There is a quiet revolution happening in the realm of disaster management and infrastructure planning. ‘Digital twins’ – realistic virtual simulation models – are transforming the way we envision, develop, and maintain disaster-resilient infrastructure.
We have over 20 years of experience using digital twin simulation models in urban planning, training and infrastructure development. In this article, we share insights learned from working in this field, illustrating a wide range of disaster-resilient infrastructure examples. We hope this material helps boost the resilience of future infrastructure projects, inspiring and guiding efforts to create safer and more resilient communities.
CONTENTS: Disaster resilient infrastructure definition | Importance of disaster resilience | Resilience in the built environment | Materials | Structures | Building layout | Landscaping | Precinct planning | Disaster-proofing systems and networks | Challenges | Project management | Resilience vs disaster recovery | Emergency preparedness | Community resilience | Crisis communication | Rescue animations | Rebuilding
What is resilient infrastructure?
A definition: ‘Resilient infrastructure’ refers to systems and structures that are built to endure, adapt, and quickly recover from expected and unexpected shocks and stresses. These stressors could include natural disasters, climate impacts, technological failures, or other human-induced emergencies. The goal of disaster-resilient infrastructure is to ensure minimal disruptions to essential services such as energy, water, transportation, and communications networks and to ensure the safety and well-being of human users and occupants. Resilience in disaster management includes a focus on risk assessment, mitigation, and preparedness, enabling communities and systems to bounce back rapidly after a disruptive event.
Why is disaster-resilient infrastructure important?
The need for disaster-resilient infrastructure is becoming imperative as the density of built environments and urban centres increases across the world. An emphasis on disaster resilience is vital because it reduces the potential loss of life, injury, and damage. Ultimately, it strengthens the capacity of communities and societies to manage and recover from disasters, contributing to long-term sustainability, durability, and economic stability. The importance of disaster resilience is increasingly recognised as the effects of industrial technology, unpredictable weather patterns, global warming, and dense urbanisation introduce new and complex challenges to infrastructure.
How to improve disaster resilience in the built environment
A robust disaster resilience strategy helps to ensure a successful and integrated approach to disaster management. Such strategies include:
Integrating disaster-resilient materials and components
Disaster-resilient materials and components, such as fire-resistant building materials, are specifically designed to augment the performance of a building or infrastructure during a disaster. Fireproof materials can even compartmentalise buildings so that particular sections (such as evacuation routes) maintain their structural integrity for a certain time. Digital simulations are fantastic tools for testing these set-ups in different configurations, utilising modern technology to improve resilience before disaster strikes.
Designing and constructing disaster-resilient structures
Disaster-resilient design is complicated, fraught with revisions as clashes between existing elements or new considerations arise. For example, creating a floor plan with efficient evacuation routes may conflict with the desire for aesthetic appeal, functional spaces, and cost-effective commercial use.
Disaster-resilient infrastructure examples include:
- Earthquake-resistant structures – ensuring structures can absorb and distribute seismic forces without collapse. Earthquake-resistant building design might encompass ‘redundancy’ (deliberately providing multiple load paths, so if one structural element fails, the force can be redistributed onto other load-bearing elements), ductility (allowing part of the structure to deform without breaking), and base isolation (allowing the base of the structure to move separately from the remainder).
- Tsunami and flood-resilient infrastructure – targeting flood-prone areas. Strategies include elevating foundations, structural reinforcement, drainage systems, seawalls, floodproof doors, breakaway walls, open ground floors (allowing water to flow freely), and permeable pavements.
- Temperature-resistant infrastructure – designed to withstand extreme fluctuations in temperature. This can be achieved by integrating green roofs, thermal insulation, strategic ventilation, and flexible joints. Extreme heat fluctuations can cause significant problems in railways, for example, resulting in track buckling.[i]
- Hurricane and wind-resistant construction – utilising aerodynamic designs, reinforced structures, secure roofing materials, streamlined shapes, and strategic orientation to increase resilience to extreme wind events. Additional fortifications might include impact-resistant doors and windows, wind-resistant cladding, and hurricane straps for securing roofs. Digital twin simulations give you the ability to visualise and test all of these factors prior to implementation. For example, designers can study the wind flow patterns around and within buildings to identify areas prone to turbulence, vortex shedding or wind-driven debris.
Optimising building layout for disaster resilience
Resilient design also involves careful planning of the following:
- Alarms and public announcement systems – situated so as to be easily heard by all occupants.
- Emergency lighting, directional signage and symbols – placed in key locations to guide occupants towards exits and to ensure safety during power outages.
- Fire exits and stairwells – clearly marked, unobstructed, and positioned in easily accessible areas to facilitate quick evacuation.
- Fire extinguishers, hydrants, fire hoses and sprinkler systems – easily accessible and strategically located to cover all areas.
- Emergency assembly points (also known as fire muster points) – accessible from all parts of the building and safe from heat, smoke, and falling debris.
- Safe rooms – regions prone to tornadoes or other severe weather events may include a reinforced safe room.
