Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 8, 2013

Snowquester: Prevention was wise (as far as human wisdom goes)

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on March 8, 2013

On Wednesday the threat of snow shut down much of DC.  Very little snow penetrated the Beltway.   In the wake of the “unnecessary” shut-down has come a blizzard of second-guessing.

I perceive three broad critiques:

Bad Intelligence Analysis (in this context called weather forecasting):  From a late February blogpost by weather-geek Cliff Mass, “U.S. numerical weather prediction is lagging behind the European Center and others–a diagnosis pretty much universally accepted in my field. I listed some of the reasons: inferior computers, poor management, lack of effective leadership, inability to tap the large U.S. weather research community, and others.” (At the Cliff Mass Blog you will find thoughtful self-critical analysis of the weather profession specific to the Snowquester).

Poor Communication between Intelligence Community and Decision-makers: “We made our decisions based on, unfortunately, faulty weather predictions,” said Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). “You can’t really blame the government officials for using the data the scientists gave them.”  More self-critique from the Weather Gang, “Communication of uncertainty is something the entire weather forecasting community should strive to improve… One of the reasons, as we get closer to the onset of the storm, that we drop some uncertainty information is that some readers want to know the bottom line, without qualification. They view scenarios and percentages as “cop-outs.” Ultimately, there has to be a sweet spot, where we can effectively communicate uncertainty concisely and effectively while also presenting a most likely forecast. We’re constantly working to find that and came up short in this last case.”

Over-dependence on Signal Intelligence (weather models) contrasted with Human Intelligence (common sense):  A reader comment posted on the Weather Gang’s blog, “Driving my car on Tuesday afternoon I listened to dire predictions of snow for Wednesday. Somehow I couldn’t equate the fifty six degree reading on my dashboard thermometer with the supposed 5-10 inches of snow set for the next day. Do weather forecasters ever engage in predictions that include going outside?  Sorry, my mistake I referred to them as weather forecasters and of course we know it’s weather guessers.”

Meanwhile about thirty miles west of the Beltway– and admittedly a thousand feet higher — the snow accumulated to over ten inches and power was out for tens of thousands.

Uncertainty can be denied, but it persists.  There is no “sweet spot”.  Humans cannot communicate clearly enough for everyone to accurately hear.  Many will not even listen.

Randomness is fundamental reality.  Perceiving patterns is possible, but precise prediction should not — cannot — be depended upon.  We have some important control along the margins, but we should not fool ourselves into overestimating  our capacity.  On a global scale a thirty mile margin is pretty impressive.

We will fail in both directions.  This time we seem over-cautious.  Some day soon we will seem neglectful.  There are consequences both ways.

The readiness to self-critique demonstrated in this instance is encouraging.  We should learn what we can.  But it is a profound error — the ultimate in tragic hubris — for any of us to expect perfection of ourselves or others.

March 6, 2013

Our secular Trinity: supply chain, critical infrastructure, and cyber security

Filed under: Cybersecurity,Infrastructure Protection,Private Sector,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on March 6, 2013

Above from the conclusion to Zorba the Greek, please don’t watch and listen until reading post, then it might make some sense.

–+–

Late Tuesday a third key component in an emerging national strategic architecture was highlighted on the White House website.  The Implementation Update for the National Strategy for Global Supply Chain Security outlines progress made (and if you read carefully between the lines, problems experienced) over the last twelve months since the Strategy itself was released.

This update — and the original National Strategy — should be read along side Presidential Policy Directive: Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience (February 12, 2013) and the Executive Order: Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity (February 12, 2013).

Together these documents frame a new Trinitarian order: three distinct strategies of one substance, essence, and nature. Trade depends on production, transport of goods and communication of demand.   We can also say economic vitality depends on these factors.  Often  life itself depends on these mysteriously mutual movements.

The Supply Chain is a particular manifestation of the mystery that benefits from specific attention.   Most minds will not immediately apprehend the wholeness of  cyber, critical infrastructure and supply chains.   A purposeful focus can help. But the Implementation Update is explicit regarding the connections and — much more than connections — the interdependence and indivisibility of the Strategic Trinity:

Priority actions include… building resilient critical infrastructures by creating new incentives… to encourage industry stakeholders to build resilience into their supply chains, which then strengthens  the system overall; mapping the interdependencies among the supply chains of the various critical infrastructure sectors (such as energy, cyber, and transportation); and creating common resilience metrics and standards for worldwide use and implementation.

There are, however, heretics.  Personally I tend toward a Unitarian perspective.   Others insist on the primacy of Cyber or of Critical Infrastructure. Some others recognize the relationship of Cyber and Critical Infrastructure but dismiss equal attention being given to Supply Chain. There are also “Pentecostals”, especially among the private sector laity, who celebrate Supply Chain almost to the exclusion of the other aspects of the Trinity.  I might extend the analogy to principles of Judaism, Islam, and other worldviews.  I won’t. (Can I hear a loud Amen?)

If this theological analogy is not to your taste,  then read the three policy documents along side a fourth gospel: Alfred Thayer Mahan’s  The Influence of Seapower Upon History.  Admiral Mahan wrote:

In these three things—production (with the necessity of exchanging products) shipping (whereby the exchange is carried on) and colonies (which facilitate and enlarge the operations of shipping and tend to protect it by multiplying points of safety)—is to be found the key to much of the history, as well as of the policy, of nations…

The functional benefits of colonies have been superseded by the signaling capabilities of multinational corporations, global exchanges and transnational communication, but the Trinitarian structure persists. Mahan called the Sea the “great common” from which and through which “men may pass in all directions, but on which some well-worn paths show that controlling reasons have led them to choose certain lines of travel rather than others.”

Around these lines of travel, civilization is constructed, information is exchanged, and trade is conducted.   A bridge (critical infrastructure) may determine the direction of trade (supply chain), but the information and money exchanged (cyber) in the village beside the bridge may send supply in previously unexpected directions.   Today the bridge may be a digital link, the village an electronic exchange, and the product an elusive formula for the next new wonder drug.  But still the three must work together.  Corruption or collapse of one aspect will unravel the other two.

Our secular trinity is not eternal. There are ongoing sources of corruption.  There are prior examples of collapse.

I was involved in some of the activities and consultations noted in the Implementation Update.   Some personal impressions:  Many government personnel are predisposed to control.  Many in the private sector have a deep desire for clarity.  Each tendency is understandable.  Each tendency is a potentially profound source of dysfunction.   I know this is not exactly a surprise.

But… the desire for clarity can easily become reductionist, even atomist.  Imposing such radical clarification leads to a kind of analytical surrealism.   Some “lean” supply chains are absolutely anorexic.    The desire for control is justified by (sometimes self-generated) complication.  The more complicated the context, the more — it is said — that control is needed.   The more the laity seeks to deny complexity, the more the priests justify the need for their control.   Both tendencies miss the mark. (Sin in Hebrew is chattath, from the root chatta, the Greek equivalent is hamartia. All these words mean to miss the mark.)  The purpose of our secular Trinity is to hit the mark when, where, and with what is wanted.

