Commemorating the 10th Anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake: How the U.S. and Japan are Using Technology to Better Address Disasters

To commemorate the 10th Anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, One Concern CEO and Co-Founder Ahmad Wani spoke at the Japan Society of Northern California’s Innovation Salon on lessons learned from the disaster. The below remarks have been lightly edited for conciseness and clarity.

What can we do now to increase resilience in cities around the world, so that when the next big disaster hits, the disruption to society, the economy and people’s lives will be less severe?

It seems like every time there is a disaster, it’s almost as if it’s a surprise, and the world has suffered so much because of that. At One Concern, we feel that the first step is to do a deep analysis of vulnerabilities and risks. Once we understand where those key blindspots are, then we can figure out how to mitigate those disasters.

In identifying and understanding those blindspots, it’s very important that we do not over-index on the last disaster because the probability of another disaster impacting in the exact same way is almost zero. Instead, future disasters will impact us in slightly or even drastically different ways, especially with climate change constantly changing our environments and hazards. Additionally, cities are growing and expanding, so we’re dealing with a continuously changing system. We can’t just look backwards, we must look forward to understand future risks and to enact meaningful resilience to natural disasters.

How easy is it to get access to data? What challenges do you encounter in gathering the massive amount of data needed to build One Concern’s models?

Access to data is one of the largest challenges we’re working to overcome in order to scale our capabilities globally. Surprisingly, most cities do not know where their water and power lines are, and they have not mapped these because the infrastructure was built before software and map digitization was even considered.

A big part of using a combination of urban systems modeling and artificial intelligence is to be able to create synthetic networks where you are able to determine, based on a number of factors and data inputs, where the water pipes are likely to be. For example, if you take data from a previous storm and which areas it actually flooded, you can almost back-calculate to identify likely locations of storm drains.

The same method can be applied to power networks by determining which areas lost power during an adverse event. At some point, the models need validation from actual data from cities to calculate uncertainties in the models, and that is a big challenge in Japan, specifically, and not as big of a challenge in the U.S. because unlike Japan, utility infrastructure data is publicly available. Because of this data availability in the U.S., we can train our models and more quickly adapt them to new cities. If Japan were to adopt clearer data privacy and sharing laws that would allow for a clearer path to access this data, it would dramatically accelerate One Concern’s capabilities and deployments in Japan.

How can business and financial systems better prepare for a world of worsening disasters in order to make a society more resilient?

This goes beyond identifying and understanding risks. Technology is not the sole solution, but rather an important part of the solution, which requires a combination of technology, policy and financial mechanisms. Additionally, natural disasters know no borders, so resilience must be a public and private partnership in order to reach beyond the borders of a particular city, state or country.

Ultimately, quantifying risks as part of a business model to fill resilience deficits would create a win-win situation that would incentivize strategic resilience investments from both public and private organizations.

For example, Texas has had in the last decade three of what would typically be considered 500-year events, meaning that these events were only supposed to happen once every 500 years. When communities rebuild in the same location, which they almost always do, taxpayers are stuck with the bill because their current insurance policies incentivizes that behavior because those impacts are not priced properly.

With the ability to price those risks more accurately, people can make better decisions regarding how and where to build back smarter. In terms of benefits to the private sector, more resilient communities are ultimately more economically healthy and stable. Demonstrating those benefits are the first step in enacting policy and financial mechanisms to move towards a more resilient future.

We’re advancing science and technology to build global resilience, and make disasters less disastrous