Christopher W. Zobel, R.B. Pamplin Professor of Business Information Technology in the Pamplin College of Business, has received a Fulbright Scholar Award to study disaster resilience.

He will spend three months in the spring of 2015 at the Center for Disaster Management and Risk Reduction Technology at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Disaster resilience is generally considered to be the ability to “bounce back” from the effects of a disaster, Zobel says. “This involves the ability to recover quickly once the disaster event has occurred, but it also can be influenced by the ability to resist the initial impact of the disaster.”

Disaster resilience is especially important for critical infrastructure systems that support the daily operations of the global economy, Zobel says — such as those in the energy, finance, transportation, healthcare, and telecommunications sectors.

“Protecting such systems and helping them to recover from the effects of disasters is essential to the long-term sustainability of the societies they support.”

Zobel plans to use his Fulbright award to develop new, more effective approaches for measuring and monitoring the resilience and sustainability of critical infrastructure systems.

The center in Karlsruhe is internationally known for its groundbreaking, interdisciplinary work in disaster analysis — with a particular focus on studying the underlying causes of disasters and the actions that can be taken to reduce their effects.

“The ability to identify such actions is crucial if you are going to actively try to improve the resilience of a real system,” says Zobel, who notes that the Fulbright gives him a valuable opportunity to collaborate with researchers in this field.

Zobel has taught and conducted research on the design and development of decision support systems for the past 15 years. His recent research has focused on disaster operations management and on supply chain resilience, but he is also interested in decision making for environmental applications.

The analytic techniques he has used include simulation, optimization, and stochastic modeling. Analytic modeling techniques, he says, are very important in the context of disaster resilience.

“They allow us to quantitatively compare different options for maintaining these infrastructure systems in the face of uncertainty and limited resources.

“When incorporated into a decision support system, such techniques can be used not only to support active infrastructure management but also to support better strategic planning — for example, to simulate the effects of different disasters in order to help decision makers determine the most effective policy decisions to make in advance.”

Zobel says his research objectives are to provide concrete decision support, not just create mathematical algorithms.

His work reflects his belief in the “importance of directly modeling the preferences of decision makers, so that the reported resilience of a system actually makes sense in the context of how they perceive their system is responding to a disaster.”

Researchers in disaster management, he says, also have to keep in mind a number of “qualitative” considerations, such as political and cultural factors and the underlying value systems of the decision makers.

“For example, a local government may prioritize replacing infrastructure and strengthening levees along the waterfront in order to better protect existing businesses. Or they may decide to relocate many of those businesses outside of the floodplain in order to ensure greater future economic sustainability.”

Either approach, Zobel says, could lead to what would be considered more resilience, depending on the community’s goals and on what its members feel are the most important measures of community health. 

“What you actually measure, and how relevant it is to the decision maker, is thus just as important as how you measure it.”