to invest in the creation of an entire digital 3D city model yet, there is hope for better natural disaster prevention.  We have seen Autodesk solutions being used successfully by professionals, policy makers and the public to accurately anticipate the impacts of earthquakes on major infrastructure before they happen. Autodesk technology can also be used to understand the potential impact of storms and floods.

For example, Autodesk Infrastructure Design Suite 2014 offers technology to help city planners prevent flooding. The suite’s River and Flood module can analyze rivers to help determine future flood locations. The Storm and Sanitary Analysis module lets you perform analysis early in the design process for many types of projects, including urban storm water drainage network systems, highway storm drain catch basins and culverts, sustainable storm water management, detention ponds and sanitary sewer systems.

Autodesk Robot Structural Analysis has seismic simulation capabilities that allow you to simulate how the as-built environment (buildings, roadways, bridges, etc.) as well as planned structures will perform in various disaster scenarios.

Autodesk’s Computation Fluid Dynamics (CFD) technology simulates the full impact of flooding that occurs when dams collapse. The research has been helping China’s disaster management authorities better understand the full impact of the catastrophic flooding that would occur if one of China’s largest dams collapsed.

With Autodesk SIM 360, structural engineers can test the dynamic response and behaviour of materials like concrete, to understand the full impact of flooding that may occur when dams are compromised, to better predict long-term durability.

Realistic visualisations based on data-rich, engineering-accurate models allow everyone to understand these catastrophic events in ways that stacks of complex technical reports and disaggregated data have not been able to convey. Software like Autodesk InfraWorks 360 Pro and Autodesk 3ds Max Design can be used for visualisations that show how structures will react.

Where do we go from here?

As urban populations increase throughout Asia, the risks to life and property caused by natural disasters continue to rise as well.  While we understand the dynamics of these disasters better and better, we still can’t perfectly predict when and where disasters such as typhoons, floods and earthquakes are going to going to occur.  But we know that they will inevitably come, and we can do a much better job of preparing for them. 

Thankfully we now have technology that allows us to model and simulate how our structures will perform during these events. We have the almost-infinite computing power of the cloud to amass huge troves of data and simulate structural performance in numerous conditions.  And we have the ability to put that wealth of structure data in the form of easy-to-navigate 3D models onto mobile devices and into the hands of the first responders and government officials who need it in a crisis.

But if we don’t act on this new wealth of data and capabilities, it doesn’t do us much good.  How can we help get public and government buy-in on the costs required for needed upgrades to existing and future structures? Visualisations are part of the answer. We have the ability to visualise and animate how those structures will react to a massive flood or earthquake.  Nothing concentrates the mind like seeing an aging or poorly designed bridge crumble in the face of an earthquake of a magnitude that is highly likely to occur in the not-too-distant future.  It’s time for us to get to work.

(Gianluca Lange is Regional Industry Manager for ASEAN at Autodesk. An architect by profession, he brings in a diverse experience of working across regions such as Europe and the ASEAN markets.)


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