Achieving resilience through built-in readiness


Hozuma Sekine
Value Creation Process Manager


  • Natural disasters are not unusual phenomena; they are part of our daily lives
  • Disaster preparedness and longer term solutions to societal issues are requisites of a resilient society
  • This can be achieved through built-in readiness, in other words a phase-free approach

Disasters will come: not an exception, but the rule

In March 2021, 10 years after an earthquake and tsunami mega-disaster wracked parts of Japan’s Tohoku region, we advocated the building of an “advanced disaster management society by rounding up new technologies and achieving self-support through personal disaster prevention” in an article titled “Transforming Disaster Prevention to Overcome Looming Mega-Disasters.”

A year on, a spate of natural disasters of various kinds has occurred around the world—adding to the impact of the covid pandemic. In Japan alone, July 2021 saw torrential rains centered on Shizuoka and Kanagawa prefectures, followed by extensive damage from heavy rainfall in Western Japan in August. The country then went on to experience several magnitude 5 or stronger earthquakes, although fortunately without major damage.

Physicist and author Torahiko Terada (1878–1935) was known for saying “Natural disasters occur just when we’ve forgotten about them.” These days, they are often characterized as causing unexpectedly extensive damage, at unforeseen times, and in unanticipated locations. This reflects an entrenched awareness of disasters as something out of the ordinary, as if day-to-day life and emergencies were two distinct phases. However, natural disasters must be kept front-of-mind, as something with direct implications for oneself and one’s loved ones, over the long term— an admittedly difficult task.

Multiple mega-earthquakes statistically loom over the country; the probability of an earthquake on the Nankai Trough, which runs parallel to southeastern Honshu, Japan’s main island, sometime in the next 30 years is 70 to 80 percent and rises to 90 percent when the horizon is extended to the next 40 years. An earthquake to occur beneath the greater Tokyo area too comes in at a probability of 70 percent. New projections announced in December 2021 suggest a 30 to 40 percent probability of an earthquake occurring on the Japan Trench, off the northeastern coast, or the Chishima Trench, off Hokkaido. And when it comes to impact of climate change, the IPCC* has warned that even if the COP26 warming target of 1.5°C is achieved, what is now a once-in-a-half-century extreme temperature event is likely to occur 8.6 times every half century, and a once-in-a-decade heavy precipitation events are likely occur one-and-a-half times every decade. The 2°C warming scenario foresees flood events in Japan roughly doubling in frequency1 (Figure 1).

As these forecasts indicate, today natural disasters are neither unexpectable, unforeseeable, nor unanticipatable—they are not out-of-the-ordinary phenomena, but occur within the context of the normalcy in which our everyday lives play out. When considering anything about Japan’s future, we must assume that mega-disasters are going to occur; not doing so is not an option.

*Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

[Figure 1] Medium- to long-term risk of natural disaster
[Figure 1] Medium- to long-term risk of natural disaster
Source: Mitsubishi Research Institute, Inc.

Resilience-oriented disaster mitigation

The third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction took place in 2015 in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake. The Sendai Framework for disaster risk reduction adopted at the conference prompted uptake of the word resilience in Japan. In recent years it is widely used in fields as disparate as organizational management, human resources, and environmental issues. In this article we adopt the definition set out by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR).

According to the UNDRR, “resilience is the ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions.”* The important points here are the need to accommodate to and recover, and not just resist and absorb.

In other words, a resilient society is one able to bounce back nimbly using a mix of proactive and reactive measures. To this end, it is necessary to anticipate changes in hazards, exposures, and vulnerabilities); make appropriate forecasts; and respond properly and rationally based on priorities of what to protect, constraints, and the balance with other risks. This would also take into account the locality’s future vision, culture, and values.

Measures to mitigate the effects of disasters in Japan have improved every time the country has experienced a major event. The bedrock of current measures includes revised earthquake-resistance standards in the Building Standards Law, expanded seawalls, bolstered levees, and the drafting and maintenance of high-resolution hazard maps. A notable development of the past decade is the private sector-led creation of services using digital technology to provide disaster information to individuals, businesses, and governments. Underpinning this has been the rapid uptake of smartphones and innovations in artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. Disaster mitigation, previously thought to be outside the commercial sphere, is now attracting attention as a way to contribute to greater social good while also being a viable business.

Further progress in measures requires going beyond the conventional disaster-mitigation framework. Stakeholders—residents, the business community, schools, and NPOs—need to take ownership of actions to build resilience by helping themselves and each other, with an eye to what they want the society of the future to look like.

*The ability of a system, community, or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate, adapt to, transform, and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions through risk management.

Built-in readiness embodies the phase-free concept

Unfortunately, as a proverb warns, Once the worst is over, we quickly forget how bad something was: People’s disaster-mitigation awareness quickly fades, even after major disasters. And even though Japan faces numerous longer-term societal issues on top of natural disasters, the regrettable reality is that society will not act if the object is just to mitigate disasters.

