Thoughts on 9/11: How can we design resiliency?

I am enough of a utilitarian that when I think of tragedy -- like the sorrowful events of eight years ago -- I always ask: Did we learn anything from the pain?  When it comes to 9/11, I think we, as a people, have not learned the most important lesson: resiliency.  I believe that the backbone of resiliency in our governance, our food supply, our defense, and our communications comes from the ability to quickly reroute around any attack or disruption of our social or economic system.


In turn, the bedrock design of any resilient complex system is, at its core, modular, and has simple rules for decentralization of decision rights and efficient means to self-organize when the "center" is gone.  This design philosophy is why packet-switched networks have won out over circuit switched ones.  It is why special forces train to "self-sychonize" and operate effectively when all heirarchy and authority is either unavailable, or destroyed.

But, if I look at the measures since 9/11, it seems we have become more centralized -- not less.  It seems our systems are more fragile, not less.  Why?  I'm not exactly sure.  Perhaps it is because we have a mechanistic view of control, not an organic one.  Nature is not a machine, but we want our society to be one.  Maybe it is because the simplistic rhetoric of mass media -- amplified by the echo chambers of the internet can only tolerate solutions which promise to be "absolutely safe" -- even when their proponents know they are not.  Perhaps it is just that we are too lazy to think through new designs.

What would real preparedness look like?  Well, I think we should have decentralized water purification; decentralized power generation, the ability to set up mesh networks on non-commercial frequencies for communication, and a set of laws that lay out what happens when the central authority cannot exert control.  And, we should practice how to set up these self-sychronizing efforts.

Once I suggested to a set of senior Navy officers that they ought to use Iraq as a way to experiment with and design this type of modular infrastructure.  Imagine a new type of pick up truck that had a water purification system (there are very small, high volume devices for water purification) power generation, and a communications node which was part of a mesh network.  It would be possible to literally "drive the infrastructure into place".  Furthermore, if an area became unstable the infrastructure could be driven out -- and with it all phone, radio, television and internet service.  That would be quite an incentive to keep the peace.

If we used these war zones to help get the technology and organization systems right, as well as drive the cost down, we could deploy an efficient, decentralized, modular infrastructure that could help us when we need it.  If we really want resilience, we have to design it in -- not hope it will happen.  It will take a new mind set.  I hope we are up for it!

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