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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.

Sit in the messiness a while…

Sit in the messiness a while…

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I’ve just listened to this In Our Time podcast from December 2013. I’m not normally a massive fan of Melvyn Bragg, but with Prof. Ian Stewart (who I met 5 years ago) and Prof. Eve Middleton-Kelly (with whom I worked in the run up to the Olympics) on the panel, I thought I’d take a listen.


It sounds counter-intuitive , but most people are well accustomed to handling complex systems. Whilst the terminology is typically academic, I expect we can all relate to the idea of things happening as a result of unforeseen consequences. That is, to me, what complexity science is about; trying to better understand the factors which lead to things happening. My particular interest, of course, is in enhancing our understanding of how disasters happen.

I’ve blogged before about emergence (Pop Up Emergency Planning), as one of the facets which interests me most when looking at most disaster response case studies. Essentially it’s the idea that when a system is stressed, it can cope up to a point but then finds a new way of coping by developing new structures, relationships or rules. We see this when people on twitter reach out to people who are stranded at airports due to volcanic ash clouds, we see it when spontaneous Broom Armies take to the streets to clear up riot debris; and following conversations in December with @CazMilligan #SMEMChat colleagues – emergence also seems to underlie initiatives like Virtual Operations Support Teams.

Almost exactly 12 months ago I initiated Anytown for London Resilience Team. This was an attempt to look at the interaction of different city systems to see if we could model their interdependencies and better understand the likely and emergent consequences to improve future resilience to disruptions to these systems.

If we were designing a city from scratch then I expect many of its systems would look rather different. Out of the construction of individual buildings and infrastructure components emerges something which has structure (and, buy extension, traits such as culture, tradition and ‘personality’), which is partly planned and partly evolved. We need to embrace the messiness, work with it rather than trying to control it.

New Year is a time of resolutions, so I’m resolving now to take Anytown ‘to the next level’ in 2014. I’d be interested to do this in collaboration with others who are interested in similar issues – get in touch!


Image Credit: Doug Neil at TheGraphicRecorder (who has an interesting comment about the obvious spelling mistake!)

What If…Blackout?

What If…Blackout?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

In February I was approached by a researcher from RawTV about a programme they were making…on Monday the programme they were making, Blackout, aired on Channel 4.


The premise: A cyber attack brings down the National Grid, plunging the country into darkness. How would we cope in a nation-wide power cut lasting 5 days?

There are parallels between this and my Anytown project, so I was interested to see how this scenario would be presented, and what messages it might provide about resilience. The few reviews that I have read have criticised the ‘lack of realism’ (mostly the apparent infinite battery life of smartphones and cameras). But I’m willing to forgive a dose of editorial license required to get this into in a prime-time slot.

The first thing which interested me is that Blackout was not presented as fiction. Although this is not the first time that’s been done – the 1938 CBS broadcast of War of the Worlds inspired by the 1926 BBC broadcast of Broadcasting from the Barricades – it adds to the sense of realism. Some clever editing to interweave footage from real events with the drama highlighted that there are typical consequences from all emergencies, and therefore the value of flexible consequence based planning.

Whilst the shaky-cam and histrionics (frankly, terrible acting by Girl in Hospital) did detract slightly I think there were a few take home messages.

Establishing the scale of the disruption

Is this a problem with your fuse box? Is it confined to a couple of houses or your street? Or is it wider than that? The programme showed people reaching for their phones; “My friend on Facebook in London say’s there’s problems there too”, #smem for the masses.

Initial reactions

Viewers were presented with the televisual equivilent of a bullet-point list of immediate consequences and the subsequent public response.

  • No lights – saw people grab for their torches and candles. What I’d have liked to have seen is more explicit reference to wind up torches and some statement on the dangers associated with candle use
  • No airport activity resulting in stranded passengers – the programme didn’t go back to Heathrow after the initial loss of power, it would have been interesting to see the point at which a ‘normal disruption’ to flights starts to have significant consequences
  • No street lights or traffic signals leading to a rise in road traffic collisions, with no ability to control traffic flows, gridlock would build very quickly
  • Problems at crowded places and planned events with resultant public order and safety considerations
  • Inability to heat food and requirement to empty food from freezers – I thought the freezer issue was considered a little bit too early, but the challenges associated with not being able to cook are significant
  • People trapped in lifts (and on the London Eye) – again, not altogether uncommon, for mechanical or localised electrical issues, but becoming a more complex problem to solve in a widespread blackout
  • Mobile phone congestion (and later, disruption) – I didn’t think the factors behind this were particularly well explained in the programme. However, reduced fixed-line telecoms and an inability to dynamically manage mobile networks, this is a definite possibility in a relatively short period of time. Increasingly important as we’ve become much more dependant on mobile phones.
  • No heating – whilst this wouldn’t be a problem in the summer months, during winter it would be unpleasant and would likely result in excess deaths in vulnerable group
  • Commercial and economic impact – as well as the macro-economic impact of this type of event, the impacts at an individual level would also be significant. An inability to pay for goods (not ATMs), combined with an inability to process payments could lead to ‘looting’ (with no fear of recompense as CCTV cameras offline)
  • Drying up fuel stocks – as people jump in their cars and head to Sheffield, they forget that refuelling without power will be problematic, and likley to result in people resorting to questionable methods. I once (legitimately) syphoned petrol from a fuel tank, it didn’t go quite to plan and I got a mouthful of unleaded. The best advice would have been to follow the government advice to “stay in”…or perhaps to travel by bicycle.

