Harnessing the Power of Resilience

Prof. Hiroshi Maruyama of the Institute of Statistical Mathematics has led our organization's research project, “Systems Resilience," for four years. Ahead of the end of the project in March 2016, it co-hosted the third conference on “IT x Disasters,” an informal get-together of IT engineers who are interested in volunteering their skills in disaster relief. The organizer of the conference was looking for new collaborators, and Prof. Maruyama saw it as a great opportunity to deepening the resilience theme by meeting with people who have various field experiences, and decided to join the event. Let's see how the idea worked.

A network of people is essential for planning disaster mitigation

At this event, the highlights of the project on “Systems Resilience” were presented in various forms such as speeches, posters, and talk sessions. There were also reports and recommendations from the participants, and as expected, the importance of a human network often became a topic of conversations. In fact, the concept of human network is very close to what we consider the essence of resilience and illustrates the compatibility of diversity and altruism. Prof. Maruyama thinks this jointly sponsored event was a meaningful opportunity to analyze resilience using concrete examples, which was one of the original goals of the project.

What is resilience?

The conference on “IT x Disasters” is attended by people who use their own IT skills and backgrounds to contribute to disaster response. Several projects were derived and developed after its kickoff meeting, which was held in an unconference style in the fall of 2013. Kaori Kowada, a part-time employee at the Reconstruction Agency of Japan, has served on the executive committee since the first conference. She volunteered after the Great East Japan Earthquake and now operates an informational website on disaster prevention that aims to deliver the “support that is absent from disaster sites.” Even during the times of non-emergency, their websites disseminate useful information for saving lives. In addition to sending primary information to local governments, citizens, and the media, they also support secondary information with the methods of curating and sending messages to and from remote places in order to increase the reliability of the information. To this end, they use both human and computer networks.

The Shonan Meeting, where the world's knowledge on resilience converged

How do researchers around the world approach the theme of resilience? Earlier researches focused mostly on ecological and environmental systems. A mathematical model called system dynamics was a favored tool to analyze and model system behavior in question. Countries with geopolitical fragility such as like Singapore and Finland have a lot of activities in resilience research. In order to bring together the knowledge on resilience, we conducted a five-day intensive workshop on systems resilience in February 2015 at Shonan Village Center, an isolated conferencing facility situated on a hilltop with beautiful sights of Mt. Fuji. The workshop covered a wide range of discussions, among which was a realization that when a system receives a large shock, sometimes it is impossible to save the system without saving entities that are external to the system, for example, neighboring cities (when saving a city) or supply chain (when saving a company). In other words, when a crisis occurs that cannot be dealt with in a single system, its boundary may need to be reconsidered. We agreed to call this spillover effect a “boundary leakage.”

Resilience strategies

As a researcher and member of the current executive committee of “IT x Disaster,” Ms. Akiko Murakami of IBM’s Tokyo Research Laboratory is engaged in a research to use social and open data to make a society more resilient to disasters and risks. She is also a founding member of IT DART (IT Disaster Assistance and Response Team), along with Representative Director, Mr. Takuya Oikawa, a well-known IT expert, among others, which is an NPO for organizing IT specialists who can quickly reaches the field of a disaster and provides information support (with both IT and human efforts). She has been involved as a member since the second conference on “IT x Disasters.” She says, “This time our themes are ‘connecting’ and ‘broadening’,” which fits perfectly with the academic activities in ROIS, because our primary mission at ROIS is to connect researchers. This is why we proposed to co-host this event. During the lunchtime, the All Japan Imoni (potato soup) Association held on soup kitchen as a mock disaster relief – which provided a perfect condition for attendees to connect and expand under the beautiful weather.

Unraveling the social effects at the Thailand floods

The project on “Systems Resilience” employed an inductive approach to collect facts on various forms of resilience, analyze commonalities and differences among them, and build a taxonomy, as well as a deductive approach, starting from an abstract model of resilience and drawing mathematical properties from it. One example of the former approach, done by the team headed by Associate Professor Hitoshi Okada (the National Institute of Informatics), is on how people’s perception affects the resilience of a society.  Using the twitter data at the time of the Thailand flood in 2011, his team demonstrates how mood changes over time, as the people’s confidence on their government gradually deteriorated, and how this mood change affected the overall resilience of the society.

Flood map of Bangkok, Thailand

Learning from biology -- Understanding the correlation between diversity and the law of diminishing returns

In the second approach, Professor Hiroshi Akashi (the National Institute of Genetics) is working on a mathematical model of gene mutations in terms of fitness to an environment. His theory is that, if the fitness function is concave, meaning that multiple advantageous mutations are combined, the additional advantage of a new mutation becomes smaller and smaller – a property sometimes called the law of diminishing returns. His model suggests that, under the assumption that the fitness function exhibits the law of diminishing returns, the resulting population has a larger diversity, which is believed to be one of the major factors that enabled the life on the earth to have survived more than 4 billion years. This discovery may be applicable to designs of systems in different domains, which make the systems more diverse and thus, more resilient.

How does the Law of Diminishing Returns Realized Diversity: Lessons in Population Genetics

In this photograph, Professor Maruyama is giving a talk on “Engineers, Researchers, and Social Contribution.” He discussed how the roles of scientists and engineers have changed over time – for example, profession of scientist has been around for only 100 years. He also discussed the new trend of open science. To conclude the session, Prof. Maruyama said, "As engineers and scientists, we should always think in a larger context. For example, when we talk about a disaster, don’t be confined in a narrow thinking on earthquakes and tsunami. The next big disaster may be something else, such as pandemics. "

(Text in Japanese: Hiroshi Maruyama, Rue Ikeya. Photographs: ERIC. Published: November 30, 2015)