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Science That Serves Society: The Cooperation Center for Disaster Mitigation and Security in Building

bridges vol. 9, April 2006 / Feature Article
by Irene Eckart

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Universities are not necessarily the first place people turn to when facing emergency situations in the "real world." But when listening to Emmerich Simoncsics, Coordinator of the Cooperation Center for Disaster Mitigation and Security in Buildings at the Vienna University of Technology (VUT), this is a preconception one might want to reconsider. "Although our university is working in a context of "academic education" and "knowledge production," he explains when asked for the raison d'être of the Cooperation Center, "our special goal is, by means of the creativity of our students and the profound knowledge of experienced researchers, to help to solve the acute problems of our society, not only in Austria but also in other parts of the globe."

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To describe the circumstances under which the Cooperation Center for Disaster Mitigation was born, Simoncsics goes back to 1998. Austria was shocked by the Lassing mine disaster in which ten miners died under the collapsing roof of a talc mine and where proper emergency management could have saved many lives. At the same time in Japan, the devastating 1995 earthquake in Kobe with a death toll of over 5,000 was still present in people's minds. Since then, countless natural disasters have dominated the news and continue to do so. The Indian Ocean tsunami at Christmas 2004, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans last August, and South Asian earthquakes are just three examples that have gained notoriety. All of them show the importance and urgent need for emergency management, precautionary measures like early warning systems, and the availability of emergency accommodations to get a grip on ever-growing losses of life. But what the first two incidents have in common is that they were Emmerich Simoncsics motivation to initiate an international cooperation project in the field of disaster mitigation between the VUT and Tokyo University. Already in the year 2000, 25 Japanese experts were invited to visit the Vienna University of Technology to enter into an interdisciplinary cooperation with 20 Austrian institutes for the purpose of fighting natural disasters like floods, landslides, avalanches, storms, and fires.

Research that serves society

The momentous flood in Austria in 2002 eventually led Franz G. Rammerstorfer, the VUT's Vice President for Research, to take further steps to promote and institutionalize the interdisciplinary cooperation. He encouraged the establishment of "VTU cooperation centers," in which two or three VUT faculties carry out joint projects on a particular topic. This initiative led to the creation of the "VUT Cooperation Center for Disaster Mitigation and Security in Buildings," officially inaugurated in 2003. In his opening speech, Rammerstorfer emphasized the overall goal of conducting research that is socially relevant and hands-on - research that serves society.


As to its organizational nature, Simoncsics clarifies that "the VUT Cooperation Center is not an organization or institution with steady members or personnel." He rather describes it as a "platform and network to foster meetings of several institutes in order to exchange and coordinate their research activities and form groups to continue their research topics in interdisciplinary cooperation," with the most important event being the annual exhibition in June, where the results of the research activities are exhibited. The Center carries out its research in the framework of practice-oriented and socially relevant projects of complex quality, which require a close cooperation between the various disciplines. While one working group of the participating institutes, "Integrated Research," is dedicated to theoretical and experimental research, a second working group, "Object-oriented Research," led by Emmerich Simoncsics, is aimed at solving tangible problems. Due to a lack of financial resources to pay for the time expenditure and thus manpower, a research-based training program for students of architecture was introduced in order to carry out the tasks of the "Object-oriented Research" working group. Instead of remuneration, students receive diplomas, prizes, and a small stipend.

According to Simoncsics, the disaster mitigation projects of the last five years - in wHealthCenter_small_captionhich an average of 13 advanced students of the faculty of architecture and 10 experts of other faculties took part - would have added up to €110,000 in time expenditure if conducted in the conventional research funding framework. However, the strong involvement of students in the project is not only a means to an end: The recent disasters confirmed the demand for specific education and training of talented and interested students of architecture and construction engineering in disaster mitigation, and reinforced the endeavors to elaborate a special interdisciplinary training for interested and advanced students and even to offer a postgraduate program in this field.

Different cultures, common goal - or why we have to understand each other before we can learn from each other
Another integral part of the concept is cooperation that is both international and interdisciplinary. Thanks to an agreement between the VUT and the University of Tokyo dating back to 1981, many of the topics (earthquakes and landslides) were dealt with in close cooperation with Japan. One actual theme, the Niigata-Project, was carried out in the framework of the official program "Japan - EU Year of People-to-People Exchanges 2005" on the occasion of the disastrous Japanese earthquake in 2004. Its goal was concrete suggestions for the improvement and acceleration of reconstruction, future disaster control, and emergency management. In compliance with the project task, public buildings such as schools, gymnasiums, hotels, congress centers, etc. were developed which, apart from their conventional purpose, could be transformed into a reception camp for 2000 victims each within six hours in case of an emergency.

