- November
Posted By : Adrian Chan
The system that breaks is not the system that repairs

Like so many of us outside the impact area, I’ve followed Sandy with a combination of fascination and concern. From the early hours of the storm’s growing ferocity, through impact and into recovery.

As a news junkie, coverage has been more than compelling. As a systems thinker, climate change and infrastructural vulnerabilities have been obvious themes. As a human, it goes without saying that I feel for those whose lives have been upended. (I once leapt from a burning home and know some of what it’s like to lose it all.)

A story in the New York Times caught my attention this morning. It’s about how people are coping with the disruption of smartphone dependencies. Not surprisingly, people interviewed expressed some hesitation at restoration of power and cell networks. Three people in a bar trump three bars on a phone.

This makes an interesting point for systems designers and systems thinkers. The system that breaks is not the system that repairs it. In system thinking, system boundaries distinguish system and environment. What belongs to the environment of a system doesn’t factor into the system’s reproduction. It’s noise.

In this case, the city (system) was literally flooded by its environment. The system’s boundaries literally collapsed and the system was overwhelmed.

The system designer might then ask: how better to design the system so that such catastrophes don’t occur? One solution might be system defenses. Another might be system preparedness. These could be achieved through a combination of hard technical solutions and soft informational awareness (infrastructure investments and scientific/meteorological modeling etc).

The systems thinking approach in this case would be: design the black swan into the system. Rethink system design to account for eventualities. I suspect this is the approach taken by designers of trading systems — where automated action (algorithms and high speed trading) must be handled carefully to avoid feedbacks.

But as we have seen in the storm’s aftermath, it’s less technical and more social response that is in play now. The social system response is the system that repairs (the broken technical and infrastructural systems).

Which would suggest to systems thinkers and designers: for a system failure, which system responds? And further, What is the capacity for a system to respond?

In Planet Money’s first piece since the disaster, a New Yorker comments on the City’s recovery, noting that in his home country Egypt it would have taken a year.

So for a social systemic response to a technical system breakdown, what’s the system’s capacity for recovery and response? How healthy is it? How well do people understand each other? How well can they communicate — and how easily? New Yorkers are famed for their identity and their resilience. But humanity often shines during times of crisis.

I have long thought that where functionalism is the correct orientation for technical systems design, it is not for social systems. And in fact psychologists of family systems will note that dysfunctional systems persist in spite of their intrinsic irrationality and harmfulness.

A broader understanding of social systems is needed for systems design and systems thinking. And perhaps system breakdowns need to be anticipated not only by incorporating them into functional design; but in a shift to responsive social systems also.  For in social systems, dysfunctionality seems to provide a great deal of real human experience — breakdowns of the sort that people experience as vital, moving, and profound.

This disaster will spawn a thousand new ideas. Some, hopefully many, will address the critical exposure our industrial-era cities and economies have to growing environmental threats. But some, too, will reflect on the needs and opportunities for social technologies to augment and facilitate the work of recovery.

The plasticity and resilience of systems is not intrinsic to the system that is damaged alone. It is fundamentally human and social. When systems crash, from without or within, the underlying social system is revealed for what it is: the one that cares.


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