There is at least one explanation  of the sacred Trinity relevant to our secular version.  John of Damascus characterized the Trinity as a perichoresis — literally a “dance around” — where, as in a Greek folk dance, distinct lines of dancers (e.g. men, women, and children) each display their own steps and flourishes, but are clearly engaging the same rhythm,  maintain their own identity even as each line dissolves into the others… in common becoming The Dance.

Rather than obsessive control or absolute clarity, the Trinity is a shared dance.  We need to learn to dance together.

Just getting private and public to hear the same music would be a good start.

February 6, 2013

It was smooth until it wasn’t

Filed under: Catastrophes,Infrastructure Protection,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on February 6, 2013

In reporting on the Superbowl blackout a CBS News correspondent commented, “It was smooth until it wasn’t.”  Which echoes Craig Fugate’s comment, “Our system works really well until it doesn’t.”

Rational, reductionist, predictive, risk-informed, well-tested — and almost always effective — many of our most important modern systems hum along until suddenly they don’t.

From a Tuesday morning front page story in the Times-Picayune:

It’s still unclear exactly what went wrong Sunday. Entergy officials said they are working with the company that built the electrical switchgear, which controls the flow of electricity from the power company to the stadium, to determine if that is to blame.

The equipment, added as part of the upgrades, automatically shuts down when a problem is detected, such as a surge or loss of electricity, potentially signaling — and protecting — against a more protracted power outage.

Ultimately, the equipment worked as it was supposed to. But what caused it to trip Sunday is the central mystery officials are now trying to unravel.

Doug Thornton, senior vice president of SMG, which manages the Superdome, said Monday that the switchgear “sensed an abnormality” and tripped.

“It was a piece of equipment that did its job,” he said. “We don’t know anything beyond that. It’s premature at this point to say what it was or what caused it.”

A cause will be found and a recurrence of that cause will be suppressed.   And probably, unknown and unintended, something even worse will be seeded in the fixing.

If you have not, I encourage you to read Bak’s Sand Pile: Strategies for a Catastrophic World by Ted G. Lewis.

January 24, 2013

Supply chains: Density increases distance which favors specialization and concentration spawning vulnerabilities

Filed under: Infrastructure Protection,Private Sector,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on January 24, 2013

Three recent reports offer related insights.

Building America’s Future: Transportation Infrastructure Report 2012 (4.8 mgb) tells us,

We have let more than a half-century go by without devising a strategic plan on  a national scale to update our freight and passenger transport systems. The size of our federal investment in transportation infrastructure as a share of GDP has been dwindling for decades, and most federal funds are dispersed to projects without imposing accountability and performance measures. This lack of vision, lack of funding, and lack of accountability has left every mode of transportation in the United States—highways and railroads, airports and sea ports—stuck in the last century and ill-equipped for the demands of a churning global economy.

Building Resilient Supply Chains (6.48 MB) tells us,

…concerns have remained about external threats to supply chains (such as natural disasters and demand shocks) and systemic vulnerabilities (such as oil dependence and information fragmentation). Additionally, growing concern around cyber risk, rising insurance and trade finance costs are leading supply chain experts to explore new mitigation options. Accenture research indicates that more than 80% of companies are now concerned about supply chain resilience.

Gallup Survey finds:

One in four Mississippi residents report there was at least one time in the past 12 months when they did not have enough money to buy the food they or their families needed — more than in any other state in the first half of 2012. Residents in Alabama and Delaware are also among the most likely to struggle to afford food… In 2012, the worst drought since the 1950s has affected nearly 80% of agricultural land in the United States, which may drive up the cost of food in the months ahead. While Americans are no more likely to struggle to afford food thus far in 2012 than in the past, more residents may face problems as the drought-related crop damage results in a shortage of inputs in the food supply and begins to affect retail prices.

So… sources of supply for basic commodities — including water and food — are under stress.  The infrastructure by which supplies are transported is aging and ill-maintained.  The system through which needs/demands are expressed and fulfilled is increasingly vulnerable to disruption.

For at least 10,000 years humans have developed infrastructures to facilitate the meeting of supply with demand, source with need.

Especially in the last 200 years our infrastructures have allowed us to depend on supplies from greater and greater distances.  Our supply lines – our lifelines – have gotten longer and longer.  This has been crucial to our ability to supply increasingly dense population centers.  Increasing population density is supported by our ability to facilitate supply over great distances.

This distancing of lifelines has also encouraged an increasing specialization and concentration of supply – mostly in search of comparative price advantage.  So we see the concentration of pork production in Iowa and North Carolina, fruits and vegetables in California, dairy is increasingly concentrated in a few regions,  mushrooms in Southeast Pennsylvania.

While this is at least a 150 year trend, it is important to recognize how the trend has accelerated and changed over the last half-century. As recently as the 1950s New Jersey truck farms were still the principal source of fresh fruits and vegetables for the New York metro market.

As demand density accelerated in the last half of the 20th Century, we experienced an increased distancing of lifelines.  This distancing also encourages a tendency toward specialization, concentration, and reduced diversity of sources.  Specialization, concentration, and reduced diversity are common characteristics of fragile systems.

In the last thirty years, the distancing of many supply chains has become so extreme that the ability to reasonably balance supply and demand is only possible as a result of sophisticated methods of tracking and anticipating demand well-in-advance.

For most of human history supply has been pushed by suppliers toward where they hoped there was demand.  Today, especially for food, pharma, and most consumables supply is pulled by digital demand signals. If the demand signals stop , so does supply.  This has crucial implications for disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.

It is worth recognizing that what seems “normal” today would have seemed magical as recently as thirty years ago.  We are enjoying supply chain benefits unprecedented in human history.  Are there also unprecedented risks?

January 20, 2013

Attention must be paid

Filed under: Media,Risk Assessment,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on January 20, 2013

Choice of attention – to pay attention to this and ignore that – is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be. (W. H. Auden)

–+–

Saturday I wanted to pay close attention to the situation in Algeria, Mali, and related, but had other commitments both paid and personal. As a result, I had to depend on broadcast media, mostly car radio, and what I could quickly call-up on my hand-held.

As a result, I learned that for most Americans the hostage-taking, final assault, and casualties at the In Amenas gas plant was a sort of vague echo over the horizon. Much to my wife’s surprise,  I actually cursed at NPR’s All Things Considered for their insufficient coverage.  This is, no doubt, one of the consequences to which Auden is referring.

Once I was able to sit down with a computer-on-the-Internet I found the New York Times, Al Jazeera, and French media were all rich sources of information. The BBC was, for my taste (and language skills), the best source.

