How Complex Systems Fail

Richard I. Cook, Dec 27, 2013
Commentary by Stephen Downes

Harold Jarche links to this classic 1998 post by Richard Cook describing how complex systems fail. Complex systems are more than just complicated - both have many parts, but in complex systems the parts interact with each other, resulting in an unpredicable outcome. Power grids, traffic systems and neural networks are all complex systems. This article is a great description of how such systems fail. In brief, there's no single cause of pailure (though we are often inclined to identify one, usually at the working or 'pointy' end of the system). Some great bits about the role of humans in such systems, how change increases the potential for failure, and how learning needs constantly evolve. And there's a great example of an emergent property: "Safety is an emergent property of systems; it does not reside in a person, device or department of an organization or system. Safety cannot be purchased or manufactured; it is not a feature that is separate from the other components of the system. This means that safety cannot be manipulated like a feedstock or raw material." Just like learning. [Image: Wikipedia, Complex Systems]

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