Risk, complexity and sustainability

This special section is dedicated to risk as understood within our society, in which we depend upon increasingly complex and interconnected technologies for even our most basic needs-water, food, shelter, electricity, gas, sewage, communications, and banking.

Natural disasters and their impact on vital services has been a research area that has flourished, especially since the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in South Asia. This research has yielded a plethora of strategies for addressing short-term and geographically defined disasters. While such disaster preparedness systems are vital to minimize the loss of life during a natural disaster, we turn to consider what some would call of even greater value to society at large. That is, how to reduce the vulnerability of everyday citizens by understanding better how their essential supply lines interconnect, which supply chains are intertwined and, how this might impact the individual, regardless of whether they are living in a crowded city or remote village.

By developing a clear understanding of what makes us all vulnerable in our particular context, we can be better prepared to reduce these exposures, and build a more resilient society in the process. As one example, “survival” literature suggests that one of the most problematic repercussions of a serious “incident” is disruption to food supply. Y et during the Christchurch Earthquake in New Zealand in February 2011, food supply was much less problematic than sewage disposal. In another example, residents of a rural town threatened by earthquake were unconcerned at the possible disruption of landline phone services - but were disturbed to learn that ATM and banking communications, cell-phone data, emergency calls (as well as landline phone services) were all carried on a single fiber-optic link!

Classically, we have built models that calculate the probability of an event occurring and measure its theoretical impact if the event does indeed occur - but these models are limited. They might reveal to us a ranking of probable incidence, and the estimated loss in dollar figures as a result, but they do not provide insight into how interdependencies in various supply chains play out during an incident (whether caused by natural or human-made mischief).

For instance, we know that in a simplistic scenario, if water supply is disrupted, then our electricity system will not operate effectively, and if our electricity system does not work then all additional services that require power, such as the crucial ATM network also does not work, and people are left without the ability to purchase fuel, food, etc. The financial sector will certainly consider the effect of ATM systems failure, but (as with most supply chain managers) their assessments of brand damage and corporate losses are likely to receive higher weighting than end-user problems.

A very strong argument exists that we need to be building vulnerability models so that we can at least know where the weakest points in an operational community (of individuals) lie. By identifying the weakest points, we can overcome them with strategies well in advance of a major incident. This does not mean that we can eradicate vulnerability completely from our communities, but we can minimize the level of exposure - both to anticipated and unanticipated threats.

Technology is a double edged sword - on the one hand it offers advanced, efficient, and economical services, but on the other it exposes us to both technological and also ethical risks. Therefore a crucial role exists for engineering ethics and social responsibility in higher education curricula. Additionally, we need better mechanisms with which to comprehend the full dimensions of risk and exposure - and a desire to move towards a future that offers real (individual) people both security and service.

This special section addresses some of these issues, including fundamental definitions of technique vs. technology, complex systems of systems, and planning for future technologies and policy repercussions well in advance.

IEEE Keywords: Sustainable development, Strategic planning, Risk management, Complex networks, Disasters

Citation: Lindsay Robertson, Katina Michael, 2013, IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Vol. 32, Issue: 2, Summer, p. 12, 05 June 2013, DOI: 10.1109/MTS.2013.2265145