But even among the best sources, there was — at least on Saturday night — a paucity of strategic context. There was little attention to the rapidly developing situation in Mali or details, for example, such as the permission given for French air assets to transit Algerian air space or the multinational character of the terrorist gang.

Sunday morning broadcast news, at least at 0730 Eastern, was even worse than Saturday night.  Inauguration preparations, AFC/NFC championship pre-game analysis,  Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o, a complicated murder trial in Phoenix and the weather just did not leave time, apparently, for anything as lame as a four day terrorist assault on a major natural gas production facility.

Those on the US East and Gulf Coasts have learned to pay attention to weather patterns over the Sahara to provide early warning of hurricanes heading our way. Given what else is happening across West Africa — from Nigeria to Mali to Algeria to Libya and more — low pressure pulses are not the only threats to which we might usefully attend.

January 10, 2013

What was, what is, and what will be

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Risk Assessment,Strategy,WMD — by Philip J. Palin on January 10, 2013

Earlier this week the World Economic Forum released its annual report: Global Risks 2013.

According to the WEF survey of 1000-plus “global experts”, over the next ten years the most serious risks by potential impact are:

  • Major systemic financial failure
  • Water supply crises
  • Chronic fiscal imbalances
  • Food shortage crises
  • Diffusion of weapons of mass destruction

Of these most consequential risks the expert survey — complemented by a series of workshops — found that water supplies and fiscal balance are already widely in crisis (What a surprise!). The risk of food shortages and systemic financial failure will increase as water and fiscal problems worsen. Increased diffusion of WMD almost seems simple in comparison.

Combined with the November release of Global Trends 2030 by our friends at the National Intelligence Council, we now have even more excuses for bad dreams.

In his preface to the report, Klaus Schwab, the founder and Executive Chairman of the WEF comments,

I think you will agree [the report] makes a compelling case for stronger cross-border collaboration among stakeholders from governments, business and civil society – a partnership with the purpose of building resilience to global risks. They also highlight the need for strengthening existing mechanisms to mitigate and manage risks, which today primarily exist at the national level. This means that while we can map and describe global risks, we cannot predict when and how they will manifest; therefore, building national resilience to global risks is of paramount importance.

The report offers suggestions related to definitions of resilience and good practice in resilience.

I was one of those contributing to the WEF survey and workshops. WEF does a great job of bringing together a broad mix of public and private policy makers, academics, and fellow-travelers. The report is helpful and I look forward to the follow-on work. The Davos Summit, January 23-27, focuses on “resilient dynamism” and will kick-off several important initiatives.

–+–

I paused while reading of the WEF report to take a call from the operations manager for a grocery chain in the New York metro area. I will do a case study on their Hurricane Sandy preparedness and response. One store on Staten Island was flooded under three feet of water. It reopened within a week. Another store within three blocks of the New Dorp Beach inundation zone — the deadly ground zero for Sandy — stayed open without interruption. There are a range of smart, heroic and almost miraculous tales.

There is also a very open, practical self-criticism in how the grocers are working to prepare for and adapt to the likelihood of something-worse-than-Sandy.

I perceive a yawning gap between the analysis and attitude encountered at the grocery chain and that revealed in the WEF report. It is a contrast often found between the theoretical and the operational.

The point is not that the operators are hubris-free and the theoreticians — including me — abide with such overabundant pride (though the thought does occur and recur). Rather, it seems to me, that this gap is where many of our vulnerabilities originate.

The WEF report (and many more) is in the future tense. These are issues we can reasonably anticipate will influence the operational environment for the next ten years or more.

Operational thinking and even planning is considerably more present tense. The possibilities of now — both opportunity and threat, strength and weakness — are at the heart of the operational worldview.

Past, present, and future are characteristics of English. Other linguistic systems focus much more on action being finished or unfinished. Any meaningful notion of homeland security will remain unfinished (and perhaps worse) until we can more effectively communicate across the operational-theoretical continuum.

–+–

Through me what was, what is, and what will be, are revealed. Through me strings sound in harmony, to song. My aim is certain, but an arrow truer than mine, has wounded my free heart! The whole world calls me the bringer of aid; medicine is my invention; my power is in healing.

Metamorphoses, Ovid: Book I:521-523, Apollo begging Daphne to yield to him. I realize that quoting a Latin poet, even in translation, will not help bridge the gap. But it is beautiful, is it not? The Latin is luscious. And doesn’t it evoke an image of homeland security begging for affection? A big part of the challenge is to respect the insight that exists across the continuum, learning how to fully engage different dialects.

December 20, 2012

Proximate solutions to insoluble problems

Filed under: Catastrophes,General Homeland Security,Private Sector,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on December 20, 2012

I am in the bad day business.  Whether the cause is natural, accidental or intentional my role is preparing for bad days.  My specific role has become helping others prepare for very, very bad days.

It is my impression most readers of HLSWatch are in a similar business.

While personally most of my days are fine — even very fine — I know bad days will come.   I have experienced them.  I have been with others shortly after their experience of such days.

One of my favorite memories from when I was 8 or 9  is of laying upside down on the backyard slide on a bright summer day reading about Vesuvius burying Pompeii and the tsunami swamping Lisbon.  History books are mostly about somebody’s bad day.

A few years ago I was in the prevent-bad-days business.   In some ways that was a better job.  But no matter how good you are: prevention will fail.  The bad day will come. Very bad days seem to be coming more often.

Last Thursday I reported on an “emerging threats forum” that had decided the best strategy for the most serious threats is to:

  • Inform the public of the threats,
  • Explain that government is not capable of prevention or timely response regarding many threats,
  • Encourage and facilitate enhanced individual, neighborhood, school, and workplace (other) preparedness to be self-sustaining.

Arnold Bogis asked that I give more details.  I promised I would.  In the seven days since there have been several very bad days in Newtown, Aleppo, Karachi, Davao, Goma, Suva, and elsewhere.

I was surprised the emerging threats forum chose a “public engagement” strategy.  In my experience, these sort of sessions are usually dominated by men (mostly) who want to exercise control and prefer developing systems and methods subject to their control.  At a similar session the week before there had been an extended discussion regarding how to ensure the persistent appearance of control (even though being out-of-control was the implicit reality).

Maybe it was the list of emerging threats that discouraged the usual symptoms of homeland security’s own version of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  The facilitators chose largely novel or large-scale threats that dwarfed even the biggest ego.

Maybe it was the age of the participants.  It was a bifurcated group.   There were several “older” (apologies) folks like me and a roughly equal number of young.   The young are accustomed to not being allowed to exercise control.  The old have often discovered control can be an illusion.  Those in-between — perhaps still fighting for control — were a distinct minority (probably because that age group mostly remained in the cockpit while we were in the seminar room).

Maybe it was an increasing recognition of and respect for complexity.   The discussion gave considerable attention to linkages, signals, and unpredictability.

