Complexity and catastrophy vs. resilience and ‘failing gracefully’

Via Patrick Meier:

“Scholars like Thomas Homer-Dixon argue that we are becoming increasingly prone to domino effects or cascading changes across systems, thus increasing the likelihood of total synchronous failure. “A long view of human history reveals not regular change but spasmodic, catastrophic disruptions followed by long periods of reinvention and development.”

That doesn’t mean we’re necessarily done for, however. As Homer-Dixon notes, we can “build resilience into all systems critical to our well-being. A resilience system can absorb large disturbances without changing its fundamental nature.”

“Resilience is an emergent property of a system–it’s not a result of any one of the system’s parts but of the synergy between all of its parts. So as a rough and ready rule, boosting the ability of each part to take care of itself in a crisis boosts overall resilience.”

This is where Homer-Dixon’s notion of “failing gracefully” comes in: “somehow we have to find the middle ground between dangerous rigidity and catastrophic collapse.”

“In our organizations, social and political systems, and individual lives, we need to create the possibility for what computer programmers and disaster planners call ‘graceful’ failure. When a system fails gracefully, damage is limited, and options for recovery are preserved. Also, the part of the system that has been damaged recovers by drawing resources and information from undamaged parts.”

“Breakdown is probably something that human social systems must go through to adapt successfully to changing conditions over the long term. But if we want to have any control over our direction in breakdown’s aftermath, we must keep breakdown constrained. Reducing as much as we can the force of underlying tectonic stresses helps, as does making our societies more resilient. We have to do other things too, and advance planning for breakdown is undoubtedly the most important.”

Planning for breakdown is not defeatist or passive. Quite on the contrary, it is wise and pro-active. Our hubris all too often clouds our better judgment and rarely do we—as the humanitarian/development community—seriously ask ourselves what we would do “if we should fail.” The answer: “then we fail” is an option. But are we, like Macbeth, prepared to live with the consequences?”

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