IDEO uses VR and geolocation to help New Yorkers survive the next big flood

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Why it matters to you

Ideo is using smart-design methodology and new technologies to help increase awareness of flood risks in New York City.

The design firm IDEO has made all sorts of things in the many years since it was founded in 1991, but the company’s latest offering may be its most effective project yet. The company partnered with the nonprofit Center for NYC Neighborhoods to create FloodHelpNY, an interactive portal for flood information and resources that was tailor-made based on input from the city’s diverse constituency.

In an innovative research project, IDEO set up a pop-up station in Manhattan that used virtual reality technology to demonstrate to residents what neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and Little Italy would look like if decimated by flood waters. The company also set up pop-up stations at neighborhood meetings in Canarsie, Red Hook, and Gerritsen Beach to learn how to put flood risks in context, not only for residents who have been battered by past storms, but also for those who were unaware that they live within New York’s massive flood plain.

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A flood-affected resident in Gerritsen Beach displays a paper prototype of the platform he designed for the next time a storm hits. (IDEO/FloodHelpNY.org)

The scale of the flooding risk in New York is hard to underestimate. More than 400,000 New Yorkers live in neighborhoods at high-risk for flooding around the city’s 520 miles of coastline. New York is one of five states that have more than 10,000 properties with repeated flood plains; the state has had 10 major disaster declarations since 2007.

A series of events in 2012 compounded the problem when Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Program, causing premiums for flood insurance to rise significantly. Simultaneously, FEMA reorganized its flood plain maps, adding more at-risk areas and increasing risk in properties already within the flood plain. By the time Hurricane Sandy, the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, struck in October 2012, it was a perfect storm. New York City sustained more than $19 billion in damages.

By the time Hurricane Sandy, struck in October 2012, it was a perfect storm.

In the wake of these events, IDEO faced significant challenges in building a straightforward, easy-to-use portal for flood education and services, not the least of which was the complexity of insurance policy, ever-changing flood regulations, policy arguments around climate change, and the problem of risk perception. Yet it persisted.

Less than a month after its launch in September 2016, FEMA began promoting FloodHelpNY as a key resource for building flood resilience. The resource has two primary goals; first, to create a one-stop shop for information about flooding; secondly, to make residents who are at risk for flooding aware of their level of risk.

The site also features a first-of-its-kind flood insurance calculator that can help residents get a rough idea of the costs they could face if insurance premiums rise. This could be a key tool in 2017, as the National Flood Insurance Program is set to expire on September 30. In May, several U.S. senators introduced the Sustainable, Affordable, Fair and Efficient (SAFE) National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization Act.  However, a hotly debated federal budget could quickly unravel this safety net, leading to higher premiums for East Coast states that lie in the hurricane zone.

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Software designer Lauren Shapiro shadows an engineer performing a Home Resiliency Audit. (IDEO/FloodHelpNY.org)

The portal allows residents to enter their address into a mapping program that not only displays their flood risk but also indicates whether they qualify for free home resiliency audits from a New York State-funded program that equips at-risk residents with documentation that confirms their elevation and actual insurance costs. FloodHelpNY also offers estimates for flood insurance, although The Center for NYC Neighborhoods, not the city or state of New York, offer flood insurance directly.

Future plans for FloodHelpNY include offering residents free backflow valves to reduce the risk of sewer backups during future storms, as well as access to more resources and benefits around resiliency.

For IDEO, the project is part of a suite of networks designed to help people in need. In addition to operating their primary design company, IDEO also applies its design thinking to IDEO.org, a nonprofit organization that uses human-centered design to alleviate poverty, and IDEO Futures, an incubator for new ideas and businesses based around design.

“A lot of the principles could be applied to challenging risk and resiliency problems in domains outside of the specific challenge of flooding,” IDEO creative technologist Peter Olson told Fastcodesign.com. “[It’s taking] human-centered methods of talking to people, understanding the language by which they already contextualize risk, and using [those insights] to make risk more tangible and actionable, so people who are not necessarily experts in that domain can understand it. We think that this type of design as a whole has a really great and powerful role to play in making cities and risk-prone areas more resilient, generally.”