Batman Helps Engineers Understand Resilience
The Engineer posted on January 08, 2018 |
A new approach to modelling community resilience turned to the Dark Knight for inspiration.
A new approach to modelling community resilience turned to the Dark Knight for inspiration. (Image courtesy of Stefans02.)
If a community is resilient, it can withstand and recover from an unanticipated disaster, like an earthquake, fire or flood.

But since every disaster and every community is unique, a uniform measure for defining "resilience" has been hard to come by for engineers and social scientists.

In a new study, Colorado State University civil engineer Hussam Mahmoud offers an innovative approach to defining resilience that could help communities better prepare for hazards. Integrating a community's infrastructural, social and economic features, Mahmoud's team has created a dynamic mathematical model that quantifies, in space and time, how well a community would withstand a major shakeup - regardless of whether it's a natural disaster like a flood, or a social disruption like the Arab Spring in 2011.

Mahmoud and graduate student co-author Akshat Chulahwat describe their "hazard-agnostic," finite element resilience model in the journal Computer-Aided Civil and Infrastructure Engineering.

Mahmoud and Chulahwat's work uses finite element analysis, based on the principle that a community - be it a town, city or suburb - responds to a disaster very much like a swinging pendulum or vibrating violin string responds to a force.

"Our mathematical formula allows you to cause disruption to a community at any location, and see what that disruption would do to the entire community," said Mahmoud, associate professor of civil engineering.

Could this approach also help with more local issues, such as this engineering project on traffic management in modern Ethiopia? Follow the link to find out.

A map of Gotham City is laid out in a Finite Element Analysis grid. The grid shows recovery of different lifelines, and how they affect recovery of various parts of the city. (Image courtesy of Hussam Mahmoud and Akshat Chulahwat/Colorado State University.)
A map of Gotham City is laid out in a Finite Element Analysis grid. The grid shows recovery of different lifelines, and how they affect recovery of various parts of the city. (Image courtesy of Hussam Mahmoud and Akshat Chulahwat/Colorado State University.)
To demonstrate the versatility of their model, the team used Batman’s fictional home town, Gotham City, as a test bed. They chose a fictional city to provide a proof-of-concept for their model.


Defining Community Resilience

Many engineers and social scientists are working to define community resilience. Mahmoud is one of them, as a member of the CSU-led NIST Center for Risk-Based Community Resilience Planning. Typically, resilience is viewed as an engineering, social or economic problem, and individual communities decide which metrics matter most to them. The metrics usually fall into a series of "lifelines," like water, housing, power, health, community and transportation.

In Mahmoud and Chulahwat's approach, recovery of all lifelines is integrated to form a unified resilience metric. The metric combines engineering, social and economic features of the lifelines together, as opposed to selecting only one of them.

The approach applies these same lifelines, but simplifies resilience into three classes: social, economic and infrastructure. Using an equation from classical mechanics, the team considered mass to represent social vulnerabilities; damping to represent funds available for recovery; and stiffness to represent robustness of infrastructure

If one or more of these variables experiences a change, the rest of the system follows suit.

They verified their model using a map which divided Gotham into uptown, midtown and downtown, recording the effects of various "disasters," including a riot at Arkham Asylum, which is located near uptown Gotham.

Among their observations was that a fast recovery is not necessarily best; if a community bounces back too quickly from a disruption, it can cause instabilities.

Layout of Gotham City and its corresponding finite element mesh. (Image courtesy of Hussam Mahmoud and Akshat Chulahwat/Colorado State University.)
Layout of Gotham City and its corresponding finite element mesh. (Image courtesy of Hussam Mahmoud and Akshat Chulahwat/Colorado State University.)
Mahmoud was inspired to take this approach to defining resilience in part by studying the Arab Spring uprising of 2011 in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. The widespread demonstrations lasted many weeks and took social and economic tolls on communities for years, but the impact was difficult to measure.

The new hazard-agnostic model provides a framework for better defining how disruptions like the Arab Spring affect communities long term.

"Our model can help us determine what happens to your community, both spatially and temporally, if it's struck by a natural disaster, economic downturn or social disruption," Mahmoud said.

For more comics-related engineering, check out The Engineering of Captain America’s Shield.

Source: Colorado State University

Recommended For You