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Making Safety the Most Important Factor in Sustainable Future Societies

Institute for Sustainable Future Society (Science and Technology Research Initiative)

Tomoya Shibayama, Professor of the Faculty of Science and Engineering
Director of Institute for Sustainable Future Society

Commentary: Waseda Research Institute for Science and Engineering, University Research Initiative
Waseda University established Vision 150 to meet a variety of objectives for the 150th anniversary of its founding (in 2032), with 13 core strategies in development. One of the core strategies that have been laid out is the "promotion of original research and enhancement of the ability to deliver this internationally." In order to drive this core strategy forward in the field of science and technology, seven research initiatives for responding to social challenges were newly established with the Waseda Research Institute for Science and Engineering (WISE) at its core. A research institute will be established for each initiative in April 2018 with the aim to pursue first-class global research. In order to pursue interdisciplinary research and to strengthen international research in each field of focus, this group of research institutes, called the cluster institutes, will work cooperatively. There is also a plan to launch the "Waseda Earth Restoration School" (WERS) as a place where visions of future research can be formulated.

The seven cluster institutes established for each research initiative

Celebratory symposium for the establishment of the research initiatives, where research representatives and members of the seven initiatives gathered (December 22, 2017)

We asked Professor Tomoya Shibayama from the Faculty of Science and Engineering to talk about the aspirations and vision of the Institute for Sustainable Future Society, which was launched in April 2018 with a focus on sustainable future society research, one of the seven research initiatives.

Every Natural Disaster is a Complex Emergency

The core research pillars of the Institute for Sustainable Future Society are disaster prevention, social infrastructure maintenance, and the environment. The largest mission in these research activities is to integrate disaster research, which includes various fields of expertise, in an interdisciplinary manner. The focus must be placed not only on natural disasters, but also manmade disasters, while taking a wider view and defining the chain of these disasters as complex emergencies. Information and knowledge that is truly useful for securing a sustainable future for people in regional communities must be delivered to the public, while compiling research results that can contribute to the planning and drafting of policy measures.

"In June 2011, after the Great East Japan Earthquake, we promptly established a project research institute called the Composed Crisis Research Institute. We spent five years conducting research on tsunami damage, environmental impacts, and measures to tackle massive complex emergencies, as well as how to support recovery and formulate policies for the future. I specialize in disaster prevention in coastal areas, and I was joined by Professor Teruhiko Yoda, an expert in bridge engineering, and Professor Kazuo Kamura, an expert in waste disposal engineering, who were central to this project. Others outside the field of science and engineering were also involved, including a core member, Professor Shunji Matsuoka, who is an expert in environmental economics. We leveraged our overseas collaborative research networks while analyzing massive disasters in Japan and overseas, starting with the Great East Japan Earthquake, and identifying the characteristics that make them complex emergencies." (Prof. Shibayama)

Picture 1: Damage along the coast caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake

When it comes down to it, every disaster is a complex emergency. Earthquakes cause chain reactions that lead to tsunamis, land subsidence, fires, and power outages. As we saw in Fukushima, they even trigger accidents in nuclear power plants. In a typhoon or a rapidly-developed low pressure, we experience strong winds, then heavy rains, floods, and even storm surges, so it is important to understand these chains of events from a time history perspective.

"Up until now, there has been very little research that looked at complex emergencies from a time history perspective. In order to achieve disaster prevention and disaster damage reduction in regional communities, it is necessary for the citizens and the communities to have a shared idea of the hazards facing them. To achieve that, we first extended our scope to not only research individual disasters, but also consider them in terms of the complex emergencies that they represent. We then gathered the analysis of chain events chronologically and studied disaster damage reduction and prevention measures. At the new institute, in order to apply our expertise to sustainable future societies, we will significantly expand our target to include disaster prevention, social infrastructure maintenance, and the environment, pushing forward with a holistic analysis of all issues involved." (Prof. Shibayama)

Figure 1: The three research groups and main topics of the Institute for Sustainable Future Society

Safety Criteria for Land Use

As we moved from complex emergencies to sustainable future societies, we began looking at the future because transformation in land use and social infrastructure maintenance has become a crucial issue due to the extreme rates of population aging and population decline in Japan. we felt a strong sense of obligation to firmly establish safety as a key assessment criteria in land use assessment and selection. In regional communities, policies that concentrate and enhance city functions and service functions, such as compact city and smart city policies, are being implemented. Going forward, as land use becomes more concentrated, the basis for assessment criteria is required for evaluation of risks and safety.

"Going forward, when deciding where to live, everyday convenience won't be the only thing to consider. You'll also need to proactively take safety into consideration. Every citizen chooses to live their lives while prioritizing their own safety. To achieve this, quantitative evaluations of disaster prevention, social infrastructure, and the environment are necessary. This is where we provide evaluation models. Proactive evacuations from high-risk regions are absolutely necessary for Japan to move forwards, but this can't be achieved just through administrative judgement and top-down enforcement. The ultimate goal is to evacuate disaster-prone lands in 50 or 100 years' time as a result of individuals taking actions." (Prof. Shibayama)

Risk and safety evaluations are also crucial for social infrastructure. The institute has set plant decommissioning as one of its core topics. Professor and Vice-Director Hideo Komine, an expert in geotechnical engineering, is leading various studies to determine how the Fukushima nuclear power plants can be decommissioned safely. In addition, vulnerability assessment models for existing social infrastructure, such as bridges and levees, are being proposed.

