Failing Gracefully in Complex Systems: A Note on Resilience

Macbeth’s castle, Act 1, Scene VII. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are plotting Duncan’s death.

Macbeth: If we should fail?

Lady Macbeth: Then we fail! But screw your courage to the sticking place, And we’ll not fail.

Complex dynamic systems tend to veer towards critical change. This is explained by the process of Self-Organized Criticality (SEO). Over time, non-equilibrium systems with extended degrees of freedom and a high level of nonlinearity become increasingly vulnerable to collapse. As the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) notes,

“The archetype of a self-organized critical system is a sand pile. Sand is slowly dropped onto a surface, forming a pile. As the pile grows, avalanches occur which carry sand from the top to the bottom of the pile.”

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?

Patrick Philippe Meier

11 responses to “Failing Gracefully in Complex Systems: A Note on Resilience

  1. When managing or coordinating an incident you know that you will not always make the right choices. You however try to make choices that have less severe consequences than doing nothing. And if you can you make backup plans (Plan B, Plan C, etc.) for dealing with the situation if Plan A doesn’t work.

    All too often those managing incidents decide to do nothing which turns up being even worse. I think it is one of the characteristics of a good disaster leader to build resillency into their decision making process.

    Great post!

  2. Great post.

    I think to counter McBeth’s position of “sticking in place” one needs to consider adaptability, flexibility and innovation.

    Many systems are vulnerable to failure because they have not kept up with the changes in society, culture or market demands. Perhaps those are the systems that need to fail and only those parts adaptable or innovative enough will survive as opposed to the entire system.

    Survival of the fittest?

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  4. I was checking to see whether Google had properly gotten my company and website to come up when someone typed in Graceful Systems and found your post. I love the thought that graceful systems are resilient, among other characteristics. I also agree strongly that we need to anticipate failure and build in ways to make failures mostly learning experiences. I believe that having a purpose and vision for the system greatly helps in that endeavor. Anyway, thanks for the post!

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