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The Aftershocks of a Complexity Quake

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

I was lucky enough to travel to San Francisco recently with work. I absolutely love the place even though the last time I was there in 1989 I experienced at first-hand a magnitude 6.9 earthquake. Quite a chastening experience.

Now in 2017 I was back in San Francisco for business meetings during a stopover while travelling up from LA to Seattle. At around 9:30am I was on a call when the wi-fi failed. I was a little surprised for this to happen in San Francisco. With the 4G network also struggling I felt compelled to venture out of the hotel to investigate, and I found that most of the city had come to a complete standstill.

I learned from a hotel security guard that there had been a power outage that resulted in some 90,000 people being left without power, 25% of the traffic lights were out of action, and a BART station had been evacuated. Even the Apple Store was shut, along with all of the other downtown stores.

Watching the news later in the day I saw an interview with one of the power company representatives (Pacific Gas and Electric - PG&E), explaining that the power cut was the result of the failure of a single circuit-breaker in one city substation, leading to a fire. It seems incredible that one of the world’s most advanced cities can be brought to a standstill by the failure of a single piece of switching gear.

It made me wonder if PG&E maintained a computer model of the complex system that is their power network? Did they have visibility that the failure of one piece of equipment would result in a cascade effect that would bring the whole city to a standstill? Had they done any failure mode effect analysis? Were they simply skimping on preventative maintenance? Or is the world becoming so complex that this kind of unanticipated consequence of a point failure is now simply one of many hidden landmines waiting for humanity to step on.

Luckily, as far as I could see on the news, no one was killed or seriously injured, but that really was just down to good fortune. But “hope” is not a good tactic, and it certainly isn't a satisfactory strategy. People were stuck in lifts and left stumbling around in the dark. Tourists and locals alike struggled to crossroads without traffic light control, and as you can imagine the gridlock was hideous.

My company, BOXARR has been working to develop the world’s only computer modelling solution that can efficiently and effectively represent highly complex systems like this at real-world scale. We were founded specifically to address the challenge that so many organisations are now facing as the tidal-wave of complexity hits the world. We at BOXARR fundamentally believe that modelling and analysis is a better strategy than relying on hope! Several of the world’s biggest and most complex organisations have already adopted BOXARR for this reason.

So that's two trips to San Francisco and two major events. Maybe it’s me! A physical earthquake in 1989 and a complexity quake in 2017. I was left with a reinforced concern that as the world becomes more complex this kind of event is going to become more common, and the impacts if left unchecked will become increasingly devastating. Single point failures causing cascade disasters; modest changes resulting in unintended consequences; abnormal and unexpected results becoming the norm. These are all recognised natures of complex systems, and as the world continues to build more and more complex systems we need to get better and more effective at modelling them to ensure our systems continue to serve us. Hope is not a strategy!

Written by: Alasdair Pettigrew, CEO


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