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Inventions for disaster risk reduction

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Egyptian inventor Mahmoud Galal Yehia explains his "hanged-building" technology, which helps offset the impact of earthquakes. © UNISDR

By Jonathan Fowler

GENEVA, 20 April 2015 – Inventors aiming to reduce the risk of disasters have flocked to Geneva to pitch a whole range of cutting-edge ideas, from earthquake-resistant buildings to lamps that make evacuations easier.

Tucked in among hundreds of fellow exhibitors from 48 countries at the annual International Exhibition of Inventions, innovators with an eye on disaster risk reduction see the show as a key opportunity to get their message across.

“Everything I invent is about making people and their environment safe,” said Mahmoud Galal Yehia, as he ran through the principles of his “hanged-building” skyscraper technology, using the scale model in his exhibition booth.

“Basically, most buildings are constructed on their foundations, meaning that there’s a risk involved. So I came up with the idea of hanging buildings based on a system of multipoint suspension. It’s all about additional provision, additional protection and flexible safety,” he said.

Yehia has already patented his invention in his homeland, Egypt, and is close to completing the process in Japan, a country whose vulnerability to earthquakes has put it in the technological vanguard when it comes to disaster risk reduction.

The Geneva fair, now into its 43rd year, draws inventors from around the globe, many of them seeking investors and licensees among the 60,000 visitors. Over recent years, the proportion of exhibitors from Asia and the Middle East has risen, reflecting shifting economic and research trends, and now accounts for almost half of those taking part.

Among other earthquake-focused inventors were Remi and Raul Radulescu, of Romania, whose system for shutting off gas supplies to avoid leaks earned them one of the four dozen prizes up for grabs at the 15-19 April fair.

Further down the exhibition alleyways, several inventors were pitching vibration-damping systems to offset the impact of tremors, among them Zoran Ilincic of Montenegro, and Xu Zhaodong, a professor from Southeast University in Nanjing, China.

Xu’s system deploys springs and “viscoelastic” ball bearings flexible enough to absorb vibrations but without the bounce of rubber – a point he proved by dropping two balls, one made of his material and the other of regular rubber.

“This isolates and dissipates the energy,” said Xu, who originally came up with his invention in 2002 as a way to reduce vibrations in venues such as concert halls and has put it through stringent earthquake simulations.

“I wanted to do something because of disasters,” he added, citing tragedies such as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. “The way to fix a problem is through application and constant improvement.” Inventors from Taiwan, Province of China, also have a strong presence at the fair.

One, Chan Hsun-Hung, said that direct experience of earthquakes and typhoons spurred him to create a table lamp with a twist -- when unplugged, it turns into a flashlight, displays an interactive map of the route to the emergency exit and emits an alarm signal.

Nearby, student inventor Zicong Wen showed off what appeared to be a conventional fluorescent tube lamp. Removed from a light fitting, it provides four hours of illumination by harnessing the human body’s conductivity.

Necessity was very much the mother of invention, he said: “One day I had a power cut and I couldn’t find any candles, so that started me thinking about solutions.”

Among the other disaster-related innovations on display in Geneva were a Romanian-designed guided robot for use in life-threatening situations; ultra-light nano concrete that can withstand earthquakes, from Iran; and a Malaysian-invented water craft to be used in tsunami and flood situations.