- Utility interfaces or control panels – conveniently located for managing communication systems, water, gas, internet, and electricity.
- Data and server rooms – situated away from areas prone to flooding or other hazards.
Digital twins offer an indispensable tool for testing all these aspects in a virtual setting, helping you optimise buildings, facilities, and precincts for maximum resilience.
Landscaping strategies to stabilise the terrain and minimise water run-off
Disaster-resilient measures are not limited to particular materials and architectural designs. Landscaping strategies are used extensively as a means of defence against landslides, controlling water run-off and mitigating the effects of strong winds. For instance, the damage caused by strong winds can be reduced by planting shrubs or trees or raising berms to act as windbreaks.
Landscaping adaptations are also often made in high-risk flood zones to control stormwater flow. This can involve using a network of ditches to redirect stormwater or permeable pavements to help prevent flooding. Effective stormwater management can avert landslides, as unstable slopes often result from the accumulation of water. All of these approaches can be easily tested and planned in a virtual 3D environment.
Urban and precinct planning to improve the disaster resilience of cities
Disastrous urban planning makes responding to disasters harder and more dangerous than it need be. Historically, the town or village centre has been obvious. It was the town square and town hall, or in more ecclesiastical times, the church on the hill. The urban centre was intuitive and known. But now it rarely exists or exists only in name. A shopping centre is not really a town centre, nor is a civic centre. It has become harder to agree upon this meeting place, let alone find one that would accommodate the numbers required, and harder still to educate everyone involved.
And it is during natural disasters when these common grounds, and the logic of the city, suddenly becomes very important.
Each community, village or suburb needs a clear and obvious centre. And not just a shelter for when the immediate disaster hits: we need centres that are the natural and obvious hub of the precinct.
We have become so bad at building these into neighbourhoods that they are essentially lost. This makes for weaker, less resilient communities and economies.
Building resilient infrastructure and communities involves a ground-up approach that begins with strategic planning. Disaster-resilient cities should have some or all of the following:
- Careful placement of infrastructure and emergency services – distributing critical services evenly across a city avoids the risk of total system failure should one area become damaged or inaccessible. Hospitals, fire stations, and police stations should be positioned where they are most effective and least likely to be cut off in a disaster.
- Land-use planning – with zones restricting certain development activities in locations where risks are deemed to be higher.
- Walkable precincts – reducing dependence on vehicles and avoiding the congestion of emergency access routes. Walkable precincts also encourage the development of social connections with locals, building community resilience to disasters.
- Accessible, recognisable, and properly spaced public assembly points – for communities to gather and coordinate the recovery effort.
Disaster-proofing systems and networks
Ensuring the continuity of transportation, communication systems, and utilities is essential for meeting basic needs during an emergency, aiding the emergency response and promoting faster recovery. Disaster recovery network design might include everything from reinforcing infrastructure to withstand earthquakes to developing cybersecurity protocols to protect against cyber attacks. CGI digital twins allow for rigorous virtual testing and scenario planning without risking the actual systems, strengthening the resilience of the overall network.
What are the challenges in creating a disaster-resilient built environment?
Creating a disaster-resilient environment can be a daunting task, both financially and logistically. Cities are complex and have often evolved organically without disaster-proofing in mind. Implementing resilience measures, particularly within existing infrastructure, can be costly and time-consuming, requiring extensive planning and investment. This task is further complicated by the difficulty in accurately predicting the impacts of diverse emergency scenarios. Coordinating resiliency efforts across different sectors, regions, and stakeholders requires effective communication, collaboration, and alignment of goals and strategies.
In light of this, many governments are supporting investment in this area. For example, the Australian Government Department of Home Affairs has led an effort to develop detailed disaster management policies via the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework, guiding communities and institutions through the complexities and challenges of preparing for and responding to disasters. Similarly, the Australian Natural Disaster Risk Index provides a resource for evaluating the capacity of communities to endure natural hazards, aiming to contribute to strategic planning and civic engagement activities.
Disaster resilience in project management: the role of Urban Simulations
Our digital twin simulation technology supports rapid testing, iteration and optimisation of scenarios to add tremendous value in generating disaster resilience solutions and can facilitate the following:
- Rapid design optimisation of project proposals – boosting disaster resilience and preparedness. Real-time concept analysis in a 3D environment allows each design iteration to be quickly refined and improved, allowing potential hazards to be identified and addressed.
- Faster and more accurate infrastructure resilience analysis – with disaster resilience evaluations no longer restricted to the few experts who can interpret technical drawings. Realistic CGI simulations allow all stakeholders to grasp the situation, assess the risks, and make informed decisions. Combined with the rise of better estimations for “measuring baseline characteristics of communities that foster resilience”[ii] and access to better disaster resilience indicators, achieving effective disaster resilience is increasingly feasible.
- Safer infrastructure developments – with health and safety requirements met earlier in the design process. Seeing how a complex, multifaceted proposal reacts in a real-time 3D environment makes it far easier to envision the consequences of design choices and rectify issues earlier.