There are many possible applications in the environmental field, including safety evaluations of waste treatment and decontamination efforts, assessments of future renewable energy resources, and the construction of prediction models for environmental changes caused by global warming. Climate scientists around the world are focused on climate change research, but they are mostly taking a macro approach by looking at the planet as a whole, though these do not offer significant insights into the micro-analysis of how they could impact each region specifically.

"For example, we know that as global warming progresses, typhoons might decrease in number, but each typhoon that comes will probably be much stronger. It is necessary to raise future hypotheses about the specific impacts from these disasters. Minor influences can change the trajectories of typhoons, and the amount of rain and strength of the wind can vary by a large margin, so our goal is to establish simulation methods that can respond to these changes with great precision. We think that we are close to producing results that can answer questions such as how rainfall and storm surges will change in future typhoons, and analyze how these events will affect Tokyo, Yokohama, and other locations." (Prof. Shibayama)

Strong International Collaborative Research with Researchers Around the World

16 members from the central Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering of the School of Creative Science and 12 members of the Department of Resources and Environmental Engineering are involved in the institute, all of whom are professors, fixed-term faculty members, or researchers. In addition, there are three faculty members in related fields from the Department of Architecture and Architectural Engineering, making up a total of 31 members from within the school.

"When we were submitting the application for the institute, we were told that the number of the members (30 people) might be too big. However, considering the fact that we would be integrating the three disciplines of disaster prevention, social infrastructure, and the environment, we decided that the number was not too big. Although there are around 10 core members who are involved with the most important aspects, it is necessary to focus the combined strengths of those with extensive expertise in related fields." (Prof. Shibayama)

Another unique characteristic of this institute is its solid international collaborative research network. The aforementioned Composed Crisis Research Institute received a grant from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology's Strategic Research Foundation Grant-Aided Project for Private Universities in 2013, and established an international collaborative research project called the "Formation of a Disaster Research Group for the Global Deployment of Disaster Mitigation Research," which invited researchers from around the world, including Canada, Iran, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bhutan, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, the UK, China, South Korea, and Chile, to conduct research on past major disasters in each region from the new perspective of complex emergencies (Picture 2). Another strength of this group is the fact that most of the members from overseas are alumni who had obtained degrees from Shibayama's laboratory.

Picture 2: The results of international collaborative research related to coastal disasters with a focus on tsunamis and storm surges were published under the title Handbook of Coastal Disaster Mitigation for Engineers and Planners in 2015. (Editors: Miguel Esteban, Hiroshi Takagi, Tomoya Shibayama)

By leveraging these networks, researchers can contribute to disaster risk management and the formulation of countermeasures not just in Japan, but all over the world. Due to the impact of global warming, the length of time that Arctic sea ice will remain during each season has shortened, which then increases the damage caused by high waves and storm surges in the event of blizzards, bringing danger to arctic settlements. With regard to the impact of climate change in the Arctic, research will be conducted with Professor Ioan Nistor of the University of Ottawa, who is also an expert on tsunami research in Vancouver.

"Disaster prevention and climate change countermeasures can be broken down into 'mitigation,' an effort to reduce the extent of environmental change through technology and policies that curb greenhouse gas emissions, and 'adaptation,' the ability of humans to adapt to these changes. For example, in the Pacific Ocean, there are many islands that could become submerged under the ocean in the near future due to the impact of global warming. What kind of future can we envision in terms of the measures that they should take towards climate change? There is an island in the Philippines that is currently experiencing land subsidence caused by an earthquake, so the fishermen and the local people living along the shore are coming up with new ways to adapt to the environment. Professor Miguel Esteban of our research institute is searching for models that other regions can learn from, based on the results of extensive fieldwork." (Prof. Shibayama)

These types of international research and human resource deployment are crucial during the calculation of university rankings. In the "Top 10 Civil Engineering Schools with Employers in 2018" assessed by QS in the UK, Waseda University ranked sixth in the world. This is the result of a high evaluation of the quality of the educational research conducted by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. It is also an indication that this faculty is successfully training and improving the quality of their human resources. In addition, in the QS overall University Rankings, which is considered to be a measure of the overall research output of a department, Waseda University’s Civil and Structural Engineering Faculty rose from the range of the top 151 to 200 in 2017 to the top 101 to 150 in 2018. The school now has its sights set on making it into the double-digit range within a few years.

In addition, Waseda University delivered the first MOOC (massive open online course) of a lecture program taught in English (Figure 2) offered through Waseda University's global MOOC service titled "edX," in which research results related to coastal disasters were turned into an English education program and sent to participants around the world. A total of 5,000 people participated in this course, which was separated into two series.

"It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that all the results we have produced up until now are being included in this educational program. The reactions from professionals and students who are taking the course were really encouraging, and we hope to continue disseminating our work in similar ways in the future." (Prof. Shibayama)

Many people have high expectations of this institute to create safe, secure, and sustainable future societies not only in Japan, but around the world.

Figure 2: Details of the MOOC (massive open online course) titled "Tsunamis and Storm Surges: Introduction to Coastal Disasters."