Innovative research for wicked problems

A national challenge to encourage new ideas, new thinking and new research. What can you bring to disaster management in Australia?

The Disaster Challenge will be back for 2024 – more information available soon.



Natural Hazards Research Australia CEO Andrew Gissing presenting Lydia Wardale, the winner of the 2023 Disaster Challenge, with her certificate and trophy.

Congratulations to our 2023 winner!

The Disaster Challenge Final 2023 was held on Thursday 12 October 2023 in Melbourne, on the eve of the UN International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Congratulations to the 2023 winner, Lydia Wardale for her concept of Youth Guardians. 

Watch Lydia’s idea here.

Watch Lydia explain Youth Guardians and the inspiration behind the idea




Lydia Wardale

This concept will foster social cohesion and strengthen community-based resilience with a pitch to establish a youth-led engagement program for young Australians aged 13-18. The proposed program would provide youths with disaster education in the form of knowledge and practical skills and strengthen their understanding of the disaster risks within their community.



Runner up


Maya Walton, Chloe O’Brien and Kathy Tran (University of Technology Sydney)

This concept is for a disaster preparedness education initiative for high schools and aimed at students in years 10-12 called Climate Day. Climate Day would build community resilience and emergency preparedness through immersive education experiences, reducing young people’s climate anxiety as a result.


Runner up


Dr Catherine Kim, Kaitlyn Brown, Dr Aiden Price, Tace Stewart (Queensland University of Technology), Dr Richard Cottrell (University of Tasmania/University of Queensland), Dr Kate Saunders (Monash University/Queensland University of Technology) and Dr Jess Hopf (Oregon State University)

This concept is for a Flood Vulnerability Index for Brisbane City to predict flood vulnerability at each level 2 statistical area. The proposed solution applies a data science approach to utilise the valuable spatial data sets readily available by councils, with the aim of increasing the public’s awareness of flooding impacts beyond inundation.



The Disaster Challenge Final 2023 also featured a keynote presentation from Andrew Coghlan, Head of Emergency Services at the Australian Red Cross, on ‘The human impact of disasters and why resilience matters – the role of research in building a resilient future’. Watch Andrew’s presentation.

The wicked problem

When disaster strikes everyone is affected and normal systems can fail. Responding involves the efforts of many different groups in society, all with their own processes and ways of working. This includes people who are directly and indirectly impacted, emergency services, community groups, all levels and sectors of government, not-for-profits, and private businesses large and small. All have resources that can help, yet in times of disruption, chaos and calamity, systems can be overwhelmed, and we can struggle to access and connect these resources together. At the same time, people’s needs during disasters are diverse and not everyone’s needs are equally met. This means that getting the right support to the right people at the right time is complex and difficult to prioritise, and grassroot community resources can be under used. With climate change this will only get harder with more frequent and intense natural hazards.

The Challenge

In the midst of disruption, chaos and calamity, how can resources from across society be accessed and connected in new and innovative ways to improve disaster response and link those who have the resources and supports with those that are most in need?

What is the Disaster Challenge?

The Disaster Challenge is a national challenge to encourage new ideas, new thinking and new research. 

The Disaster Challenge calls out to early career researchers, postgraduate and undergraduate students across Australia – it is your chance to make a difference with innovative ideas and solutions for the wicked problems the country faces with natural hazards.

Hosted by Natural Hazards Research Australia with support from universities and emergency management organisations, the Disaster Challenge invites the best and brightest minds in our universities to put their creative talents into helping us solve the trickiest problems that surround how we deal with floods, bushfires, storms, cyclones and other natural hazards.

A wicked problem is one that is urgent, but difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, or changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise or evaluate.

With a national final and prizes, what innovation can you and your team bring that Australia hasn’t done yet?

New in 2023 – undergraduates are now eligible to enter!


The judging panel was so impressed with the quality of entries that four entries have received commendations.

  • Measuring difficulty of following preparation advice – Amanda Muller (University of Adelaide)
  • Critical infrastructure interdependencies model – Bawantha Rathnayaka (RMIT University)
  • Zoned community-led response – Ryan Pratt, Lauren Ghosen, Sonia Giga, Cameron Brown and Jada Subasinghe (University of Technology Sydney)
  • Energy Ark mobile energy solution – Louise Broeng (Macquarie University) and Sara Mills (Fire and Rescue NSW)

how did it run?

The Disaster Challenge 2023 was hosted with support from universities and emergency management organisations.

It took place in three phases:

phase 1: Complete

Entries closed 25 May. The judges reviewed and selected the best entries for the Disaster Challenge Final using the judging criteria. Three finalists were selected.


To bring the ideas to life, finalists were supported with academic and industry mentors to assist them to take their idea to the next level. Finalists had equal access to financial, academic and creative support to get the best out of their ideas, as well as support for up to three members of each finalist team to attend the Disaster Challenge Final.


