Complex Adaptive Systems and Effective Disaster Responses

The roles and responsibilities of the Federal government in disaster responses are based on the flawed assumption that organization and structured command and control are the foundation of an effective response. A more effective response strategy could be developed by understanding the function of complex adaptive systems and how to apply that understanding to developing a distributed response plan. Even if such a plan were more effective, there would be non-trivial political challenges for federal officials expected by the electorate to instantly ameliorate catastrophes that have resolution pathways measured in months and years, not days and weeks.

The government’s response to the BP Gulf oil spill and the subsequent criticism of that response is an unfortunate demonstration of how little is understood about the nature of responding to catastrophic events. There is great succor in believing that the federal government is omnipotent and has the definitive plan to resolve any issue. All that is required is for the politicians to execute the plan. Frustration, anger and accusation erupt when this does not occur. Accusations follow that if only the government would implement the plan the crisis would somehow be resolved. We would like to believe that the omnipotent government of the most powerful nation in the world only fails by lack of will and failure of execution. We would also like to believe in Santa Claus. Of course, that belief in either fantasy is reserved for the youngest minds among us.

The crux of the problem in dealing with catastrophic situations is not that there is no catholic, all-encompassing plan but rather to accept that such a plan is impossible. Katrina, the Haitian earthquake, the tsunami and the BP oil spill all share the same underlying foundation. They are chaotic and as such they are resistant to resolution by a structured, hierarchical response. Especially in the early stages of these catastrophes, central command and control may be a comforting thought to some but will always fall short of expectations. At some point an effective response overwhelms our ability to script a response. An indication of this might be seen in the following image of a PowerPoint presentation of the Afghanistan counter insurgency strategy. Richard Engle, who posted this slide in April 2010, noted that detractors of the slide “… say this slide is what happens when smart people are asked to come up with a solution to the wrong question.” I would suggest that the same observation applies to disaster response strategies that are founded on the assumption that there is one correct solution that originates with the federal government.

A more appropriate response to catastrophes may be found by understanding a relatively new area of study, complex adaptive systems. Everyday we are exposed to the remarkable effectiveness of such systems that have been refined by the imperative of survival and millions of years of refinement. Think of the lowly ant. Yes, an ant that is capably of building complex nests and collecting food sources many times their weight from distant locations. Their successful society exhibits a high degree of effectiveness but one would be hard pressed to identify a structured, hierarchical communication system that operates from a tightly scripted structured plan. And yet, if an ant mound is destroyed, every ant seems to know what needs to be done in order to rebuild and recover. There is no central response. It is each ant acting individually, controlling what it can control and working toward a common goal. The individual ant does not know “the plan”, it just knows that it needs to maintain the equilibrium within its sphere of control. Their system is one that adapts to a situation without the encumbrance of structure. It is the epitome of a complex adaptive system.

Might we learn a lesson from the ants? Are there elements of our response to disasters that should be based in understanding complex adaptive systems? Abandoning the belief that our federal government has infinite capabilities in any situation is the first step toward crafting a better disaster response philosophy. It would seem that a more effective federal role would be to design an early disaster response strategy that supports micro-responses of states and local communities. As the life cycle of the disaster progresses the federal government could implement plans to maintain a more structured response.

Of course, a problem with this would be the political consequences for the President. The general population, still thirsting for the penultimate, decisive response, would condemn the President as ineffective because federal forces had not stormed the beach to conquer the unconquerable.



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