Graphic illustrating the state of Japan four years after the multi-hazards hit.

+ Are engineers and designers doing enough to limit the impacts of natural and man-made disasters? Could a better instant response to hazard scenarios reduce casualties?

Natural and man-made disasters can strike simultaneously. So is it possible to be totally prepared for any multi-hazard, such as the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that hit Japan four years ago this month?

I don’t think it is. But are we doing enough? Is our responsibility as designers and engineers limited to meeting regulations? Sure, we cannot predict the future, but do we have to wait till disaster strikes to consider changes?

Earthquakes and tsunamis are rooted deep in Japan’s history and its society is well drilled and prepared for these natural disasters. It has stringent seismic design standards and its advanced early warning system gives people valuable seconds to prepare for impact. Major infrastructures such as railways and nuclear power plants are supposed to automatically and safely shut down.

Nevertheless, no matter how well prepared Japan was in March 2011 three major disasters struck together at a magnitude nobody had imagined. Four years later, the statistics are disheartening. People’s lives remain devastated, with some still living in emergency shelters waiting to return home. So I think we have to ask how things could be done better.

Could a better instant response to hazard scenarios reduce casualties? Could you make providing people with instantaneous evacuation information about their particular location a standard feature on mobile phones? I think you could achieve this by using typically static big data in a dynamic way.

You could link data from sensors – such as seismographs – in real-time with an in-depth property database and feed that back to those who need it. You could update phone owners about safe evacuation routes based on their location, and you could also use this information to let rescue workers and social media know where people are.

Could you speed up recovery following disasters too? One option might be to develop recovery models for cities, or even whole areas, that include emergency shelters. This would enable planning and design to be done more efficiently and bring relief more quickly when disasters strike.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers and I don’t want to be a doom-monger; I’d just like to throw some questions out there and let you reflect for a second. What are the short and long-term consequences of major tragedies like that in Japan? How would you react if a multi-hazard happened? What could be done better?

After all, I believe that being conscious of past events takes us one step closer to being better prepared.