Saturday, December 13, 2008

Seminar on Disaster management and architecture at Navi Mumbai

I and Dr Roy conducted a small seminar at Bharatiya Vidyapeeth College of Architecture at Navi Mumbai. Dr Roy is an expert in disaster management and has been working in that area for the last twenty years. There were around 50 students and 10 faculty members in attendance.

Dr. Roy concentrated on the immediate issues during any terrorism and came up with some points: 
  1. Start with yourself before blaming/looking at others for help/explanations.
  2. Do not turn up at the disaster site blindly. Turn up at the site where the victims are likely to be, if you want to help. For e.g. After an earthquake, the local people often know whether the local resources will sustain them or not. Often landing up the scene at that time is of no use because the people may have already left. One needs to know how people move during such crisis situations
  3. Understand the real requirements of people at a disaster. In a recent earthquake at Gujarat, a lot of clothes were donated. They were of no use to the locals there because they could not adjust to the strange attire of the city dwellers. Instead, they used the clothes as fuel!
  4. Land up at the disaster site if you are sure you can first take care of yourself. You should not become a liability to others who are trying to help.
  5. Local knowledge is very valuable. If you don't have any then stay at home!
  6. Be in a position to understand and distribute the knowledge of all resources available to everyone trying to help.
Dr. Roy was not very convinced about the amount of proactive steps that can be used to actively prevent terrorism and disasters. There is a theory in architecture (called architectural determinism) which proclaim that what architects do determine the end behaviour of people using architecture. Not true at all. Architects are only one tiny part of the society's determination process. At the same time, we cannot go to the other extreme and proclaim that what architect's do will not affect people's behaviour at all. (It is interesting to note that a specialization in architecture close to my heart; environment-behaviour (E-B) that was taught when I was in IIT over thirty years back, is coming back once again hopefully to help us.)

The subject of E-B has turned up often in the past to explain complex contradictions in architectural design. For e.g. In the understanding of the Pruitt-Igoe Fiasco where a large housing complex was dynamited in the seventies. The CSNY song; "Ohio" was written after the dastardly attack by Nixon's soldiers at Ohio State University where some students were shot down. After that event, there were many studies conducted that attempted to understand how certain kind of spaces may unconciously aid rioting.

The following architectural points were touched upon:
  • The concept of defensible spaces and how architects can use defensible spaces to diffuse the effects of terrorism, and other disasters etc.
  • Terroriality, privacy, personalization, way-finding are all to be understood properly if one has to prevent all kinds of behavioural conflicts happening in designed environments.
  • Many aspects of architecture: E.g. Lighting can be used carefully in public spaces to reduce the effects during a terrorist attack.
  • An off-shoot of the subject of environment-behaviour called "Crime Prevention Through Evironment Design" (CPTD) is now considered by many architects/planners. Architects can use many sites on the net e.g.
    (Though I am not sure about the word "prevention". The word "mitigation" may have been better)
  • Technology can never give an answer directly. It can, at best, supplement other measures. So all active form of security devices such as cameras, survellience, etc. are all to be taken in context of a proper understanding of the overal security threat. Just blindly using technology cannot prevent a determined foe. Some examples from Vietnam war were discussed, where the poor and frail managed to defeat really sophisticated systems setup by the Americans
Dr Roy cautioned that there are many psychological and social reasons that are needed to be explored (E.g. The manipulation of the fear psychosis by vested interests such as political parties) He also cautioned against stereotyping while acknowledging that as humans it is understandable that we indulge in stereotypes and other generalizations because those are probably ways a human handles fear when he cannot channelize it in a more productive manner. He did not want to discuss fear psychosis because that is a big and complicated subject and a superfical analysis of it will only result in more misunderstandings of a complicated subject.

As far as archtitecture is concerned; architects simply have to cross their own borders and look beyond traditional architecture. We design in the context of a society in all its dimensions and we architects must understand that deeper context. Dr. Roy gave plenty of examples from other design situations that lead to trauma and death such as traffic accidents. 

