The national hazards research platform determines how communities & businesses recover from hazards

A movement away from building new infrastructure in the 1990s led to a shift in natural hazards research. Researchers started to focus on finding out what people need from their infrastructure and how they interact with it.

As an established leader in this area, WSP Opus Research developed a new body of research around the behaviours and social economics of how New Zealand communities would respond to and recover from the impacts of a natural disaster.

At the time there had been no recent events in any of New Zealand’s main centres to draw on, so new research methods that mimicked the style of some computer games were developed.

These methods tested people’s behaviour – such as their trust in different media for information, their travel behaviour, how they would follow authority after an event, and how quickly they would return to work.

Business behaviours were also an important part of this research – their potential for recovery, the likelihood they would migrate from damaged areas, and the future functioning of businesses.

The Gisborne earthquake of December 2007 was an opportunity to validate the results of this research and extend it, using a real-life experience, especially when it came to the impacts on business and its long-term recovery.

National hazards research platform

The Christchurch earthquakes have become the research programme’s main focus and this effort has become part of the Natural Hazards Research Platform.

The Platform was started in 2009 and brings together the knowledge and research capabilities of the organisations that were then carrying out natural hazards research, funded by what was then known as the Foundation for Research Science and Technology (now part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment). The Platform’s members are GNS Science, NIWA, Massey University, the University of Auckland, Canterbury University and WSP Opus Research.

Total funding for the Platform is around $14 million a year for a 10-year timeframe, with an additional $3 million a year for the next four years added to draw lessons from the Canterbury earthquakes.

This long-term funding allows a more strategic approach to setting research priorities, as well as the opportunity for members to support the development of research capabilities in emerging areas of new research.

Five themes

Currently the research falls into five themes - geological hazards, weather-related hazards,modelling and analysis to link these hazards to risk, building and infrastructure engineering research, and societal research.

There have been opportunities for new research within the Platform and WSP Opus Research is part of two new projects. The first is the improved modelling of wind flows across hilly terrain, which is significant when designing buildings in high-risk areas and also has spinoff benefits for wind farm modelling. The second investigated acceptable levels of risk for older commercial buildings, an area that is now under more scrutiny after the damage from the Christchurch earthquakes.

The Natural Hazards Research Platform provides WSP Opus, as a major infrastructure and planning consultancy, with a number of significant opportunities. The new knowledge, methods and innovations, plus the easy access to this expertise provided by WSP Opus’ participation in the Platform, will benefit our international and local projects.