In addition to their collaboration with Japan, the Center also conducted a research project with the University of Bangladesh concerning cyclone-hazards. For the fall semester 2006, a design program on the special Louisiana situation is in preparation. The joint project will be carried out in cooperation with Tulane University in New Orleans.

Joint projects, especially with other countries, are not only desirable thanks to the possibility of receiving funding within the "Erasmus Mundus" framework or through other EU projects - but often constitute the only wise form of conducting research, allocating resources, and combining valuable knowledge and diverse methods of resolving problems. Simoncsics, who was awarded the "Medal of the Rising Sun" in 1997 by the Japanese Emperor for his efforts to foster interdisciplinary studies, puts it that way: "Interdisciplinary cooperation is a prerequisite to any complex scientific research; you simply can't resolve a complex problem by looking for answers in only one branch of study."


Along with more than two decades of efforts to foster scientific cooperation between the VUT and foreign universities, Emmerich Simoncsics also devised an outstanding technical dictionary for Japanese-English translation. The creation of this dictionary was a result of his own language difficulties while pursuing his doctoral studies in Tokyo in the 1960s: "Most of my professors didn't speak English, only Japanese. Since it sometimes took me more than 40 minutes to look up one single technical term a professor used during his lecture, I had the idea of developing a Japanese-English Code Dictionary. I realized that, due to the language barrier problem, knowledge transfer became almost impossible." In 1996, after more than 30 years of preparing this language tool as a "hobby" in his free time, Simoncsics published a dictionary containing more than 80,000 terms and definitions.

The results speak for themselves and are favorably spoken of - let's stop talking and start implementing
The results of the Niigata project (only one out of the numerous student projects illustrated in the pictures), which were judged by a jury and evaluated by Austrian and Japanese experts, proved to be very promising and have been highly valued in both Austria and Japan. In order to receive feedback from people who could potentially profit from the research results, an exhibition was held not only in Vienna but also in Japan. An additional symposium will be organized in Niigata this September.BaukastenModell_small_capti

The students in the disaster mitigation projects developed so-called "family-stands," which triple the capacity of sports or exhibition surfaces, etc. to accommodate people in case of an emergency. The stands are 3 meters square (9.84 feet on each side) and offer accommodation for six persons each, provided that large indoor areas are temporarily available and not only equipped with the necessary number of stands but also with other necessities such as drinking water, first aid facilities, emergency supplies, and catering possibilities. Equally interesting is the "flexible building KIT" project of the "Institute for Structural Design and Timber Engineering," headed by Prof. Wolfgang Winter. In this "KIT," a do-it-yourself unit assembly system for single family houses allows for quick and inexpensive reconstruction after a disaster has occurred. "Beginning with the construction of the most important part for living (a minimal housing unit consisting of a living room, kitchen, and lavatory), this self-made house is supposed to be gradually extendable," says Simoncsics.


Both concepts are very useful for various kinds of natural disasters. But this is the point where cooperation has to reach a new level and involve industry partners that are willing and have the capacity to implement these ideas. In order to be able to help the victims, Emmerich Simoncsics hopes to attract support not only from federal research grant institutions, as has been the case in the past, but also from private businesses and industry. However, he also urges governments to rethink their budget allocations: "Yearly much money is spent to help the victims after a disaster occurs," Simoncsics observes. If only one percent of this money were granted in advance for research activities and emergency equipment, he is convinced that economic damage and, even more importantly, loss of lives could be reduced dramatically.


The author, Irene Eckart, is a member of the editorial team of bridges at the Office of Science & Technology at the Embassy of Austria in Washington, DC.

If you are interested in learning more about the VUT Cooperation Center or would like to get in contact with its head, Emmerich Simoncsics, pl
ease contact:
Emmerich Simoncsics Institute of Architecture and Design Head of the Key Station
Coordinator of the VUT Cooperation Centre for Disaster Mitigation and Security in Buildings

The above article was prepared based on an interview conducted with Emmerich Simoncsics in April 2006 and information material kindly provided by Prof. Simoncsics:
"Das TU-Kooperationszentrum für Katastrophenvorbeugung und Sicherheit in Bauten. Interdisziplinäre Kooperation der Ingenieure zum Wohle der Menschheit" by Univ.-Prof. Dr. Emmerich Simoncsics, e&i - Elektrotechnik und Informationstechnik, OVE (Österreichischer Verband für Elektrotechnik) Verbandszeitschrift, Volume 5, 2005, p. 150-154, Verlag Springer Wien New York - http://www.ove.at/medien/eui/

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