And though one says that one is part of everything,

There is a conflict, there is a resistance involved;
And being part is an exertion that declines:
One feels the life of that which gives life as it is.

Wallace Stevens, “The Course of a Particular”

If there were ever a term in need of greater differentiation, granularity and detail, it is “interconnected” (as in interconnected critical infrastructures).

–Our research on a Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) of the US Coast Guard (USCG) found at least five major kinds of “interconnected” at work having sharp differences in the VTS’s real-time operations:

  • Interoperability: Like the textbook interoperable energy utility (where electricity is crucial for the natural gas operations and vice versa), the VTS manages both vessel traffic and the regulated waterways that the vessels use (where managing the water ways affects management of the vessels and vice versa);
  • Shared control variables: Water flows are a major control variable not just for VTS navigation purposes, but also for other infrastructures (most notably large water supplies and hydropower systems). This means that unexpected changes in how one infrastructure manages water flows can affect the management of the water flows by the other infrastructures (indeed, inter-infrastructural coordination around shared control variables was reported to us);
  • Combined cycle of infrastructure operations: The USCG has a range of missions and operations, two of which are the VTS and the SAR (Search and Rescue) units. VTS combines with SAR to represent stages of this infrastructure’s operational cycle—normal operations and disrupted operations (VTS) along with failure and recovery (SAR). Not only are normal operations of the VTS already inter-infrastructural (by virtue of the shared control variables), but also the USCG’s Command and Control mission, including that for SAR, has an incident command facility and function for inter-infrastructural coordination during system failure and recovery;
  • Variety of real-time configurations of interconnectivity: The VTS manages by virtue of resorting to a variety of interconnections with the vessels concerned. When VTS management of a common pool resource (the waterways) on behalf of inter-related users is disrupted or fails (e.g., because of defect in VTS communications), the interconnection configuration defaults over to the reciprocal one of vessel-to-vessel communication; and
  • Inter-organizational linkages: USCG operations, including a VTS, are not only linked with other infrastructures through reliance on the Global Positioning System (GPS), but the Coast Guard’s position within the Department of Homeland Security makes it strategically located with respect to focusing on GPS vulnerabilities and strengths when it comes to the nation’s cyber-infrastructure.

Further detailing can be sketched, but the point remains: Once differentiated interconnectivities are taken as the serious, really-existing starting point—”the life of that which gives life as it is”—we better understand how some major approaches to risk management of critical infrastructures can be so mis-specified and misleading.

–What could seem more reasonable than a focus on chokepoints when it comes to risk assessment and management at an interconnected critical infrastructure level? And the most obvious way to do that is by focusing the attention on where major infrastructures intersect or lie adjacent to each other on the ground, right? Wrong.

It’s wiser is to focus on how spatially adjacent or collocated structures and facilities are actually managed within their respective infrastructure systems. It is possible that a system’s chokepoint may be elsewhere than at any site of collocated facilities, and that the element collocated could be lost without its respective system flipping into failure. Just because elements from two or more infrastructures are spatially adjacent does not mean automatically mean those infrastructures have “to coordinate” unless, say, shared control variables are involved or interoperability challenged.

A huge category mistake is committed when conflating (1) the unfolding and interrelated consequences on life, property and markets of, say, a hazardous liquids pipeline explosion on adjacent populations and property and (2) the explosion’s consequences for the interconnected critical infrastructure system (ICIS) for those hazardous liquids, which includes not just these pipelines and associated refineries, but also just as significantly the electricity and water infrastructures that the former depends upon in real time.

Why does differentiating the two “systems” matter? To equate the relevant system definition with the spread and interaction of knock-on population-and-property consequences of failure (Cf) is to identify as a problem the lack of systemwide management of Cf (as if “systemwide” meant jurisdictional and administrative). Yet and even so, the ICIS is in fact manage in real time—and reliably so—by the control rooms of the respective infrastructures (which in turn are regulated systemwide by fewer regulators of record). To repeat, “coordination” can be taking place within the ICIS around shared control variables, albeit not (or to a lesser) extent in the “system” of interconnected Cf per se.

–Economists, engineers and system modelers with whom I’m familiar often conceptualize interconnected critical infrastructure systems along the lines that Garret Hardin did 50 years ago for what he called the Tragedy of the Commons: In our case, imagine an ICIS open to all manner of vulnerability and complex interconnectivity. Our research insists that too is precisely what you cannot assume empirically or conceptually. Rather, the starting point is that these systems are far more differentiated than they are alike when it comes to “interconnectivities.”

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