Empowering Communities for Peace and Resilience
Design for Disasters: Mitigating Risk from Disasters in Thailand
By Vipavee Kunavichayanont
Translated by Vimvipa Poome
Issue 12 Summer | Fall 2013<
When we design, we design for the real conditions of people’s lives in a world subject to sudden change. Our designs can create a sense of peace and safety even during the most unsettling events. Design for Disasters (D4D) designs peacemaking through place making that factors in the consequence of disruptions in the natural environment and conflict between humans.
In this complex and unpredictable time, many catastrophic events happen suddenly and without warning. Both natural and man-made disasters – earthquakes, volcanoes, extreme weather conditions, epidemics, even wars and protests – occur more frequently in many parts of the world. The damage from these disasters is also increasing. For example, in Thailand, a country rich in natural resources and with a laid back joie-de-vivre, disaster only became part of the norm beginning with the tsunami in 2004, a flood crisis in 2011 and recent earthquakes.
In response to this new reality, a group of talented designers, artists, and academics came together to lend their country a hand, forming a non-profit organization named Design for Disasters (D4D). Their main goal is to design solutions that mitigate risks when disasters occur and to spread awareness throughout the country. In this article, D4D Co-Founder Vipavee Kunavichayanont describes the organization’s work and its importance to the shaping of stability and peace for Thailand’s future.
Thailand used to be a “lucky” country where disasters of this kind rarely occurred. Rich in natural resources, there is a Thai proverb that can summarize the history of our country: “There are fishes in the water, there is rice in the field.” The Thai way of life has always been laid-back and relaxed, but after the Tsunami in southern Thailand in 2004, we understood that Thailand is not safe from catastrophe anymore, as we used to believe. The frequent earthquakes, land subsidence, coastal erosion, drought, flash floods, mudslides and landslides have reduced the quality and quantity of agricultural goods vital to our economy. Man-made disasters are now a new topic around here. We have plenty of chemical pollution from factories and corruption in society. The ethnic separatist insurgency, taking place in Southern Thailand continues to be more severe. Political conflict is still ongoing.
Events like these affect people’s mindsets. Thai morality, ethics, and virtues are on the decline; people lack a feeling of peace and stability. Nobody knows when a disaster will happen and how long will it take to recover. We need to learn to adapt to uncertainty.
Design for Disasters (D4D) was founded in 2010 within this context. It is a non-profit research network of young designers, artists, and academics from various fields. Without any obligation, members are committed to help with diverse projects, based on their expertise and schedules. The goal of the organization is to build awareness and find long-term solutions for everyone to be prepared for disasters. The vision is to encourage society at large to have the preparations, knowledge, skills, and most importantly, a good morale for survival. With that, the aim is a society able to survive from disaster together, and sustainably.
D4D encourages people to become “open-minded to understand” through design, while also encouraging cooperation between government agencies, private sector actors and non-governmental organizations, in order to foster peace, safety, resilience and sustainability in Thailand.
When talking about disaster, we are focused both on the uncertainty and its many possibilities. D4D has compiled the essential needs that are usually affected by disaster in this Top 11 Problems List:
1. water | 2. food | 3. medicine | 4. clothes | 5. shelters | 6. sanitation | 7. energy | 8. immigration
9. communication | 10. transportation | 11. safety
D4D then created the multi-disciplinary designs that can address the list of Top 11 problems listed above:
1. Urban Planning / Design | 2. Architecture | 3. Interior Architecture / Design | 4. Product Design | 5. Apparel Design | 6. Textile Design | 7. Graphic Design | 8. Film | 9. Communication Arts
D4D’s work has ranged from research and design to implementation. In the first year, we focused on creating public awareness about possible disasters in Thailand. During the second year, our work was more concrete, offering research that people could apply to real-life situations. Below, we share some examples of the projects that D4D has produced since it began just a few years ago.
Sharing Smiles in a Time of Political Unrest
During April and May of 2010, Bangkok and Chiang Mai experienced political tensions, demonstrations, and conflicts between civilians and authorities. People affiliated themselves with certain political parties and expressed their conflicting ideologies through their choice of apparel. One group wore T-shirts of a certain color while another wore a different color, and so on.
Despite the clear, visual manifestation of the conflict and tension, D4D optimistically believed that another visual statement could transcend these chromatic barriers, the simple yet well-known Thai smile.
D4D launched the Thai Smiles Outreach campaign. We stopped strangers, regardless of shirt color affiliation, and simply asked for their sincere smile to contribute to our “Thai Smiles Campaign.” As they revealed their beautiful smiles, the color of the shirt they were wearing lost importance, and all tension seemed to subside. Surprisingly, most were more than happy to allow D4D to take photos of their infectious grins. It is no wonder that Thailand is called “The Land of Smiles.” Even the simplest of gestures can play a part in guiding people back to peace.
Raising Awareness About Climate Change Among Thai People through Images
Climate change is an undeniable global issue affecting our planet at large. D4D values the importance of genuine understanding and public awareness about the root causes of climate change and its impact. We believe that through positive thinking and creativity, the impact of climate change can be mitigated. Every individual in society can significantly contribute in making this world a better place if we would open our minds and senses to envision the possibilities for positive change.
By seeing the world with a fresh perspective, we will have the ability to comprehend and transform our surroundings into something new and meaningful. This was the idea behind Bangkok and Climate Change, a mobile photo exhibition held in October 2012. The project was organized by D4D in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Economic and Social Committee for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP), UN-Habitat, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, Lomography and many more. It came to life as a photo contest, with more than 100 entries, and the winners became part of an exhibition that traveled around Bangkok.
