3-D Printing Tiny Drones for Resilience? A meeting on Emerging Tech asks, “Why not?”

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent has launched a global series of events to brainstorm ‘How might emerging technology strengthen urban resilience?’ Our GSMA Disaster Response team, in partnership with the American and British Red Cross held one of these sessions in London last week.

The need for resilience

Resilience has become an increasingly trendy word in the development and humanitarian worlds. This is part of a shift away from focusing on response, towards understanding how strengthening individual, community, environmental and infrastructural capacity to adapt to or mitigate shocks will reduce the impact of these events. Cities warrant particular consideration on the resilience agenda. As a result of a confluence of demographic, political and environmental factors, cities are fast becoming more prone to the impacts of disaster. Globally, more people are moving IN to areas vulnerable to disasters, rather than out of them, and this trend is set to continue. The urban population projection for 2050 is 70%. In many parts of the world, such as Kathmandu, or Lagos, density combined with a lack of adherence to building codes, and high poverty rates means that if a disaster were to strike, the impact could be magnified to catastrophic proportions. It is predicted that the fault line running through Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, in which the capital city sits, is overdue a shift, which when it does occur will trigger a major earthquake. An earthquake of this size would have the potential to displace more than 1.8 million people, cause huge loss of life and injure hundreds of thousands. Sixty percent of buildings could be destroyed.

The “Art of the possible”

Whilst these risks are very real, there are lots of bright people and innovative organisations and companies looking at how to tackle these complex and interconnected challenges. One of the objectives of the IFRC roundtable discussion series is to bring these people together in one room to brainstorm the “art of the possible” and look at emerging technologies through a resilience tinted lens. Ideas discussed ranged from futuristic wearable sensor technologies linked to early warning systems, mobile platforms to facilitate collaboration and resource sharing amongst citizens and 3-D printers that could produce small UAVs used to monitor hazards, map and assess risk.

Three key themes

Throughout the discussion, three key themes, or questions emerged for me. The first is that whatever the technology, it needs to be well-designed, easily integrated or an extension of something already used if it is to be adopted by citizens themselves. Rather than thinking about how humanitarian organisations, governments or companies might use some of these technologies, we should focus on how individuals and their networks can use them themselves – that’s where the real resilience will come from.

The second is that despite steady strides in adopting new technologies in the humanitarian space, the innovation, trial and implementation lifecycle needs to be re-evaluated. Mobile phones are consistently referenced as being “new humanitarian technology,” yet their ubiquity even at the base of the pyramid has been around for several years. The period of time between identifying and deploying technologies or tools that can be used to mitigate, monitor or respond to disasters needs to shrink, or lots of good ideas with huge potential will expire.

The third is that like most things in life, resilience comes with a price. Determining who should fund the development and deployment of this technology is still up for debate. Should it be governments? The private sector? Humanitarian organisations themselves? It takes a lot of money to design, proto-type and trial new technologies and new models of cost-sharing and to incentivise different parties to collaborate and invest in this space will be needed. Some of these emerging technologies, like community owned 3-D printers for drones may seem wildly futuristic, but who knows what resilience will look like in ten or twenty years from now.

The IFRC series will be working to collect input on these questions and more, and we look forward to continuing to engage in these exciting and thought provoking discussions.

Many thanks to the IFRC and the participants for a really interesting discussion. A summary report of the group discussion can be found here. More information on these global meetings can be found at tech4resilience.blogspot.com.

Photo: ‘Wearable Technology’, Keoni Cabral, Flickr

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