Research & Innovation

Leading Resilience Engineer Describes the Frontiers of a Developing Field

Dr. Stefen Hiermaier explores areas that resonate with Stevens researchers

Society depends on stable and reliable infrastructure, yet as our systems become more and more complex, they are also increasingly vulnerable. Natural disasters, terrorism and technical breakdowns can leave millions without critical services.

The growing field of resilience engineering focuses on how to help these vital systems recover quickly from failures — and how to prevent or minimize disruptions in the first place.

A leader in the field, Dr. Stefan Hiermaier, from Germany’s University of Freiburg, spoke at Stevens Insitute of Technology in late October, addressing several dozen professors and students as part of the Research and Innovation Lecture Series hosted by Vice Provost for Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Mo Dehghani.

Reducing Complexity

In his talk, titled “Resilient Infrastructures — From Concepts to Applications,” Dr. Hiermaier noted that Stevens would be quite familiar with the kinds of problems he and his team focus on; the university’s location meant it was it near the center of both the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. “I don’t have to tell you about forces of nature,” he said. 

The goals of resilience engineers include preserving functionality, ensuring graceful degradation and enabling fast recovery, Dr. Hiermaier noted. He said a key component of his work and that of his team in Germany is examining complicated, interconnected systems and seeking ways to reduce complexity and the possibility of cascading interruptions while also accounting for the costs of various solutions.

Dr. Hiermaier, whose research focuses on advancing the design of critical infrastructure to make it more resilient with respect to disruptive events and related uncertainties, represents the engineering component of a sustainability and research center at Freiburg that takes a holistic approach to sustainability.

His work has particular resonance at Stevens, where resilience and sustainability research form one of the university’s “foundational pillars,” research and education fields where Stevens possesses strong expertise and capabilities.

Future Opportunities

Dr. Linda Thomas — interim chair of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Ocean Engineering and director of the construction management and construction engineering management programs at Stevens — said the work being performed at Freiburg complements research taking place on the Hoboken campus.

“Dr. Hiermaier’s lecture on critical infrastructure was a great opportunity to see how researchers in another part of the world define the term resiliency,” said Dr. Thomas, who attended the talk. “He highlighted the problems we all face trying to move towards an ideal balance between commercial viability and durability.”

Dr. Dibs Sarkar, head of Stevens’ sustainability management program, was excited by the German university’s dedication to the field.

“I was impressed by their vision,” he said. “They have brought sustainability and resilience under the same umbrella, and that is the right way to go. The Sustainability Center of Freiburg is a relatively new initiative, but they have already started doing some impressive work in the area of resilience engineering.”

Both Stevens professors said they hope Dr. Hiermaier’s visit is a harbinger of stronger research and education exchanges between the two universities in the near future.

Dr. Hiermaier was appointed the first professor in the field of high-speed dynamics in Germany in 2008. In 2015, he was appointed professor for sustainable systems engineering at the University Freiburg. He is director of both the Fraunhofer Institute for High-Speed Dynamics and the Department of Sustainable Systems Engineering at the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Freiburg. He is also vice dean of the faculty and co-coordinator of the Sustainability Center Freiburg.