Normal accident

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The Devil’s Advocate

Complex systems: Complex systems — also known as “wicked problems” — are dynamic, constantly changing, unbounded, incomplete, contradictory, and conflicting systems consisting of an indefinite set of subcomponents that interact with each other and the environment in unexpected ways. They are thus unpredictable, chaotic and “insoluble” — no algorithm, heuristic or solution can predict how complex systems will behave in detail. You may apply probabilistic models to them and these will work passably well most of the time, but the times where it won’t — the extreme cases — will be exactly the times you really wish it would, as the founders of Long Term Capital Management would tell you. Complex systems may comprise many other simple, complicated and indeed complex systems, but their interaction with each other will be a whole other thing. So even while you may manage the simple and complicated sub-systems effectively — deploy checklists, simplify, homogenise — and this may limit the total damage a tail event may cause, but you cannot eliminate it. Accidents in complex systems are inevitable — hence “normal”, in the Charles Perrow’s argot. However well you manage a complex system it remains innately unpredictable. It will do unexpected things. Like blowing up. So have your plans for dealing with those normal accidents.

In which the curmudgeonly old sod puts the world to rights.

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