How Zombies Help Siemens Design Disaster-Proof Cities

Full text by John Brownlee for FAST.CO

Once there’s no more room in hell and the dead start walking the Earth, whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. See movies such as Dawn of the Dead and World War Z. Panic ensues. The entire grid falls over. Hospitals close down. The government collapses. And pretty soon, what started with a couple of slowly shambling walkers becomes an irrepressible apocalypse of the flesh-hungry undead.

There are valuable lessons to be learned from the zombie apocalypse, though, says Siemens’s Ben Collar. A global expert on city resiliency and transit efficiency, Collar’s role at Siemens is to figure out how to help cities design transportation systems that can move people quickly in times of emergency, whether that’s a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, or Z-Day.

A fan of AMC’s The Walking Dead, Collar thinks that a theoretical zombie apocalypse is a good lens through which to look at how many of the transit systems that we take for granted can be improved. “It might seem silly to talk about how Siemens can help cities deal with zombies,” admits Collar, “but you have to approach disaster planning with a level head. We do it by adding some quirky element, like Godzilla or zombies. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get swept away in the reality of impending doom.”

Walking Dead via Flickr user Ewen Roberts

In other words, kind of like a 10-year-old boy, Collar is planning his own personal zombie defense manual. But instead of figuring out what canned supplies and weaponry he’d need in case zombies start rising from the ground, Collar is trying to figure out how Siemens products and services can be used to help quell a zombie apocalypse before it starts (and more realistic disasters, too).

The first thing that would be important in a zombie outbreak is to get people notified. In zombie movies like the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, the minute zombies start walking around, anarchy ensues, as people run out the door and flee the city. “The first action in an emergency, and definitely in a zombie outbreak, is to stay at home until you know what to do. Barricade yourself inside with a baseball bat.” The less people on the street, the less meat for zombies to eat.

From there, Collar says that a mass notification system–which works much like the systems that tell parents when school is canceled for their children–would send local citizens updates over the phone, text message, email and pop-ups, advising them exactly what to do. Roadside traffic alerts could be tapped to warn people, who weren’t signed up with the updates, about zombies, Collar says–something that mischievous hackers have also imagined.

Once it is time to evacuate a city, Collar says, there are many ways to guarantee that a real zombie evacuation doesn’t play scene to the same kind of carnage and pandemonium that we see in horror movies. To Siemens, the key here is making sure that the traffic grid is smart enough to actually deal with a zombie apocalypse–and can communicate intelligently, even when other parts of a city’s infrastructure might be down.

A software system called Adaptive Traffic Management System Traffic would allow cities to quickly recalibrate traffic lights to give priority to evacuation routes. City officials who want to prepare for a zombie outbreak–or any disaster–could even write a plan for one ahead of time, then just load it up in software when Z-Day actually arrives. Each traffic light in a city can communicate with the mainframe thanks to fiber optic connections and backup power sources.

All together, these technologies mean that even in the chaos of a zombie disaster, a city grid can be designed to keep an evacuation flowing, diverting as much traffic as possible to the least congested channels. These solutions would also tie into the emergency reaction infrastructure; Collar imagines having ambulances with sirens racing in the opposite direction, diverting the undead from the path of humans. “We could literally make a zombie siren song,” he laughs.

And lest you think that dynamically self-optimizing traffic systems aren’t important in a zombie apocalypse, just watch how a traffic jam in World War Z plays out:

Obviously a zombie apocalypse isn’t going to happen anytime soon. But designing connected cities is key to being prepared for real-life emergencies and disasters. The dead returning to life to eat the living might not be a realistic prospect, but the same techniques a city can use to prepare for it can be applied to hurricanes, floods, biohazards, and more. Whether Siemens can help us deal with Sharknados, though, only time will tell.

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