In any case, one of the younger people was the first to suggest there is a problem with unrealistic expectations related to government capabilities in major disasters.   Sandy was still on the mind of many and mostly there was the sense of a bullet dodged.  ”It could easily have been much, much worse,” seemed the consensus.   “This was not even a hurricane when it came ashore and look at the consequences.”  And still it was and is plenty bad.

Unrealistic expectations enable individual, family, and private sector choices that increase vulnerability.   Government responsiveness on a typical bad day sets up unrealistic expectations for response on a very, very bad day.

While there seemed to be considerable consensus that  ”unrealistic expectations” is a key strategic insight and “public engagement” could be an effective solution, the group perceived public engagement would be very difficult to achieve.  Among the problems discussed:

  • Many in government perceive public engagement as a political, not an administrative task.  Many government officials are reluctant  and uncomfortable engaging the public and nearly as uncomfortable with politicians.
  • When government does engage the public there is a tendency to over-organize the process.  It is difficult for  many officials to admit weakness to the public (One participant said, government officials tend to “talk at rather than with the public.”
  • The public is not listening and tends to deny or discount risk until it is too late.

There was not time at last week’s meeting to seriously engage these challenges.  But for what it’s worth, I will list some personal suggestions.

Government — and especially the homeland security professions — need to give more attention to hiring and using brokers, facilitators, relationship-builders and others skilled at bridging the private-public divide.   Politicians are, by the way, often very skilled in these methods.

Government needs to find existing networks of private-public and private-private connections.  These preexisting connections are much more likely to persist than anything created and managed by government.  Politicians are often expert navigators of these networks.

Within these existing networks there is a need to identify or recruit independent champions of prevention, preparedness, mitigation, response, recovery, or whatever other purpose.   Once again, politicians can be very effective champions within their preexisting networks.

Government should ask and listen about twice as much as it tells.   Politicians are usually not good at this skill.

In my experience when the foregoing preconditions are in place up to 80 percent (occasionally more) of individuals, families, and private organizations are very willing and interested to be in meaningful dialogue with the government.   The public is more likely to listen when they perceive the public sector is listening to them.  The public sector is more likely to listen to and engage with a neighborhood or business group or similar organization.

In my experience the public is surprised when told what the government cannot do in a disaster and about 10 to 20 percent will initially strongly resist what they are hearing.  But most are able to quickly recognize their own unrealistic expectations and begin to shift, especially if they get some informed help making the shift.

This is, I suggest, a model that extends beyond homeland security to a wide range of social, economic and political concerns.   Fantastic success in implementing all of my suggestions will not reduce the number of bad days, though I think consequences can often — if not always — be mitigated.

–+–

Maybe this is already clear enough, but to be sure I will add: What all these tactics and techniques are really about is making and maintaining meaningful human relationships that happen to engage disaster risk among other matters.  Other matters will usually be more important. But disaster risk is worth including among the concerns around which the relationships emerge and move.  It is kinship with each other and our shared prospects.  Get the relationships right and the rest will be much easier to engage.

December 13, 2012

Am I vulnerable or am I threatened? Does it make a difference?

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on December 13, 2012

Monday I participated in an “Emerging Threats Forum.”  Facilitated by Toffler Associates, a major jurisdiction was working to think through the atypical and potentially new.   Among the issues offered were:

  • Aging Infrastructure
  • Engineered Viruses
  • Climate Change
  • Cyber Attacks
  • Nano robots
  • Solar Weather

And more.  I perceive the purpose was less a matter of tactical planning and more an effort to conceive a strategic stance that might meaningfully engage a wide range of threats, not just those specified.

While our rather small, but diverse group was in conversation, the National Intelligence Council released it’s quadrennial report: Global Trends 2030: US Leadership in a Post-Western World. (Warning: 20-plus MB)

If you read HLSWatch, I’d be surprised if you have not already read a news piece or two on the report.  The Telegraph (UK) headlined: US will be “first among equals by 2030.” The Economic Times (India) headlined: India- China unlikely to topple American supremacy by 2030: Intelligence.  Same report viewed from two different contexts.

Here’s how the Office of the Director of National Intelligence frames the report:

“Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” projects that by 2030 the U.S. most likely will remain “first among equals” among the other great powers, due to the legacy of its leadership role in the world and the dominant role it has played in international politics across the board in both hard and soft power. The replacement of the U.S. by another global power and construction of a new international order is an unlikely outcome in this time period.

Nevertheless, with the rapid rise of other countries, the “unipolar moment” is over and no country – whether the U.S., China, or any other country – will be a hegemonic power. In terms of the indices of overall power – GDP, population size, military spending and technological investment – Asia will surpass North America and Europe combined.

The empowerment of individuals, the diffusion of power among states, and from states to informal networks, will have a dramatic impact bringing a growing democratization, at both the international and domestic level. Additionally, two other “megatrends” will shape the world out to 2030:  Demographic patterns especially rapid aging and growing demands on resources such as food and water, which might lead to scarcities. These trends, which exist today, are projected to gain momentum over the coming 15-20 years.

On Tuesday Dan O’Connor asked, “Why are Americans so scared?” Well, if you’re predisposed to fretting there’s plenty of encouragement in the Global Trends report.   If worst case thinking is your particular fetish, the six Black Swans described will be as titillating as the Four Horsemen.

I was surprised how the emerging threats conversation unfolded.   To effectively deal with any exotic threat — and many others as well — those in the room concluded there was a need to proactively engage the public.   The public should know the government does not have sufficient capabilities to effectively respond to many of these threats.  As a result, individuals — and the private sector generally — should be self-sustaining for a significant period, potentially well-beyond the 72-hour window.  It is especially important that those with the financial and physical capacity to be self-sustaining do so in order to allow the government to assist those without such capacity.

In other words, the conversation gave much more emphasis to shared vulnerabilities than to specific threats.  The strategic stance focused on individuals and the community being informed, realistic, and proactive regarding existing vulnerabilities.  (The group also perceived it would be difficult — both politically and functionally — to achieve this strategy, but that is for a different blog post.).   At least one HLSWatch reader was also involved in the discussion, I will be interested if she finds this a fair representation of what seemed to me to be a consensus conclusion.

The National Intelligence Council addresses vulnerabilities (and opportunities), but it does so within a rhetoric that presumes a threat.   The calculus of action and options unfolds from preventing or mitigating a threat.

The micro does not always translate into the macro but as the father of young children I discouraged attention to potential threats, even while I encouraged sustained attention to potential vulnerabilities.   I was taught by my parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, and community that strength emerges from diligent self-development — doing my very best — not from preoccupation with threats or competition.  For better or worse — and I think mostly for better — this is the strategic stance with which I have lived my life.

Are we vulnerable or are we threatened? Does it make a difference?

December 6, 2012

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.