- Increased resilience in a sustainable development context – generating climate-proof infrastructure. Disaster resilience and sustainability share common objectives, promoting environmental, economic, and social well-being. With the use of digital twins, it is possible to explore different ways of integrating green technology, bolstering environmental sustainability and resilience.
- Reduced risk due to predictive maintenance – with some digital twins possessing algorithms capable of predicting when machinery, equipment, or infrastructure may fail or require maintenance. By pre-emptively identifying potential issues, predictive maintenance can significantly increase a structure’s resilience to disaster and extend its lifespan.
- Monitoring for disaster mitigation – with dynamic surveillance monitoring environmental changes. For example, some digital twins can help assess the likelihood of flooding by tracking rainfall via simulations and onsite sensors.[iii] Continuous disaster monitoring takes some of the guesswork out of planning for emergencies and allows immediate responses to be implemented, minimising risk.
Disaster resilience vs disaster recovery
Disaster resilience refers to the ability to withstand and recover from a disruption. This approach is proactive and focuses on mitigation and prevention. Disaster recovery, on the other hand, is reactive and refers to the repair and recovery that occurs after the event has happened.
Digital twins can help with disaster recovery in the following ways:
Emergency preparedness training for staff
Training staff in a simulated environment allows you to scrutinise and practice emergency protocol and evacuation procedures, understanding how a disaster may play out and the risks involved (read more about how our simulations are useful for railway emergency preparation). If the unexpected occurs, well-trained staff can adapt their response as new priorities or obstacles arise. This is especially important for those with team leader responsibilities.
Community resilience training
Disaster management plans are often internal documents only. People need to know what to do on the ground, at the local level. Digital simulations can be instrumental in this area, enhancing residents’ understanding of disasters and informing the public about safe meeting points and evacuation routes. Unlike in-person, resource-intensive community resilience workshops, animations broadcast across digital media platforms can achieve a much larger reach, while achieving the same goal of building community resilience.
Crisis communication and emergency updates during and post-disaster
When disaster hits, there is an urgent need for widespread communication and direction. Where do I run when flood waters come? People often have no idea where to go, or what they should do.
Immediately after a disaster, people begin picking up the pieces, in search of resources and information on how to move forward. But how do people know where to find these necessities amidst the chaos?
One of the riskiest things when there is no power and no access is to have everyone running around in different directions due to miscommunication or missing communications. At such times, communication becomes the cornerstone of survival and repair.
Clear communication is key in any disaster response. More importantly, people need to know where to go for their information. In emergency scenarios, there can be a lack of coordination between crisis and emergency risk communication from governments, agencies and organisations, so business-oriented volunteers may know more about what is happening on the ground than government staff.
Simulation-based video animations are highly useful for communicating public safety notices, pre-disaster warnings, evacuation orders, emergency alerts, or any other form of emergency broadcast via social networks or other platforms, illustrating precisely what people should do. The quality of animations from CGI simulations means they are immediately available for public broadcasting.
Animations to help with rescue efforts
Digital twins can also play an important role in training first responders and communicating response procedures. They can show responders what damaged infrastructure looks like from multiple angles, establishing what to prioritise and how to respond. As a consequence, emergency responders can make decisions much more effectively, selecting appropriate rescue strategies and tactics and minimising further trauma and damage to infrastructure and human life.
After the initial search and rescue phase, the next step is rebuilding and repairing the damage.
Getting businesses up and running enables a speedy recovery of the whole community. This is especially true of the providers of critical daily commodities – bread and milk.
How can we get the precinct operational again in the shortest time? How can we help businesses get back on their feet? This starts with information and a coordinated response.
Digital twin simulations can help with restoration or reconstruction efforts, ensuring that repairs and upgrades enhance future disaster resilience. Interactive simulations can dramatically decrease the time it takes to restore the community to its normal functioning, modelling damaged areas of infrastructure, and helping coordinate the swift rerouting of services, like transportation or utilities, minimising downtime. Learn more about how our services can help with earthquake response and recovery here.
Urban CGI Digital Twin emergency simulation software
Based in Melbourne, Victoria, we have clients throughout Australia, New Zealand, UK, Europe and beyond. We have extensive experience using digital twins and simulations for developing disaster preparedness and resilience for rural and urban communities. With over twenty years of experience in the industry, we have helped our clients formulate a wide range of disaster response systems, emergency operations plans, and crisis communication plans.
Please get in touch to learn more about how Urban CGI can help you strengthen your project’s disaster resilience.
[i] Sakdirat Kaewunruen, Mohannad AbdelHadi, Manwika Kongpuang, Withit Pansuk, and Alex Remennikov, Digital Twins for Managing Railway Bridge Maintenance, Resilience, and Climate Change Adaption (2022)
[ii] Susan Cutter, Christopher Burton, and Chris Emrich, Disaster Resilience Indicators for Benchmarking Baseline Conditions (2010)
[iii] Sakdirat Kaewunruen, Jessada Sresakoolchai, and Yi-hsuan Lin, Digital twins for managing railway maintenance and resilience (2022)