Inspiration Nation

Originally published in 

Writer Lisa Katayama sees innovation triumphing over tragedy in Japan in the wake of the Sendai earthquake.

Sendai earthquake illustration by Mark Giglio

The Japanese are still recovering from the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that struck the country’s eastern coast on March 11. But for many, the tragedy is also serving as a solid motivational driver for change. Innovation isn’t just coming from the government or the Red Cross; in the last few months, we’ve seen amazing examples of engineers, designers, and architects rallying together to devise creative solutions to disaster mitigation.

Mere hours after the first tremors hit, Google set up a Picasa Web album of satellite images and a YouTube channel for refugee center volunteers to upload survivor information, then crowdsourced the transcript of their names into a searchable database. Vending machine distributors took out rows of soda and replaced them with buttons that would donate directly to earthquake relief. Olive, a wiki started after the quake by design and innovation firm Nosigner, continues to offer multilingual tips on how to use everyday objects in unexpectedly functional ways—like how to cut a plastic water bottle in half to make a plate, or make a space heater out of a cutlery holder.

This connection between disaster and innovation is not new. Earthquake engineering and architecture have always gone hand-in-hand in Japan: Seismic coefficients were factored into building codes as early as 1924; meteorologists have been using numerical modeling to predict and simulate ocean behavior since the 1960s; and as a child growing up in Tokyo in the 1980s, I remember our kitchen having cabinets that locked automatically at the first hint of a tremor. As architects learn more about how buildings are impacted by earthquakes, construction has shifted from more classic wood-based construction to fast-and-sturdy apartment complexes engineered to withstand the worst natural disasters. The Tokyo high-rise my parents now live in is outfitted with wind-resistant sticky wall technology, oil dampers, and columns made of steel-filled concrete for added resistance. When the March earthquake shook Tokyo, nothing in their 40th floor condo moved an inch.

Twenty percent of the world’s most powerful quakes happen in Japan. When they do, people fix things, improve infrastructure, and move on. As part of this process, designers, architects, and engineers frequently put their heads together to reimagine how communities can operate more efficiently. So don’t be surprised if eastern Japan’s cityscape changes over the next few years or if, on your next visit to Tokyo, you’re served dinner off of a plastic bottle.

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