October 29, Lower Manhattan looking north (Getty Images)

This season’s final episode of Revolution, a new NBC dramatic series, was broadcast last week.   With 7 to 10 million viewers, the network has ordered a second season.  Here’s the premise:

We lived in an electric world. We relied on it for everything. And then the power went out. Everything stopped working. We weren’t prepared. Fear and confusion led to panic. The lucky ones made it out of the cities. The government collapsed. Militias took over, controlling the food supply and stockpiling weapons. We still don’t know why the power went out. But we’re hopeful someone will come and light the way.

Last Thursday’s post included what then seemed a rather modest notion: “I perceive we need to assume power outages and discover how we can still water, feed, and otherwise serve those in need.”  The onslaught of email I received seems to indicate the TV show’s premise may not be as implausible as I thought.  For many the possibility of  doing much of anything without electricity is nearly unimaginable.

Another set of emailers can imagine life without electricity, but found my effort misguided (even in the words of one, “enabling bad practice by the utilities.” ) These correspondents insisted that instead we must see to it that the electric utilities “just do their job.” This job evidently involves effectively, efficiently, and at no additional cost adapting to increasing demand, legacy infrastructure, more regulation, hurricanes, ice storms, earthquakes, cyber-threats, and perhaps the greatest threat of all: property owners who love big trees. Not a job I want.

October 29, Lower Manhattan to Midtown seen from Brooklyn (AP Photo)

I know a resilient electrical grid is possible.  It’s just that given choices we made more than a century ago, it seems unlikely anytime soon.  Re-engineering for resilience will take time and lots of money.   But I want to believe in the possibility of redemption.  And fortunately, there are prophets to show us the way.

The prolifically prophetic J. Michael Barrett — usually  more Isaiah than Jeremiah — has just completed an augury that might well have included, “Come now, let us reason together…”    It is a scripture in four chapters, which began appearing on October 19 (see, I told you, prophetic) entitled: Ensuring the Resilience of the US Electrical Grid.

Chapter 1: Fixing it before it breaks

Chapter 2: Managing the chaos — and costs — of shared risk

Chapter 3: Requirements for a more resilient system

Chapter 4: Key investments and next steps

In Barrett 4: 12 (or so) we read, “Embedding resilience within the electrical grid is about three main categories of investment: 1) managing and meeting overall demand to help avoid an adverse event; 2) expanding alternatives or substitute systems before and after an event; and 3) enabling rapid reconstitution if and when a disruption does occur. Fortunately, the implementation of each type of solution often carries over benefits across to one or both of the other categories, for the tools and the knowledge that can help avoid an event can also be useful in response and recovery efforts.”

For a prophet Mike Barrett’s language is remarkably calm and balanced (unlike this post).  But between the lines a reader might discern the lemony shadow of “Rise up you who are at ease, hear my voice; you complacent ones… for the palace will be forsaken, the populous city deserted…

On what do you depend?  If you persist in this dependence do not despise its nature, but honor it with study and work. Beware distraction.  Do not be absent minded.  That on which you depend requires mindful engagement.   Absence — ab esse — is to step away from being, even outside being.  Never a good choice.

Please visit an extraordinary collection of Sandy-related photographs by Christophe Jacrot: New York in Black.  The example immediately above is too small.  In full form the spirit of Edward Hopper is re-claimed.  This is not just a city darkened, but a city more sharply seen.

November 30, 2012

West Coast Bombarded

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on November 30, 2012

The National Weather Service forecast for Friday to Sunday opens with:

THE ONSLAUGHT OF PACIFIC MOISTURE WILL CONTINUE TO BOMBARD MUCH OF THE WEST COAST

Who needs aliens — or even North Koreans — when you have computer-enhanced atmospheric energy waves!

The weather channel explains,

Meteorologists use the term “atmospheric river” to describe a long, narrow plume piping deep moisture from the tropics into the mid-latitudes. One type of atmospheric river you may have heard of is the “Pineapple Express”, a pronounced plume tapping moisture from the Hawaiian Islands to the U.S. West Coast. Amazingly, according to NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL), a strong atmospheric river can transport as water vapor up to 15 times the average flow of liquid water at the mouth of the Mississippi River! Suffice to say, if an atmospheric river stalls over a particular area, significant flooding can be the result.

Right now the immediate forecast suggests local challenges but nothing catastrophic.  For those outside the Pacific northwest: mostly guilt-free storm porn.  But just as one man’s porn may be another’s sex education (I too was once a thirteen-year-old boy), what unfolds this weekend could — even should — influence our expectations.

In early 2011 the US Geological Survey, CALEMA, and others conducted a multi-hazard demonstration project they called ARkStorm:

The hypothetical storm depicted here would strike the U.S. West Coast and be similar to the intense California winter storms of 1861 and 1862 that left the central valley of California impassible… The Central Valley experiences hypothetical flooding 300 miles long and 20 or more miles wide. Serious flooding also occurs in Orange County, Los Angeles County, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay area, and other coastal communities. Windspeeds in some places reach 125 miles per hour, hurricane-force winds. Across wider areas of the state, winds reach 60 miles per hour. Hundreds of landslides damage roads, highways, and homes. Property damage exceeds $300 billion, most from flooding.

Demand surge (an increase in labor rates and other repair costs after major natural disasters) could increase property losses by 20 percent. Agricultural losses and other costs to repair lifelines, dewater (drain) flooded islands, and repair damage from landslides, brings the total direct property loss to nearly $400 billion, of which $20 to $30 billion would be recoverable through public and commercial insurance. Power, water, sewer, and other lifelines experience damage that takes weeks or months to restore. Flooding evacuation could involve 1.5 million residents in the inland region and delta counties. Business interruption costs reach $325 billion in addition to the $400 billion property repair costs…

As we saw with Sandy and Katrina and the Tohoku Quake and Mississippi flooding and profound drought in the Great Plains (and more) this is not a wild-eyed Mayan prediction of the future.   This is merely the projection onto the present of a previous and recurring natural event.

November 16, 2012

The times they are a-changin

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 16, 2012

From: Protecting New York City, Before Next Time (NYT, November 2, 2012)

Mayor Bloomberg was explicit:

The floods and fires that swept through our city left a path of destruction that will require years of recovery and rebuilding work. And in the short term, our subway system remains partially shut down, and many city residents and businesses still have no power. In just 14 months, two hurricanes have forced us to evacuate neighborhoods — something our city government had never done before. If this is a trend, it is simply not sustainable. Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.

Governor Cuomo too:

Extreme weather is the new normal. In the past two years, we have had two storms, each with the odds of a 100-year occurrence. Debating why does not lead to solutions — it leads to gridlock. The denial and deliberation from extremists on both sides about the causes of climate change are distracting us from addressing its inarguable effects. Recent events demand that we get serious once and for all.

Even before Sandy hit, New Jersey Governor Christie was clear.  According to an August 19, 2011 report in  the Star-Ledger, “The governor said, “climate change is real.” He added that “human activity plays a role in these changes” and that climate change is “impacting our state.”