Finalists came together in Melbourne on 12 October for the Disaster Challenge Final at a special public event on the eve of the UN International Day of Disaster Risk Reduction. Finalists pitched their brilliant ideas to a judging panel of disaster management experts.


The winner received:

  • $5,000 cash
  • Promotion of their winning concept by the Natural Hazards Research Australia
  • The opportunity to work with the Natural Hazards Research Australia and its partners to explore the winning concept further
  • Opportunities to showcase their idea at forums over the next 12 months.

Two runners up received $2,000 each per team. 

The Disaster Challenge is about how you take your knowledge, your ideas, your thinking, and your experience and make a difference to disaster management.


The 2022 problem – How can disaster preparation engage with the unengaged, the moving or the hard to reach?

The 2022 Challenge – to engage a transient sector of the community with disaster preparation information. Choose one or more transient sectors.

Early career researchers Dr Kamarah Pooley (Fire and Rescue NSW) and Mark Owens (Country Fire Authority) were selected as the winners of the Disaster Challenge Final 2022 for their innovative pitch to use wi-fi captive portals to share disaster preparedness information with tourists and tourism workers.

Watch their idea here.

Kamarah and Mark received a Disaster Challenge winner's trophy and $5,000 cash. They promoted and presented their idea at events during 2023 and were successful in gaining support from Natural Hazards Research Australia Participants to develop their pitch as a proof-of-concept project.

Congratulations also to the Beacons of Hope team (Jane Toner, Sheridan Keegan, Ahmed Qasim, Lynn Lue-Kopman, Yunjin Wang and Manori Dissanayaka, Griffith University, Cristina Hernandez-Santin, RMIT University) on their second place ($2,000) and the Mobilising Local Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Stakeholders and Gatekeepers team (Jyoti Khatri K C and Mohammed Alqahtani from the Queensland University of Technology) on their third place ($1,000).

CEO Andrew Gissing with the 2022 Disaster Challenge winners Kamarah Pooley and Mark Owens

Watch the 2022 Finalist pitches


Tourist and tourism worker education using wi-fi portals

Mark Owens (Country Fire Authority) and Dr Kamarah Pooley (Fire and Rescue NSW)


Runner up

Beacons of hope

Jane Toner, Sheridan Keegan, Ahmed Qasim, Lynn Lue-Kopman, Yunjin Wang, Manori Dissanayaka (Griffith University) and Cris Hernandez-Santin (RMIT)


Runner up

Mobilising local culturally and linguistically diverse stakeholders and gatekeepers

Jyoti Khatri K C and Mohammed Alqahtani (Queensland University of Technology)



“The Disaster Challenge gives participants the opportunity to work together across universities and disciplines around the country. They get to take on a challenge, be imaginative, creative and collaborative, with guidance from some brilliant mentors.”

Professor Cheryl Desha, Griffith University Disaster Management Network

“The great thing about the Disaster Challenge is that it really gives us the opportunity to hear from early researchers about some new and innovative ideas. As a disaster management sector, that gives us the opportunity to really push the limits and think about what is new and fresh coming our way that we can incorporate in to the way we do disaster management.”

Kath Ryan, Executive Manager Public Information and Warnings, Queensland Fire and Emergency Services. 2022 Disaster Challenge Final judge.

The 2023 Disaster Challenge is coordinated by Natural Hazards Research Australia and is hosted with support from universities and emergency management organisations in Victoria: the Australian Red Cross, AFAC, the Country Fire Authority, the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action Victoria, Emergency Management Victoria, Fire Rescue Victoria, the Inspector-General for Emergency Management Victoria, Monash University, RMIT University, the University of Melbourne and the Yarra Ranges Shire Council.

Thank you to the 2023 Working Group:

  • Deb Sparkes and Simon Heemstra, AFAC
  • Fyowna Norton, Australian Red Cross
  • Nick McCarthy and Rachel Bessell, CFA
  • Jeremy Little, Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action
  • Tim Lewis-Nicholson, Emergency Management Victoria
  • Julie Houston, Fire Rescue Victoria
  • Deb Parkin, Inspector General for Emergency Management
  • Jonathan Abrahams and Suzanne Cross, Monash University
  • Erica Kuligowski, RMIT University
  • Hamish Clarke, University of Melbourne
  • Elliot Matotek, Victoria SES
  • Lisa Keedle, Yarra Ranges Shire Council
  • Blythe McLennan and Deborah Bunker, Natural Hazards Research Australia


coordinated by

Natural Hazards Research Australia logo

supported by

Australian Red Cross
Country Fire Authority
Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action
Emergency Management Victoria
Fire Rescue Victoria
Inspector-General for Emergency Management Victoria
Monash University Disaster Resilience Initiative
The University of Melbourne
Victorian SES
Yarra Ranges Council