Experimental Life-Saving and Floatation Devices
During 2010’s monsoon season, Thailand experienced a devastating flood that ravaged many parts of the country. D4D did a survey in Ayutthaya, one the country’s most important historical cities and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Chainat, a province in the upper central region among those damaged by the two-meter flood, to have a first-hand understanding of the local experience. From our findings, D4D identified a need for low-cost, rapidly employable floatation devices, and then conceived flood floatation devices from everyday objects (plastic water bottles, fishing nets, rope, etc.), which can be easily accessed and quickly constructed in an emergency situation.
The idea behind this experiment was to instruct citizens to help themselves in times of need, as D4D believed that this is more crucial than expecting immediate assistance from external organizations in such cases like catastrophic floods.
The teaching is that life can be more sustainable when fostering self-reliance. The results of this experiment were studied and the designs led to D4D’s next big project in response to the 2011 floods.
Preparing for Survival
The 2011 floods presented the worst flood crisis we have ever experienced as a country. At that time 62 of the country’s 76 provinces were affected, including Bangkok, the capital and most populous city. Traditionally, our ancestors lived in harmony with the water, knowing how to adapt their lifestyles according to the seasons. However, the way we live now in the urbanized and industrialized world increased the severity of the flooding. The riverbanks of the Chao Phraya and countless canals in Bangkok are no longer protected from the seasonal floods, due in large part to the impact of increasing urbanization on the cityscape and land infrastructure. These waterways, along with existing water retention areas and giant water drainage tunnels are not always able to handle the volume of water that comes with a flash flood.
After the 2011 flood, D4D launched Survive! as an open call for designs. Survive! invited participants to transform household items into products, materials, and devices that can help a person survive during the event of a flood or other disasters. The parameters for the design were directly influenced by the experience of living through the floods, earthquakes, and political crisis experienced in Thailand in recent years. The scenario set up for the Survive! Competition was: Bangkok is hit by a flash flood. Water rises to two meters within a course of three hours. Millions of Bangkok residents are on the verge of disaster, assets to be lost and lives threatened.
The causes of the disaster are:
1. Severe wind and heavy rain in Bangkok;
2. Immense floods from the North overflowing Chao Phraya River;
3. Rising sea level in the Gulf of Thailand; and
4. Land subsidence.
We specified that the survival device must be designed so that an untrained, uninitiated member of the general public can easily assemble the device within three hours. The device must effectively resolve at least one of the five problem categories, which are: shelter/living quarters, sanitary ware, transportation vehicle, clothing, and communication. The general public was encouraged to participate, particularly college students in all disciplines, winning entries were awarded cash prizes, worth more than Bht60,000. The judging panel included experienced professionals including designers, lecturers, rescue staff, as well as medical volunteers, survivors, and D4D founders. Winning entries were exhibited at the Bangkok Design Festival 2012.
Helping People Face the Potential for Disaster through Art and Discussion
Bangkok’s Art and Culture Centre (BACC), in collaboration with the Design for Disasters network, showcased an exhibition to raise awareness on the environment and its alarming transformations in early 2012. Titled Let’s Panic, the exhibition used the work of 15 artists and designers to reflect on the various scenarios of what could happen if Bangkok faced another major disaster. The participating artists and designers offered a variety of concepts, creating diverse atmospheres, emotions, and feelings to portray some possibilities in an experiential way. The exhibition was accompanied by a series of weekly talks on topics relating to designing for disaster. The guest-speakers ranged from architects, illustrators and writers, to flood survivors and rescue staff. All in all, the “Let’s Panic” exhibition generated an exchange of knowledge and information that will hopefully contribute to the public awareness towards conserving our environment and mitigating risks inherent in disasters.
Providing Tools for Preparation and Survival in Times of Disaster
The Disaster Risk Reduction Toolkit is a collaboration between the Royal Thai Government (RTG) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The theme of the project is “Disaster Management” and D4D was honored for the design process. The project aims to raise awareness and share knowledge on how to prepare for and what to do in times of disaster. The toolkit offers a series of learning materials such as a calendar, poster, handbook, checklist, brochure, monopoly game, card game, and puzzle game. By the end of December 2011, Emergency Medical Institute of Thailand and World Health Organization had successfully distributed the calendars and posters, and by August 2012, the handbooks, to a number of hospitals and communities in many parts of Thailand. The checklist and other games were released in late 2012.
It is not often possible to predict exactly when, where, and how a disaster will happen, as we inhabit a complicated and sophisticated planet. The best thing we can do is to carefully design by recognizing, problems, taking inventory of our resources, and practicing a multidisciplinary approach to create the most viable solutions for our people.
Collaboration is an integral part of D4D’s action plan to fulfill this task; we encourage this alliance between government agencies, private sector and non-government organizations to promote peace, safety, resilience, and sustainability. We seek to bridge the gap between industry, education, finance, science, policy, public, disaster management and media to bring light to its actual realization, public awareness and creative solutions. Through D4D’s platform, we seek to impart wisdom and inspire creativity, to help Thai people to be agile, resourceful and resilient with the uncertainties of a changing natural world.
Smile Thailand is known as “The Land of Smiles” and D4D’s 2010 initiative demonstrated the power of this simple gesture in relieving tension during times of turmoil and divided affiliation amongst people.
Promote public awareness on what causes climate change and its impact. Through education, anyone can be resilient and transform their surroundings into something meaningful.
Experiment No design is ready until it has been tested and refined. Experiment with new materials and techniques to enhance the possibilities for good design solutions.
Survive! Sometimes a clear, straightforward directive is the best motivation to design real, applicable, viable solutions.
Empower survivors by teaching them to adapt to devastation. Work to re-establish a solid foundation of basic needs, and enlighten them to use local resources in an innovative way to develop a community where resiliency is inherent.