Does it seem like the world is falling apart?
Systemic failure seems to be everywhere: the Texas power grid, the vaccine rollout, third-party hacks of enterprise systems, biblical wildfires in the West and flooding in the Midwest, wholesale looting of California’s unemployment system, a collapse of security in the nation’s capital. And those are just the things we know about. What monsters lurk beneath, somebody once asked. We may not know what they are, but we know for sure they’re there.
We’re in that proverbial bad spot called shit creek (a term that dates back to 1860s when the U.S. Secretary of War quoted confederate forces in South Carolina bragging that “Our men have put old Lincoln up shit creek”) and we’re definitely short a few paddles.
It’s time to think big and act big.
If we’re facing systemic failures, we need to respond systemically. It’s time for a proactive approach. After 9/11, when our country was building a long-term counterterrorism strategy, somebody suggested the parable of the bear in the woods. You know the bear is on the prowl and will find you eventually, so do you a) arm yourself with a big knife and wait in the tent until it comes or b) go out and find it and deal with it on your own terms. The same parable can be used for dealing with systemic failure.
I’d suggest a centerpiece of Joe Biden’s presidency should be the creation of a systemic paddle to get us out of shit creek — the creation of a new Office of Adaptability and Resiliency, OAR.
The mission of OAR would be simple. Identify systemic risk across the country — such as natural disasters (including climate change), cyber attacks, large-scale social disruption, the security of power and water systems, pandemics, or economic disruption. OAR would direct resources toward strategies of adaptability if the risks are too complex or long-term for a simple solutions, or resiliency if there are near-term steps we can take for mitigation.
For example, climate change clearly calls for an adaptability response, such as carbon capture or changes in land use along the coasts, while long-term mitigation is put in place. Securing the power grid calls for a number of easy steps to make it more resilient, as K.R. Sridhar of Bloom Energy points out in this piece.
We’re learning valuable lessons right now about how to make our public health system more resilient in the face of a pandemic. But some body, like OAR, should be responsible for implementing those lessons across the entire value chain of public health, from R&D to manufacturing and logistics. Otherwise, the cracks remain so large that 500,000 lives can fall through them.
OAR should not be solely a government function. To be effective, it needs to be a public-private partnership, blending the resources and innovation of the private sector with the “public good” perspective of the government. I’ll state the obvious now, and nominate Bill Gates to be the first Secretary of OAR, with Condi Rice brought out of retirement to be his Deputy Secretary.
To be sure, a raft of government departments already have risk management plans. That’s part of doing business. OAR would be structured in a way that would take those plans out of their silos and integrate them at the enterprise level. It would also take into account how those risk management plans might impact each other — the so-called butterfly effect.
It sounds obvious, right? Then why aren’t we doing it? Lawrence Wright, in his magisterial book “The Looming Towers” painfully showed us how communications and planning gaps in the intelligence community helped lead to 9/11. We saw the same sort of gaps play out in the Capitol riots in January. And if climate risk managers were working more closely with ERCOT in Texas, would we have seen the same sort of grid failure we witnessed this month?
As my junior high PE instructor used to say, “Let’s work together people!”
With Kit looking over my shoulder, I’m careful not to wade too deeply into the waters of psychology, but it seems to me our efforts to be more adaptable and resilient are hampered by some basic human traits: hubris, denial and avarice.
As Americans, we need to be extra vigilant to guard against national hubris. Yes, this country is the world’s greatest experiment in democracy and free markets, but that shouldn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. The longer we deny the impacts of climate change, or their causes, the deeper we dig the climate hole we’re in. And avarice never goes away, does it? The fact that deregulating the Texas power system led to Texans being overcharged $28 billion over the past 20 years proves that.
As a society, it’s time to reimpose our agency over those baser human instincts. Let’s change our game plan. Let’s recognize that this great country we have built is far too complex to take for granted. And as complexity rises, so does the law of unintended consequences. Accepting this new reality and dealing with it through a systemic approach like OAR is something that all sensible, mature adults would do. Which we all are, right?