Thursday, June 14, 2012

System Disruptions and Resilient Networks

Normally, the only thing that gets me worked up is sitting in traffic.  But sometimes it gets so bad, it becomes comical.

Last fall, a man threatening suicide closed off one of the more heavily traveled highways in San Diego.  As it was just as rush hour began, this caused cascading gridlock throughout the region.  Normally, my ten mile commute from work takes 20 minutes.  This time it took 90. 

There are four major highways that lead into downtown San Diego.  With one being closed, the other three were forced to handle the overload.  They couldn’t.  A five by five mile area of San Diego roads, including interstates, feeders and normal streets, were a virtual parking lot.

Coincidentally, I had been reading a book by John Robb entitled “Brave New War.”  Its premise is that warfare is now in a new state of existence, called Open Source Warfare.  Instead of hitting an enemy’s armed center of gravity, terrorist networks focus on disrupting vital, centralized systems.  By focusing on specific nodes in power grids, energy transport and transportation, small attacks can wreak disproportionate havoc. 

For instance, the 9/11 attacks cost the attackers at most $500,000.  They caused over $80 billion in immediate economic damage.  This is a return on investment of nearly 160,000 to 1.  A $2,000 attack in Iraq in 2004 on oil infrastructure caused that country to lose $500 million in revenue – an ROI of 250,000. 

While I sat in traffic, I couldn’t help but contemplate this asymmetric disruptive power.  One man was able to bring a city of millions to a grinding halt, all because he had a political grievance over medical marijuana.  Indeed, as soon as I returned home and picked up the book again, Robb mentioned the specific instance of traffic disruptions.

Homer Simpson, Esq
We live in a society that is so highly efficient and centralized, even the smallest disruption can have wide reaching effects.  Much of Southern California experienced a massive system wide blackout in September 2011 because one transmission station in Arizona had a hiccup.  In 2003, the Northeast was plunged into darkness because of disruptions at a single Ohio power node. This may be good for getting neighbors to actually come out and talk to each other, but little else. 

The most effective first responders during the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina were non-government sponsored entities like Wal-Mart.  They were not shackled by bureaucracy, but instead had decentralized networks able to rapidly adapt to a fundamentally changed environment. 

Our national infrastructure is a large reason why the United States has been so successful over the last century.  But it is incredibly vulnerable to massive, easily executed disruption.  What we need is more resilience and local adaptation.

Sustainability is one of those buzz words that has been touted by the environmental movement for decades.  But it goes well beyond being eco-friendly.  Sustainability goes hand in hand with a robust, resilient infrastructure. 

Imagine if we had an open-source electrical network.  Instead of naturally occurring monopolists setting inefficient prices and being the sole source provider of energy, we create an open, plug and play electrical grid.  We encourage individual households to generate their own power through geothermal, solar or wind.  And while this would hardly suffice to take care of all our energy needs, the grid would be much less susceptible to large outages if a strategically significant location failed.

This would be analogous to the type of data storage system employed by firms like Google and Yahoo!  There are no vital, strategic nodes, but instead, cells of data are located throughout the world in a well-connected, horizontal way.  If one, or even several, fail, the system remains fully operable.

Our security apparatus is built, and reacts to disruptions, based on how it as a centralized system would seek to cause chaos.  This is a recipe for failure.

We heavily secure nuclear facilities and the big ticket infrastructure.  But the attacks of 9/11 were successful because the attackers completely bypassed the US military in attacking our country.  They rendered our multi-million dollar air defense fighters irrelevant. 

Spend a few thousand dollars to cut oil pipelines, destroy main power transmission centers or strategically cut off transportation networks, and you’ve done as much damage as a highly coordinated, high cost attack would.  And bureaucrats would still sit around wondering how their hundred billion dollar planning apparatus failed.

The solution to this is not a centralized, uncreative Department of Homeland Security, but rather a system that renders Open Source Warfare irrelevant.  It creates an open infrastructure of its own, able to absorb unforeseen events, of both the natural and man made kind. 

Most of all, this requires a radical new way of approaching our society.  It is becoming apparent that the centralized, nation state model of the past century is increasingly antiquated.  Much as Wikipedia has allowed knowledge to be more broadly accessible at very little cost, so too must our infrastructure development allow small, local innovations to take hold.  This will create a resilient network of citizenship in its own right, while also lessening the ability of wily adversaries to cheaply disrupt our society at low cost. John Robb has done extensive work on this with his Resilient Communities Project. 

It constantly amazes me how close our society sits on the precipice of disaster, yet very few recognize the possibility.  Sometimes it takes a traffic jam to show a clear road ahead.  

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