The steps to be taken proactively are not really about preventing terrorism directly but how to ensure that the concept of terror does not survive. For e.g. We should foster a sense of well-being and self-respect among all of us. Highlight the good points and just the way the forces behind terrorism is now brainwashing people to do terrible deeds, we should also be able to "brainwash" (if we can use the same term) to do positive things.  In fact, statistically speaking, we have a better chance of positive thinking than the terrorists have in spreading negative thoughts. 

Unfortunately, many vested interests (powerful lobbies, politicians, those who fund the terrorists) working in the background really want people to continue with their fear psychosis. As citizens, we seek help from our whatever sources we get which is usually the media. But then, the media currently in India is very immature and therefore adds further to our problems. Few realize that the media is forced to give only viewpoints that they have been given access to. It is impossible for them to give a complete picture. If only the media gave a more balanced point of view, the horror of the recent mumbai attacks could be put in the right perspective. For e.g. More people die in traffic accidents in a year than in terrorist accidents. Many more people have died in the consequences of improper understanding of terror (For example due to riots) than the terrorist incidents themselves.  It is ironical that we actually end up killing more of each-other in our own country, but our attention is caught on issues such as whether we should bomb places in some other country!

If there are more people spreading unified positive thinking, then the chances of terrorists coming into our lives are much lesser because there is no thought-space available to them to encourage their nefarious activities. Unfortunately, just after a terrorist attack there is so much anger, confusion and fear that we become numb and cannot think clearly. That is when the terrorist has actually won. They return back (or die) and we are left with the continuing hatred, fear and anger. 

If we have to defeat the terrorists, we have to get back to thinking clearly and test out our half-baked ideas democratically with others.  As Vallabh Bhanshali said in an interview "It is okay to have half-baked ideas. But it is very important to acknowledge that those ideas are indeed half-baked" Not to know that we do not know the full story is possibly the one biggest mistake we can ever make during these events. There must be a constant striving to get more and more clarity and that effort must not be stopped.

If each of us retain in us what we thought were the right approaches, we will not be testing them and that will result in a even worse problems. Again the terrorists will win. We must fight the urge to come up with 5 minute solutions and remove the feeling that a complicated explanation is synonymous with an incorrect explanation.

Dr. Roy also stressed on the importance of developing databases and other resource materials and be in a state of readiness. However, he was not in favour of developing a sense of paranoia and constant fear. 

Architects should also be able to sit with other experts and point out the rewards and opportunities that may exist in various locations in our cities for disaster.  If we can identify those spots and the reasons for such rewards and opportunities, then we could take proactive steps to reduce them.  This will give lesser material for the bad guys to do damage in. 

One main issue that came up as the reason for the festering problem of terror is the ghettoising of our cities: That could actually result in both more terrorists being bred, and also during attacks we are likely to suffer more damage. Architects and builders are traditionally trained to think "plot-by-plot" and not really in terms of design in the overall context of society. For e.g. A builder gets a plot for a large residential colony and makes a "gated-community" in that plot with his architect. While doing that, both the architect and builder traditionally do not concentrate on what happens to the rest of the neighbourhood. In fact our building laws don't even have anything to connect to other designs around the one we are doing. This leads to an amorphous ghetto development and that leads to a bigger failure, though initially each of these gated-communities may sound reasonable and secure.

What we need is to promote a more inclusive and responsible society which is constantly highlighting its positive aspects. It is often fashionable to point out where we go wrong and who is corrupt, etc. But if there is one correct thing that each of us can really do in today's complex times is to first point fingers at ourselves and see how each of us can individually contribute and ask ourselves what is right about us which can be brought to the forefront. We all know what is wrong, and that is all hackneyed. It is hightime we know what is right.

Indian culture is actually quite inclusive and we do not really need to take examples from the US or Israel to handle security. Our problems are way different. We are quite heterogeneous and we have both strengths and weakness in the large population.

The talk got stretched way beyond its allotted time and we finally finished at  around 2.00pm The talk did not cover issues such as fear, anger and how to safely channelize those emotions as they are large subjects by themselves. There is a lot of unfocussed anger (Bomb this xyz country, hate that abc community, what causes riots, etc.) and we all agreed that addressing those topics superficially would not be right. A workshop is now being planned in January 2009 where other colleges and more professionals will be involved.