During his Wednesday press conference the President said:

I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions. And as a consequence, I think we’ve got an obligation to future generations to do something about it… The temperature around the globe is increasing faster than was predicted even 10 years ago. We do know that the Arctic ice cap is melting faster than was predicted even five years ago. We do know that there have been an extraordinarily large number of severe weather events here in North America, but also around the globe.

All the way back in 2010 a study by the think-tank CNAWhy the Emergency Management Community Should be Concerned about Climate Change — and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation found that in regard to climate change,

These changes may impact the location, frequency, and occurrence of natural hazards such as tropical cyclones, wildfires, floods,and winter storms. Thus, the historical data that are typically the basis of hazard identification and risk assessment may not accurately forecast future events. Consequently, we need to begin to evaluate and better understand how climate change could affect the identification and selection of disaster mitigation strategies, the types of preparedness activities that jurisdictions undertake,the execution of response operations, and the implementation of long-term recovery strategies.

The CNA report offers a set of policy recommendations.  All are important.  I would argue the results of Sandy (and the Japanese triple header, June’s Derecho, last year’s Irene, Katrina, and more) especially highlight the criticality of mitigation and preparedness.  For too long these have been the weak sisters of the emergency management and homeland security family.

Mitigation and preparedness are given less money and attention because:

1.  Decision-makers at almost every level over-estimate their understanding of future challenges based on their personal experience with past challenges.

2.  Mitigation and preparedness require research, thinking, communication, collaboration, and crafting decisions without the benefit of an immediate crisis to clarify priorities and when no one is “in charge”.

3.  Mitigation and (real) preparedness seldom involve buying big-boy toys or nifty gadgets.  They are less about playing war and much more about playing house.

Mitigation and preparedness are about building smart for the long-term, not just picking up the pieces.

November 14, 2012

Resistance is futile?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 14, 2012

Seasonal flooding is expected in Venice.  But this autumn —  for the fourth time since 2000 — the  high water has substantially exceeded historic norms.

The Venetian experience and response offers analogies for decisions unfolding from Sandy:  In particular should our strategy lean toward absorbing or resisting?

Over the centuries Venice has made choices across this continuum.  Some islands have been largely abandoned.  Architectural, infrastructural, and economic adaptations have anticipated flooding.  Large-scale engineering projects are underway to protect the city from flooding.

Much will depend, I expect, on the experience of the next two-to-five years.   If Sandy is framed as an anomaly, choices will default to status-quo-ante.  The 1821 flooding of the Battery is barely remembered.  The Long Island Express of 1938 was an even worse storm and did not seriously dent post-war development.  But if last year’s experience with Irene and this year’s with Sandy is followed in short order by a third perceived calamity: policy, strategy, and behavior will shift.

It is worth remembering that until the Portuguese, Dutch, and English began sailing around the Cape of Good Hope, Venice was the great European trading center and a significant Mediterranean power.  The decline of Venice was mostly a matter of shifting trade patterns, but  a series of powerful storms and floods  in the year 1600 and afterwards accelerated the decline.

…Thus did Venice rise,
Thus flourish, till the unwelcome tidings came,
That in the Tagus had arrived a fleet
From India, from the region of the Sun,
Fragrant with spices — that a way was found,
A channel opened, and the golden stream
Turned to enrich another. Then she felt
Her strength departing, yet awhile maintained
Her state, her splendour; till a tempest shook
All things most held in honour among men…

Samuel Rogers

September 22, 2012

One day: a range of reactions, not all bad

Filed under: Radicalization,Risk Assessment,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 22, 2012

On the second Friday since four Americans were killed in the US Consulate at Benghazi,  two weeks since a  virulently vapid video produced in the United States caught the attention of millions of Muslims, and on the first Friday since Parisian cartoonists insisted on their right to be provocative there were a range of reactions.  Three caught my attention:

In Pakistan what the government had tried to orchestrate as peaceful protests spun out of control.  According to DAWN:

Friday which was designated by the government to demonstrate love of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) and condemn the anti-Islam video produced in the US by some extremists was hijacked by our home-grown extremists who turned it into a day of unbridled violence, killings, arson and robbery.

At least 23 people were killed and over 200 injured and violence in some places continued till late in the night.

The internal security system virtually collapsed, giving way to tens of thousands of violent protesters to rule the streets in several cities, from Peshawar and Islamabad to Lahore and Karachi, burn down shops, cinema houses and police vehicles, and ransack whatever else that came in the way. (MORE)

In Lebanon thousands peacefully protested. According to The Daily Star:

Peaceful demonstrations took place throughout Lebanon Friday in protest of an anti-Islam film and a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad, amid strict security measures across the country.

France closed its embassy and consulate Friday, and many French schools did not hold classes in anticipation of protests against the publishing of a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad by a French satirical magazine earlier this week.

This came days after an anti-Islam film produced in the U.S. outraged many Muslims, who took to the streets in countries across the world.

Several thousand supporters of the Sidon-based Sheikh Ahmad Assir gathered in Beirut’s Martyrs Square to rally against the insults to the Prophet. (MORE)

In Benghazi tens-of-thousands of ordinary Libyans confronted and, for the time being, expelled a terrorist militia considered complicit in the consulate attack.  According to The Telegraph:

Cheering protesters in Benghazi have stormed a base occupied by a militant Islamist group accused of complicity in the killing of the US ambassador to Libya, saying they were ‘reclaiming it for the nation’.

The direct action against Ansar al-Sharia, a group whose members were seen at the consulate building where the ambassador, Chris Stevens, died last week, followed a “Rally to Save Benghazi” by activists angry that the government and security forces had failed to take on militant groups.

There had been a similar but smaller protest in the capital, Tripoli, earlier. The crowd in Benghazi numbered 30,000, leading to fears of violence as the heavily-armed Ansar al-Sharia, or “Supporters of Sharia”, staged a counter-protest.

However, the Islamists were overwhelmingly outnumbered, and the protesters moved first to evict Ansar from a hospital for which they had been providing security.

Later in the evening, chanting “Libya, Libya” they moved on the main base further from the city centre, taking it over without resistance and setting fire to cars found inside. Police and members of the official army parked outside did nothing to intervene. (MORE)

Some reports suggest at least ten Libyans were killed in clashes with Islamist militias before the evictions succeeded.

Elsewhere rallies and protests were comparatively small and peaceful.  In Cairo where several hundred had threatened violence last Friday, only “dozens” protested peacefully this Friday.   According to Reuters,

Condemning the publication of the cartoons in France as an act verging on incitement, Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa said it showed how polarized the West and the Muslim world had become.

Gomaa said Mohammad and his companions had endured “the worst insults from the non-believers of his time. Not only was his message routinely rejected, but he was often chased out of town, cursed and physically assaulted on numerous occasions.

“But his example was always to endure all personal insults and attacks without retaliation of any sort. There is no doubt that, since the Prophet is our greatest example in this life, this should also be the reaction of all Muslims.”