The Emergency Planners Paradox

It’s not something that I’ve seen articulated on TV before, but is something that I experience from time to time. Having planned in detail for these events, to have the opportunity to implement those arrangements does bring a degree of satisfaction. Having drained his radiators, assembled his grab-bag and purchased a generator, the middle-class prepper found himself in this situation for some time. By the fourth day however his reserves begin to wane “I thought if a situation like this came about I’d be alright, but I’m finding it quite hard”, from there quickly descending to the lowest common denominator – survival at all costs.

Confidence, Optimism, Teamwork and Fear

Whilst there was little confidence expressed in the government plan, there was an undercurrent of confidence from most characters, trusty old Dunkirk Spirit (which may or may not have exitsted). A clear sense that ‘it’ll be back on tomorrow’ would probably be highly motivating in those circumstances, even if it didn’t turn out to be the case.

There were both positive and negative examples of people working together and emergent behaviour. Naturally the positive examples (such as the family who took in their vulnerable elderly neighbour) are great, but I’m glad the producers didn’t gloss over those who exploit a situation for their own good.

Whilst innovation and improvisation was seen as a key success factor, this was tempered with some characters being highly suspicious of others.  The Telegraph identified the tagged man as a paedophile; I didn’t reach that conclusion, but it was clear that the single mother was suspicious and uncomfortable travelling with him.

In fairness, the programme only hinted at pockets of panic-behaviours, which was reassuring as evidence and expeience shows this is a relatively uncommon response.

Emergency Powers

Whilst the use of temporary emergency legislation is included as an option in the Civil Contingencies Act (2004) there has been no situation since them requiring enactment. It’s quite possible that in a national emergency these powers would be utilised to provide continuity to essential services (where possible), but it’s also likley that their use would face much opposition.


As with the documentaries and movies that go before it, Blackout ended when the lights came back on. Whilst I understand the dramtic need for this, consequences will be more pervasive and long lasting, and from my persepctive, it would have been interesting to compare the rate at which Britan descended into anarchy to the recovery and restoration of normality.

So, that was what I gleaned from Blackout, but how did social media feel? I took to twitter to find out, here’s a snapshot illustrating the range of opinion from cynical to downright confused, but first…a graph, showing that around 26,000 tweets were sent with the hashtag #blackout peaking at 700 tweets per minute around 21:30.


Have I Got News For You

Have I Got News For You

Reading Time: < 1 minute

Regular readers will be aware that I’ve been working on a project called Anytown over recent months. It’s a project looking at complexities and interdependencies between systems and how that can impact on resilience. Previous blog posts about it are herehere and here.

Rather excitingly, you can now find out about Anytown in Resilience, the magazine of the Emergency Planning Society. Yes, there is now a remote possibility that I will be quoted on BBC prime-time programming, having been published in a niche trade magazine! (I’m hoping Charlotte Church might make a reprise as host for ‘my’ episode….)

They saved the best until last, so head to pages 38 and 39 (but then take a look at the rest of the mag). Even if you don’t learn more about interdpendencies, you’ll have an edge over the missing words round, and everyone likes winning.

As always, comments appreciated either in the box below or direct to my inbox over here.

With thanks to colleagues at the EPS for publication

Anytown – latest visualisation

Anytown – latest visualisation

Reading Time: < 1 minute

Displaying complex or detailed information in a digestable way is always an interesting challenge. It’s certainly s certainly one of the challenges that I’ve had with Anytown, my project to better understand interdependencies and complexities within and between systems.

Here’s my latest attempt at showing some of this information, which I developed for an NHS England briefing today, using information from the Hurricane Sandy report “A stronger, more resilient New York.


Nodes of different ‘city networks’ are shown in thematic colours (Gas, Electricity, Fuel, Water, Telecommunications and Wastewater). Please note that this is an illustration not a schematic of each network. The connections within networks are shown with black lines, and where there is an interdependency with another network it’s shown in red.

I’m now working on a way of using this alongside the previously developed ripple diagrams to better articulate interdependencies, ideally in an interactive way. If you have any thoughts on how this could best be achieved, drop a comment in the box below, or get in touch directly via Contact Us.

Anytown Unleashed

Anytown Unleashed

Reading Time: < 1 minute

For the last 4 months I’ve been spearheading a project known as Anytown. The project aims to help develop better understanding and awareness of how different ‘city systems’ all interlink. Today I unleashed my baby into the world at Defra’s Community Resilience & Climate Change Workshop. Read more on the project below.

When you throw a stone in a pond, ripples propagate from the centre. Similarly in emergencies and disasters, impacts of an initiating event can propagate and cause a cascade of consequences. There are many examples of this both in the UK and overseas, yet there has been little formal consideration of it to date.

The intention of Anytown is to simplify reality and model the interconnections and interdependencies between systems in order to provide a greater level of awareness of these potential impacts.

During my studies we had an assignment involving ‘Complex Cascading Disasters’ and I remember at the time, that there was little readily available research in this area. That situation hasn’t changed significantly so in February, I coordinated a number of workshops bringing together over 100 representatives from 52 organisations to discuss and harvest their knowledge and experience.

Looking back to my ripple analogy earlier, from the workshop data I created ‘ripple diagrams’ which demonstrate how consequences cascade from an incident through various sectors.

Anytown is now free into the world. This is exciting as one of the key aspects that I realised during the development is that a model is only as good as the information that feeds it – so now many more people have the opportunity to contribute. I’ll bring occasional updates on the progress of Anytown as I move from the model development (hopefully) towards visualisation and simulation.

The ‘work’ version of this post is over here

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