Stories#066 Funda's track record in societal resilience

#066 Funda's track record in societal resilience

The story of Meike’s plea for tech is a story of Funda's track record in societal resilience

Urban planner Funda Atun feels completely comfortable outside her comfort zone. A paradox, you might say. But her drive to discover what lies beyond the safe haven simply outweighs her nesting instinct. Meike Nauta, PhD Explainable Artificial Intelligence, sees a parallel with Funda's research. ‘It’s another way for you to step outside your bubble.’ ‘Definitely! I want to involve everyone. Diversity is wealth.’

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Monday 21 February 2022

What is vulnerable?

Meike: 'You’re doing research on disaster risk reduction, with special attention to climate adaptation and societal resilience. Can you elaborate on that briefly, before we continue talking?’

Funda: ‘Of course. As an urban planner, I don’t just study the physical elements in an environment – I don't just look at, for example, the vulnerability of buildings and infrastructure to earthquakes and floods – but I also include people in my story. If you want to do research or make development plans for an urban area, you should find out how people use the space and facilities first. What is their behaviour pattern and what are their preferences? What are their needs? What challenges do they face? To build a society that’s climate-secure and resilient, you’ll need people again – to implement and use the planned adjustments.' 

Meike: 'So you always look for collaboration.' 

Funda: ‘Absolutely. With residents, with colleagues, with policy makers, with doctors, the police, the fire brigade. I can learn much more from my encounters with them than from the literature on disaster risk reduction and management alone. These people know what’s going on and what’s needed on a local and regional scale.’

Meike: 'From what I've read about your research, I gather that you deeply value inclusiveness and diversity in your work.' 

Funda: ‘True. I think we should involve the people concerned, as well as the people in the margins. The latter are more challenging to reach, for example because they live in remote areas or are close knit community. Rising temperatures, heat waves, forest fires, earthquakes, and flooding are leaving their marks worldwide. And the people that are least able to protect themselves against this, in the most susceptible areas, are hit the hardest. How can we support them? What urban, structural, and organisational improvements are required so that they too can deal with these challenges? To answer those questions, we must visit them and talk to them, even if that takes a lot of effort. That’s what I make of inclusion and diversity. Can I add something to that?’

Meike: ‘Please, I’m curious.’

Funda: 'The fact that people live in an hazard-prone area or under precarious circumstances doesn’t always mean that they are vulnerable themselves. Yet we often draw that conclusion, for example because of their age, gender or ethnic origin. For my research among Turkish migrants in northern Italy, I asked them to what extent they’re aware of the risk and consequences of a possible disaster. Did they know what to do in the event of a major flood? Did they have access to that information? Were they willing to take it in? I learned a lot from that research, including this: their marginal place in society makes these Turkish migrants vulnerable, but they possess enormous resilience at the same time. Their disaster awareness is low, but their ability to adapt to suddenly changing circumstances is high. So we shouldn’t simply label these people ‘vulnerable’.' 

Meike: 'You also give children a role in your research. Tell me how you do that.’ 

Funda: 'In Italy, I asked migrant children to make drawings of a flood. What does such a natural disaster look like from their point of view? What do they know, what can we teach them about this, what solutions do they see? A few preferred writing over drawing. That turned out well, because by combining the story and the drawings, we were able to put together a unique book.

At the end of 2019 we travelled to Panju Island in Mumbai, India, for a comparative case study. That’s an estuarine island where sea level rise is a serious threat. We gave the children there pencils and paper again. Using that input on how they experience their environment and perceive flooding, we then designed a board game for children. The continuation of this research is a study among children in Enschede. We will let children from various cultural backgrounds combine their experiences to perfect this educational game on flooding.’ 

Meike: 'Why do you value the perspective of children so much? You could think: what do children really know?' 

Funda: 'Children aren’t nearly as vulnerable and passive  as we often assume. They have the power to contribute to the society – and many want to. That’s why it’s good to involve them in research and plans we develop early. Of course, their knowledge is limited. But we can easily expand that, so let's do it. The same applies to migrants: migrants are the invisible victims of disasters. They may not fully understand the system and they are unable to access resources due to a language deficiency, but we can, no, we must invest in that.'

Meike: 'What a beautiful perspective. And very much in line with the Shaping2030 vision of UT!' 

Funda: 'That's why I feel so at home at UT.'

Meike: 'You were born and raised in Turkey, were a PhD student in Italy, a teacher in Switzerland and have been living and working in the Netherlands for a few years now. What do you need to feel at home somewhere?’ 

Funda: 'To keep developing myself, I have to leave my comfort zone every now and then. Fortunately, I quickly feel at ease out there. When I left Italy for Enschede, I followed my intuition. After spending 13 years in Italy and learning the language, it was not an easy decision, I did ask myself: why am I doing this, why am I leaving this beautiful country, that delicious cuisine and my wonderful social network? But had I not done so, I wouldn’t have gotten to know the Netherlands and my new friends and colleagues here. On top of that, I stayed in touch with my Italian friends and colleagues. I feel so fortunate!' 

Meike: 'With all your intercultural baggage, I would like to share something with you. As a PhD candidate, I teach international students. Initially, I dived right into the material, until a few students told me that they prefer to have a chat first. I then started reading up on cultural differences and now always ask how everyone is doing first. Personally, I even find that a more pleasant way to start a class these days. Sometimes it can be that simple, right?'

Funda: ‘That’s great. And yes, it can be that simple. But you must be open to that. I think we can learn a lot from each other, but the key question is: what do you want to learn?'


is a PhD candidate in the Data Science group of UT. Her research focuses on explainable artificial intelligence and deep learning. In other words: making artificial decision-making transparent and comprehensible to fathom its correctness, fairness and reliability. In 2018, Meike completed her master's degree in Computer Science at UT cum laude, including a 10 for her prize-winning thesis.

Funda Atun

is an urban planner, whose research focuses on disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and societal resilience. Funda grew up in Turkey and studied City and Regional Planning at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. In 2013, she obtained her doctorate cum laude from the Politecnico di Milano. Since 2019, she is an assistant professor at the ITC Faculty of UT.