Disaster readiness should be forged through different means. Instead of perpetual vigilance to be ready when disaster strikes, we should incorporate readiness into our daily lives; that is, built-in readiness. Preparing for a disaster that could strike at any time is a cost relating to future risks and is unlikely to prompt proactive investment or action. So rather than viewing normalcy and emergencies as belonging to discontinuous phases, we should practice built-in readiness to enable communities struck by disasters to seamlessly respond as they transition from normalcy to emergency, and eventually post-emergency (Figure 2).
[Figure 2] Resilience at play across the spectrum from normalcy to emergency
[Figure 2] Resilience at play across the spectrum from normalcy to emergency
Source: Mitsubishi Research Institute, Inc.
Electric vehicles (xEVs) are one example of a technology that will serve as an initial step toward the future. Although they do have their challenges, such as high vehicle cost and limited driving range, xEVs will play an essential part in achieving carbon neutrality, an important global issue, and, in normalcy, deliver benefits like low running cost and the comfort of a quiet drive. Then there is what xEVs can do in extraordinary times: serve as emergency power sources providing electricity from their batteries. Here, incorporating elements of disaster readiness into relevant social infrastructure—charging stations and power feed points on homes and public buildings—would ensure efficiency and comfort in normalcy and robustness and comfort during emergencies.

While the covid pandemic lingers, society is already starting to implement built-in readiness. Living with covid entails keeping society and the economy functioning as well as possible while taking personal action putting the interests, and so the lives and health, of others first. This is an ongoing process of trial and error at the intersection of normalcy and emergency. Navigating this situation for the past few years has hastened the creation of many new online-communications, contactless, and indoor air-quality technologies and services. They are already taking hold in—becoming built into—our daily lives.

In these ways our values and behavior have changed significantly since before the pandemic began. These changes enable society and the economy to keep functioning despite constraints as the situation challenges us to find ways to preserve ordinary wellbeing even in these extraordinary times. In the post-pandemic era, they look set to take root and become a new normal, one with emergency readiness built in.

Perspectives on achieving resilience and measures for anticipated disasters

We have broken down how to best go about forging a resilient society through the phase-free approach* from the perspectives of community, industry, and individuals.

The existence of local communities that can bring to bear mutual aid and assistance capabilities minimizes the impact of emergencies on daily life and enables a quick recovery. During normalcy, such communities also resolve local issues, creating livable and safe neighborhoods. Being ready for future natural disasters boosts regional competitiveness and contributes to the creation of resilient and sustainable local communities.

From an industry perspective, traditional thinking is that disaster preparedness is a cost for companies and has little to do with short-term improvements in corporate value. However, as non-financial values increasingly become a focus of interest, the Task Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), established in December 2015 by the G20 Financial Stability Board, has called on companies to disclose the physical risks that natural disasters pose (estimated direct and indirect damage). Thus investment in building resilience will become a factor in investors’ choice of stocks to buy.

For individuals, the key is building unconscious continuity between normal, everyday well-being and disaster-readiness. For example, stockpiling food: one approach would be to buy a long-term supply of favored foods—perhaps even at a low, bulk prices—and to consume from reserves while replenishing as they get used, rather than simply keeping a separate stockpile of emergency supplies. Individuals have indeed grown more aware of the need to be prepared for disasters over the past two years, and—especially when assuming that the awareness will fade as time passes—encouraging this kind of built-in readiness would boost individual resilience.

Now is the time to put into place measures to mitigate the effects of both massive earthquakes and climate change. We must make a strong start with the next 10 years, the first challenge, in building a resilient society.
Related Article: “Self-reliant readiness to keep society functioning when disaster strikes” (scheduled for publication soon)
This article covers the resilience of industry and individuals in the context of two potential earthquakes: a Nankai Trough mega earthquake and a Chishima Trench or Japan Trench mega earthquake. A Nankai Trough mega earthquake would seriously damage regions that account for roughly 60 percent of Japan’s manufacturing shipments and about 90 percent of its automobile exports. Meanwhile, a Chishima Trench or Japan Trench mega earthquake would likely damage many communities that are in long-term decline due to aging and shrinking populations. We propose a double-edged approach to establish a lifestyle that prepares for disaster while enabling a combination of corporate activities and comfort during normalcy, based on combining the characteristics of these regions and the nature of anticipated damage.

*Phase free is a new concept pertaining to disasters. It entails removing the barriers between the phases of everyday life (normal times) and emergency (times of disaster), with improving quality of life as its focus. The thinking involves making day-to-day goods and services useful in times of emergency (Source: Phase Free website)

Market Intelligence & Forecast System (mif) questionnaire survey results, Mitsubishi Research Institute, Inc.

Works Cited:

1: Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (2020) “Recommendations for hydraulic control plans premised on climate change” Technical Study Group on Hydraulic Control Plans Based on Climate Change (Accessed: March 1, 2022)