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Pandemic Anytown

Pandemic Anytown

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Remember that song you learnt at school… “the knee bone’s connected to the leg bone“? Well, that song tells us to think of the body as a system of interconnected and interdependent components which work together to form a whole. Make a change somewhere and the repercussions of that will be felt elsewhere.

Other metaphors are available: The butterfly effect. The domino effect.

For a whole host of reasons though, we often focus more on components over systems; and it’s important we do that.

It’s important that when we plug something into an electrical socket or turn on a tap that what we are expecting comes out.

But we should ask ourselves why that is important. It’s important because, owing to our highly connected modern society, when a component fails the cascading impacts of that can be felt far and wide. It’s not just inconvenient, it can sometimes have direct safety implications.

When an earthquake struck northern Italy in 2013, the NHS in the UK had a supply issue with dialysis tubing.

We’re seeing similar right now with the COVID pandemic. It’s not just the impact of people who contract the disease, but the far-ranging impacts and knock-on effects of social distancing and isolation, reduced international travel and changing perceptions of risk.

I started the ANYTOWN project in 2013 as an attempt to better understand and describe how a partial or total failure of a network can impact on other connected networks. In some circumstances, this can lead to a much larger range of impacts than just the initiating incident.

Previous blog posts about ANYTOWN cover a bit more of the background of the project. But I’ve been attempting to apply the same model to describe what we are seeing (and may see in the coming months) with COVID.

There is very little ‘real science’ to this. Previous Anytown work was informed by extensive focus group research. However, as this is a highly dynamic situation this is primarily my musings. I shared it on LinkedIn over the last week and I’m indebted to those who have made suggestions and offered feedback.

This is is a work in progress. It is biased towards my own experiences as a middle-class white man in his thirties in London. I appreciate that other people’s experience of COVID will be different. I want to reflect that in future versions, but at the moment it is a limitation that I have noted.

Here’s version 1.2 for you to explore…

Starting in the centre is the initiating incident, in this case, the pandemic virus. Although there may be some specifics to COVID I suspect many of the cascading consequences would be relatively similar across different global pandemic threats.

The next ring out from the centre describes the ‘first-order’ impacts that are/have been observed across a range of different sectors. So some of the first impacts that would be anticipated (and have played out with COVID) are the introduction of social distancing measures, reduced public transport use and increased handwashing.

Second and third-order impacts for each sector are then captured as you move further from the centre. The diagram deliberately doesn’t indicate timescales; I intended this to help understand sequence, not timing.

This is a bit of a thought experiment to see if the model would work having previously been geared towards ‘hard infrastructure’ systems failure. I think it does, but it needs some development. I’m incredibly grateful to those who have made suggestions (I haven’t checked that it’s ok to specifically credit them so acknowledgements to feature in a future version!) or have commented that they have found it useful.

It’s not the answer to the problem. Not by any means.

But hopefully, it’s a useful tool to help us all to think about how our increasing interconnectedness. Normally this is super helpful, but it can sometimes work against us. At a time when there’s lots of uncertainty about lots of things, perhaps this offers a bit of a glimpse into the future to help us be prepared.

Complexity & Interdependency

Complexity & Interdependency

Reading Time: 2 minutes


I’m currently working on a project investigating Infrastructure Ecology, although that’s not how I describe it at work for fear of alienating the audience! It’s a fascinating area of enquiry, which the diagram above only partially articulates and I’d need more than one blog post to do it justice. So I thought I’d start with why I think it’s fascinating.

When we flick on a light switch, twist a tap or pick up our phone we expect those services to work. We’ve come to rely on them, and largely that doesn’t cause us any issues – the lights come on, water comes of ouf the tap and we hear a dial tone. However, incidents (Gloucestershire flooding 2007 and Hurricane Sandy 2012 to name just two examples) and exercises that I have either participated in or facilitated consistently reveal that these systems are far from 100% reliable.

Too often we treat things in silos, but increasingly we need to consider how the different systems that we have developed and have evolved alongside over many years interact and depend on each other. In a previous role, I facilitated a business continuity exercise for a large teaching hospital. The scenario was pretty basic, but it revealed that all but 4 of the wards in the hospital had planned to use the same fallback space – in the worst case this meant cramming over 200 patients into a 30 bed ward. We find it difficult to think outside of our sphere; I’m not sure of the reasons why, but we need to recognise that it happens and develop a methodology which forces us to think more holistically.

Interdisciplinary approaches are the way forward. Involving a wider range of people and organisations is risky – and makes camels a more likely outcome – but it’s the only solution to get us out of our silos.

Previous attempts to ‘educate’ professionals about these business continuity challenges concentrated on presentations, and as the same lessons are still coming us, I think we can be confident that levels of awareness have remained largely static. My approach has been to redefine the problem (that non-experts don’t understand interdependencies and complexities of systems) and to look for other world solutions (which is where the ‘ecology’ in Infrastructure Ecology comes in).

Experts in biodiversity have known for a considerable length of time that the key to understanding the key to successful interventions is understanding the underpinning relationships between predator-prey-environment. It’s something that I vaguely remembered learning at school, and without much thought it was clear that it was a model which had applications in helping understand the infrastructure problems encountered.

Last week I ran two workshops at City Hall, with representation from a wide variety of sectors organisations and interests to harvest their experience and knowledge. This will be synthesised to produce a model of an urban area which ‘understands’ how the different systems are related and therefore what the consequences of interruption to one will be on other systems.

I’m now in the process of translating the data we collected into something meaningful. I have some grand aspirations for the project, and alternative between getting carried away and reigning myself in to concentrate on the practical! I’ll keep you posted!

Image Source: NARUC