Warnings of Big System Collapse you should be on the look-out for

Here are early warning signals–typically not recognized–that major critical infrastructures upon which we survive are operating at, or beyond, their performance edge:

  • The infrastructure’s control room is in prolonged just-for-now performance. This means operators find it more difficult to maneuver out of a corner in which they find themselves. (“Yes, yes, I know this is risky, but just keep it online for now!”)
  • The real-time control operators are working outside their official or unofficial bandwidths for performance–in effect having to work outside their unique domain of competence.
  • The decision rules operators reliably followed before are turned inside out: “Prove we can do that” becomes “Prove we can’t;” “Ensure a capital cushion to protect against unexpected losses” becomes “From now on, manage for expected losses”
  • Real-time operational redesigns (“workarounds”) by control room operators of inevitably defective equipment, premature software, and incomplete procedures are not effective as before.
  • Their control room skills as professionals in identifying systemwide patterns and undertaking what-if scenario become attenuated or no longer apply.
  • Instead of being driven by dread of the next major failure, control room professionals are told that their track record up to now is to be benchmark for system reliability ahead.

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