As a friend headlines in a still-to-be-published piece: Newsflash: All Revolutions Involve Chaos.   There will be many chaotic days ahead.  But yesterday’s very mixed results are worth our attention.   From this distance we too often hear and see only the worst.  Reality is more complicated.

August 16, 2012

Near-misses, mitigation, and resilience

Filed under: Catastrophes,Infrastructure Protection,Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on August 16, 2012

A giant tulip poplar fell in our yard.   It’s girth was nearly twice my reach.  A storm uprooted and deposited it precisely parallel to our house about eight feet from the west wall.  If it had fallen east at almost any other angle it would have caused significant damage.

This happened two years ago. There are several smaller trees as close to our house.  There is one even larger oak towering over the northwest corner. I have done nothing to mitigate the risk.

There is a program at Wharton that specializes in near-misses.  In 2008  the Wharton researchers added two new layers to the bottom of a pre-existing Safety Pyramid and renamed it the “Risk Pyramid.”  The two new layers are:

  1. Foreshadowing Events and Observations.
  2. Positive Illusions, Unsafe Conditions and Unobserved Problems – Unawareness, Ignorance, Complacency

(From  Assessment of Catastrophic Risk  and Potential Losses in Industry (2012) Kleindorfer, Oktum, Pariyani, and  Seider)

I am not unaware or ignorant of the risk.  I have observed the risk.  I don’t hold positive illusions regarding the risk.   I have observed near-misses and I recognize them as foreshadowing events.  But I am complacent.

Why am I complacent?

According to Alan Berger et al there are  ”Five Neglects” common in risk management:

1. Probability neglect – people sometimes don’t consider the probability of the occurrence of an outcome, but focus on the consequences only.

2. Consequence neglect – just like probability neglect, sometimes individuals neglect the magnitude of outcomes.

3. Statistical neglect – instead of subjectively assessing small probabilities and continuously updating them, people choose to use rules-of-thumb (if any heuristics), which can introduce systematic biases in their decisions.

4. Solution neglect – choosing an optimal solution is not possible when one fails to consider all of the solutions.

5. External risk neglect – in making decisions, individuals or groups often consider the cost/benefits of decisions only for themselves, without including externalities, sometimes leading to significant negative outcomes for others.

Some of these factors influence my complacency — especially consequence neglect — but my inaction is mostly a matter of avoiding near-term costs.   It will certainly cost me money, time, and several beautiful trees (all current sources of enjoyment) in order to mitigate the uncertain, if very likely, future loss of (more) money, time and one or more fallen trees.

To overcome these neglects and short-term thinking, scholars at the Wharton School of Business have identified an eight step process:

Step 1 Identification and recognition of a near-miss

Step 2 Disclosure (reporting) of the identifiedinformation/incident

Step 3 Prioritization and classification of information for future actions

Step 4 Distribution of the information to proper channels

Step 5 Analyzing causes of the problem

Step 6 Identifying solutions (remedial actions)

Step 7 Dissemination of actions to the implementers and general information to a broader group for their knowledge

Step 8 Resolution of all open actions and review of system checks and balances

I have done everything except Steps 3, 7 and  8.  In other words, I have done everything except make an explicit decision regarding priority and implementation.  I am kicking the can.  I am procrastinating.  I am not actively choosing, I am passively choosing to accept the consequences of inaction.

This is not just a personal problem.  This is at the core of many organizational, even national problems; even in the best organizations, even in the best nations.

Embedded in the links above are entirely reasonable recommendations regarding management processes to overcome this recurring problem.   Mostly it comes down to variations on creative nagging.  We use data to nag, processes to nag, required reporting to nag. We schedule meetings mostly as an elaborate way to nag. Laws and regulations nag… and throw in some threats for good measure.  By writing this blog I’m nagging myself to take action.

As a colleague says, “Humans typically talk and talk and talk, and if they keep talking about something long enough they will actually do something about it.”

Resilience is enhanced by taking personal responsibility for recognizing and mitigating risks.   Resilience is reduced by inattention, denial, lack of communication, and inaction.   Ignoring near-misses increases the likelihood — and often the scope — of future loss.

What about other near-misses:  floods, wildfires, earthquakes, power outages, communications failures, supply chain complications, and more?  When are these stress events one-offs and when are they pieces of a pattern?   When does an infrequent risk deserve sustained attention and action?

How about this:  When a key asset (such as your home) is catastrophically vulnerable to a demonstrably recurring event (such as high winds)  and this vulnerability is amplified by a specific threat (such as a giant tree), action should be taken to reduce potential consequences (take down the tree).

Excuse me, I’ve got some calls to make.  How about you?

July 27, 2012

SnOODAn: Boyd, Snowden, and Resilience

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on July 27, 2012

Last Thursday I posted a bit on Cynefin. Developed by David Snowden and others, the Cynefin Framework can be a helpful tool for engaging reality’s varied flows, especially the flows — sometimes floods —  from known to knowable to complex to chaotic and betwixt and between.

Cynefin is both a strategic and an operational tool. Depending on one’s strategic perception it calls for adjusting how reality is engaged. For example, dealing with what is known is a matter of sensing, then categorizing, and responding appropriately. We choose a response to match our understanding of what is happening, our prior experience with what is happening, and how we have previously dealt with this category of event.

In contrast, a complex context presents a novel environment that needs to be probed in order to sense what is happening and then we respond to that understanding… often an incremental understanding that comes from multiple probes (some helpful and some not). Snowden argues that chaos does not allow for investigatory probes, but requires full-fledged actions and adaptation as we move with reality’s cascade.

In a comment to last week’s post John Plodinec suggested that Cynefin reminds him a bit of the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) framework developed by John Boyd.  I agree.  The two frameworks are especially helpful when applied together.

I use Cynefin to understand the context in which I find myself.  I use OODA to better understand myself.  Simultaneous application helps me adjust effectively to unfolding reality.

The principal impediment to recognizing a shift from a complicated context into complexity or from complexity into chaos is my own orientation, my own readiness and (un)willingness to recognize reality.

By clicking on the illustration a larger version will appear in a new window

My orientation has significant influence on my observation.  Instead of seeing unfolding circumstances I often “see” a prior circumstance.  Instead of receiving outside information, I may depend on inside information (often inside my own mind).  Instead of interacting directly with the environment, I interact with data-feeds, indirect reports, and other representations of reality rather than reality-itself.

Not surprisingly given this warped view of reality my decisions (conscious or usually not)  can produce actions wildly mis-matched to reality.  In mistaking a complex context for a merely complicated context, my decisions and actions amplify the complexity.  By mistaking a chaotic situation for a complex situation I undertake tentative decisions and actions that merely delay the bolder steps that are the best bet for stabilization.

Snowden warns that mistaking chaos for a known — and controllable — situation is often the precursor to catastrophe.  This is an error to which experienced experts are, paradoxically, especially susceptible.

