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Sit in the messiness a while…

Sit in the messiness a while…

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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!)

Have I Got News For You

Have I Got News For You

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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

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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.

Complexity & Interdependency

Complexity & Interdependency

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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