Building a Safer World: 5 Questions for Francis Ghesquiere on How Innovation Is Changing the Way We Look at Disaster Risk

Innovation is already changing the way we live, commute, shop, and more. But can it make the world a safer place from growing climate and disaster risk? According to the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), the answer is a resounding yes. The biennial Understanding Risk Forum, a major forum for technologists, policy makers, private sector and civil society to exchange ideas and partner to better assess disaster risk, is taking place this week in Venice. I interviewed Francis Ghesquiere, Head of the GFDRR Secretariat, to find out more:

Question 1: What's the evidence that disasters are increasing around the world?

Answer: Forty years ago, the number of reported disasters was around 400 each year. Fast forward to today, that number has more than doubled. During this period global economic losses have totaled $4.2 trillion dollars, with more than half of those costs occurring just in the last decade. What happened?

First and foremost, population is growing and people are moving to cities. This is particularly true in the developing world where systems and standards are not yet in place to ensure that disaster risk is taken into account. This trend is now exacerbated by environmental degradation and climate change, which is increasing the frequency and intensity of events like floods, cyclones and heat waves.

It is clear that without a radical change in the way we plan today's development, we will never be able to address the disaster risk of tomorrow. Accurate and reliable risk information is the lynchpin of smart investments and policy making, but good information about natural hazards is often missing. This is why we are all meeting this week at the Understanding Risk (UR) Forum. We need to find new ways to assess risk and we need to better communicate about risk so it is integrated in development.

Question 2: Who is attending the Understanding Risk Forum, and what do you expect will come out of it?

Answer:The UR Forum brings together experts from completely different fields but all dealing with assessing the risk of disasters. We have people coming from Silicon Valley working on innovative geospatial technologies, as well as volunteers from NGOs working in the Sahel on how to address the risk of drought. We have scientists working in the Bhutan trying to provide better information on seismic risk in a country that is currently building many dams. And we have psychologists who specialize in trying to understand people's behavior and actions once they become aware of risk.

Overall, we expect more than 800 participants from more than 100 countries. The idea of UR is that by connecting people from different sectors who are working on the same problem, but from different perspectives, we can generate innovation and partnerships that go beyond the current state of play.

Innovation is the focus of the Forum, so a lot of our presenters and events will highlight new trends in collecting and analyzing risk information, as well as emerging technologies that are giving us a better picture of climate and disaster risk that communities, governments, and development partners can act on.

Question 3: Can you give me some examples of the ways in which better risk information can help countries and communities become more resilient in the face of disaster?

Answer:One thing is clear. By taking risk into account in today's development, we can avoid the disasters of tomorrow. Let's take the example of Bhutan, which has fantastic hydropower potential. Bhutan is currently building a large number of dams. But the country is also in a very active seismic zone. It is crucial that the dams being built are done so using the appropriate standards.

But risk information is not important only for specific types of infrastructure. Cities in the developing world are growing at a breakneck pace. As they grow, housing facilities, transport infrastructure, communication networks, and literally everything that is being built needs to be take the potential impact of natural hazards into account.

To do this, engineers and city planners need the right information. A new tool being presented at the Forum, ThinkHazard!, allows decision-makers to assess their exposure to eight types of natural hazards across the globe, including earthquakes, cyclones, floods, heat waves, etc. The hope is that by making this type of risk information available, they won't be able to say "we didn't know!"

Question 4: What are some examples of innovations being used on the ground?

Answer: There are a lot a smart people working on this and a lot of new ideas that will be presented at the UR Forum. One of the most interesting advances is in the area of artificial intelligence and machine learning. For a few years now, the community has been using drones to capture post-disaster imagery. But once captured, you still need an engineer to analyze these images and assess the extent of the damage--a process that is time consuming. Can we teach computers to do this for us?

But not all innovation is about technology. The most successful innovations are those that have empowered communities to participate and become sensitized to the risk of disasters. Take the recent case of Nepal. Before the devastating Gorkha earthquake last year, over 6,000 volunteers participated in a crowd-sourced mapping exercise, using smart phones and GPS to more accurately locate emergency routes, hospitals, critical infrastructure, and more. After the earthquake, more than 80% of the regions affected benefited from information collected through this mapping exercise, with the Nepal military, the Red Cross, and other organizations using it to guide their interventions.

Question 5: How can people get involved to help make their own communities more resilient to disasters?

Answer:Disaster risk is everyone's business. It starts at home and making sure you and your family are not exposed to the elements. It is also about influencing the authorities and make sure they consider disaster risk in future investments. It seems logical that building in flood plains should not be allowed, yet it still happens everywhere in the world.

If you want to learn about new technologies and innovations, you can join the UR community at www.understandrisk.org. There are now more than 6000 development professionals, entrepreneurs, scientists, and civil society representatives actively participating in this community and it keeps growing. You can also join us this week the fourth biannual UR Forum taking place in Venice, Italy, a city well aware of the perils of living close to the sea.

In today's world, you don't have to be a disaster risk expert to make a difference. Whether you are a scientist, a policy-maker, or a concerned citizen, you can all help your community by making it aware of the risk and taking steps toward lasting resilience.

Francis Ghesquiere is Head of the Secretariat for the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction & Recovery (GFDRR). Prior to joining GFDRR, Francis managed disaster risk management programs in the South Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean regions at the World Bank. In addition to developing a number of flagship initiatives, including the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF) and the Central America Catastrophe Probabilistic Risk Assessment initiative (CAPRA), Francis also led the establishment of the Understanding Risk Forum (UR).

Tim Ward is co-owner of Intermedia Communications Training, Inc, a Washington D.C. based firm that specializes in communications for development, economics, science and the environment, and the co-author of The Master Communicator's Handbook.