The Orientation element of the OODA framework (inside the blue in the illustration) consists of what Boyd suggests are five anchors… predispositions… core capabilities…

  • Genetic Heritage:  We see, hear, smell, taste,  feel and think within the limits of our species.
  • Previous Experiences:  We tend to expect what we have previously experienced.
  • Cultural Traditions:  We tend to process new experiences with concepts derived from our social experience.
  • Analysis and Synthesis: Boyd especially emphasized the speed with which we can analyze and synthesize, greater speed providing greater potential advantage.
  • New Information:  Our receptiveness to novelty can profoundly affect every other aspect of orientation.

The more open I am to new information, the quicker I am to analyze/synthesize new information, and the less constricted I am by genetics, culture, and prior experience the more resilient I am likely to be in dealing with complexity and chaos.

Another way of saying the same thing:  My resilience is advanced when I can take thoughtful action even when seriously doubting my own judgment.  The more complex and chaotic the context, the more self-doubt is productively adaptive… as long as I take action, monitor outcomes, and adjust as best I can.   Will this work for a group?  For a community?  For a region?  For a nation?

Can a society increasingly organized around specializations affirmatively embrace self-doubt?  We usually speak of self-doubt as a problem.  Yet Jim Collins found that Level 5 Leaders “build enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”  What is humility, but self-doubt courageously deployed?

–+–

I constantly stumble over pronouncing cynefin (it’s Welsh and sounds something like “kuh-ne-vin”.  Whenever I ask someone if they know about OODA they seem to think I’m asking about a breakfast cereal.   So I’m going to start writing and talking about “The Snoodan Frameworks” (Say Snowden with a kind of Scottish brogue or Scandinavian sing-song.)

We’re about one-third or so through a series on catastrophe, resilience, and civil liberties that started with a post on May 18. The series will continue next Thursday or Friday.

July 13, 2012

Can you envision a “successful failure”?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on July 13, 2012

In the movie Apollo 13 — recounting the nearly deadly 1970 moon mission —  the heroic NASA mission director says, “Failure is not an option.”

The real hero — Gene Kranz — never said this.   It’s a scriptwriter’s creation.   After the movie’s success, Mr. Kranz did use the phrase as the title of his memoir.

Failure is always an option.  We recently received several reminders of this reality:

The final report on Air France Flight 447 found that “the crew was in a state of near-total loss of control” because of inconsistent data reports.

A  Japanese parliamentary commission found the Fukushima nuclear emergency was a “profoundly man-made disaster.” (See a good summary from the BBC.)

Last week from Columbus, Ohio to Charleston, West Virginia to Washington DC the best laid plans of intelligent people and competent organizations unraveled before an unexpected strong storm.

There was failure.   There was passivity, fear, denial, selfishness and greed.

At Fukushima and in response to the derecho there was also creativity, courage, patience,  generosity, self-sacrifice and resilience.  We don’t know enough about what happened over the South Atlantic to be sure, but I expect even in those horrific 3 minutes, 30 seconds the full range of humanity could be found.

Across all these situations there was uncertainty.   Some uncertainty is innate to nearly every context.  But we are increasingly adept at self-creating even more.

Responding to the Air France Final Report, William Voss, President of the Flight Safety Foundation, told The Guardian, “Pilots a generation ago would have… understood what was going on, but [the AF447 pilots] were so conditioned to rely on the automation that they were unable to do this,” he said. “This is a problem not just limited to Air France or Airbus, it’s a problem we’re seeing around the world because pilots are being conditioned to treat automated processed data as truth, and not compare it with the raw information that lies underneath.”

It’s a problem well-beyond commercial aviation.  We organize much of our lives around the assumption that automated processes will persist and critical information will be available.  We expect to be warned of a threat, about the location and condition of our family and friends,  and about when a crisis will be over.  We expect to be able to access our credit and cash accounts. We expect to be able to travel from here to there to purchase what we need and reunite with those we love.   If necessary, we expect to be able to call 911 and quickly get professional help.  Over the last two or three generations everyday life has — increasingly — demonstrated these are reasonable expectations.

We are habituated to success.

But like the Air France pilots, when our information habit is not being fed our response can be self-destructive.   In the absence of information we tend to continue as usual or focus on restoring access to information. Both behaviors can significantly increase our risk by ignoring rapidly changing conditions and/or delaying thoughtful engagement with changed conditions.

The Apollo 13 Review Board found the accident, “…resulted from an unusual combination of mistakes, coupled with a somewhat deficient and unforgiving design.”

The deficient and unforgiving design that many of us — private citizens as well as public safety agencies — have adopted is dependence on just-in-time information.

My twenty-something children  seldom pre-plan in any significant way. They expect cell phones, text messaging, Facebook, and email to allow them to seize the best opportunities that unfold.   It works and I envy them.  Except when it does not work.  Except when these digital networks fail.

Much of our consumer culture is built around the same approach. We have become an economy, a society optimized for just-in-time. It can be a beautiful dance of  wonderful possibilities emerging in a moment and rapidly synchronized across time and space.  Until the music stops.

In the three examples above (not all catastrophic) there is a shared over-confidence in the fail-safe capabilities of protective design and effective communications.   In each of these cases the design bias increased risk exposure, communications was confusing or worse,  and both the design and the communications protocols complicated effective human response once risk was experienced.

There are several contending definitions of resilience.  Something that all the definitions I have encountered share is an expectation of failure.  Resilience is in many cases the learned-response to failure.  If it doesn’t kill you, you can learn from it.   The good news — and the bad news — is that catastrophes are sufficiently rare that we don’t get many opportunities to learn about catastrophic resilience.  What is a “forgiving design” for encountering catastrophe?

In April 2010 Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13, called the mission a “successful failure.” Lovell explained that while Apollo 13 never reached the moon, there was  ”a great success in the ability of people to take an almost certain catastrophe and turn it into a successful recovery.”

Envision a complete blackout of telecommunications (voice and data) across a region, say, extending from the mouth of the Susquehanna River south to the Potomac River and from about the Bull Run Mountains in the West to the Chesapeake Bay in the East.  This encompasses roughly 5 million residents.

Such a blackout for any sustained period  is an “an almost certain catastrophe”.   Can we envision how to “turn it into a successful recovery?”  What could be done?  What should be done?  What does the mental exercise (more?) tell us about our dependencies, our operational options, mitigation opportunities, and creativity?

I know, I know… such an event is wildly unlikely… nearly unimaginable.  Just about as silly as a bad thermostat undoing a mission to the moon.

–+–

This is part of a series examining potential relationships between catastrophe, resilience, and civil liberties.  We have spent the last several Friday’s looking mostly at catastrophe.  With this post we are pivoting toward resilience.   There have been a couple of great conversations.   Please contribute to the conversation by selecting the comment function immediately below.

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