Improvisations within and across interconnected critical infrastructures


We spent considerable time in our 2008 High Reliability Management describing the important role and assembly of just-in-time improvisations in maintaining ongoing operations of a major transmission grid. Our 2016 Reliability and Risk continued and extended that discussion to interconnected infrastructures under normal and temporarily disrupted conditions. Our latest research on large socio-technical systems in failure, especially the interconnected backbone infrastructures of water, electricity, roads and telecoms, has also underscored the criticality of improvisations.

How so? Both these can be called improvisations: the staff in a power plant working with what is at hand to bring back into operations a generator that suddenly went off line and the water treatment plant reaching out for mobile generators, including those from the power company, in order to get the plant back in operations.

The two are, however, different improvisations when in the former the water treatment plant didn’t experience a disruption in service from the power company (e.g., the power company was managing to an n-1 contingency), while in the latter. disruption and worse was being experienced by the water treatment plant. They differ in degree and kind because of the different shifts in interconnectivity and system control variables (electricity frequency and water pressure) taking place.


A huge category mistake thus exists in thinking the workarounds within an infrastructure to ensure ongoing operations and the workarounds improvised post-disaster are similar, i.e., thinking only that both involve flexible, creative behavior and are interinfrastructural by definition.

To think that way is to obscure an essential demarcation in infrastructure operations taking place via interconnectivity shifts, namely, those occasions where: Improvisations jointly undertaken by two or more infrastructures around their shared or overlapping control variables become themselves a primary mode of operation.

That said, improvisational behavior beforehand can pose a benchmark for improvisation later on. “What does success look like?” a senior state emergency manager asked rhetorically, and answered: “Success in every disaster is that you didn’t have to get improvisational immediately. You can rely on prior relationships and set up a framework for improvisation and creativity.” Success, in other words, is when base-level interconnectivity does not altogether disappear, however much reconfigured later on.

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