Wizards of Oz

"Life is fraughtless ... when you're thoughtless."

17.4.08

Redundancy vs. Interdependency

John Robb has shared some of his early ideas as he brainstorms for his forthcoming book on "Resilient Communities". This recent post describes the need for local capacity in "personal fabrication", opining that "in the longer term, [disruptions don't] need to occur." Communities possessing the ability to create (at low cost and small scale) locally desired goods could, in John's words, "... advance economically and in quality of life faster than communities dependent on traditional centralized sources of production."

The following day, Tom Barnett linked a Bloomberg article under the heading "Early signs of the growing food hyper-interdependency" and Shlõk posted a short piece on "Piggybacking on Existing Infrastructure" (calling it a bad idea).

These two articles underscore the competing notions of of "economic specialization" (which is the at the core of interdependency) and "local redundancy". In an ideal world, with infinite resources, local capacity can be built to suit local needs. However, when resources are finite, the concept of "opportunity cost" becomes paramount: What can I not do if I do this?

For disaster planning, we tend to overestimate the availability (and capacity) of local infrastructure: first responders on the scene, relatively intact communications infrastructures, availability of critical resources like water, ice, medicine. After Hurricane KATRINA in August 2005, however, we saw the impact of lost infrastructure: first responders who had evacuated themselves, cell phone towers with their power generators flooded, impassable transportation grids unable to deliver needed supplies.

I have argued in this 'blog for greater self-reliance -- but how far can we go? What are the practical limits of building and maintaining a local infrastructure that can satisfy all local needs? And would such "islands of self-sufficiency" lead to greater sectarianism?

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3 Comments:

At 17/4/08 12:46 , Blogger Vinay Gupta - Hexayurt Project said...

Shane, please excuse the length of this comment. Pet subject :-)

There are two interlinked problems - dependency, and complex system effects (which you'd call interdependency, but I am not sure that's quite it.)

Dependency is the simpler problem to define - if Country A imports a lot of its food because it is sold in other countries at lower prices than locals can manage, in a food crisis, people starve.

Of course, if you use trade barriers to stop that happening, by and large, people starve now.

But this is not a network effects thing. That's just how trade is.

The second issue is interdependency of resources. A coal fired power plant has a very high "infrastructure coefficient" - the % of your national infrastructure which must be operating for that plant to operate for one year is pretty high, maybe 30% or more. This is not quite interdependency in the trade sense, where Entity A depends on Entity B depends on Entity A. It's more that you've got to have a bunch of preconditions satisfied simultaneously for anything to happen at all.

On the other hand, a solar panel has an infrastructure coefficient of zero. It keeps working if 0% of the national infrastructure is in operation.

There's a good six or seven pages of stuff on this kind of thinking for an SSTR / HADR context in

http://files.howtolivewiki.com/TIDES_PACKET/TIDES_BOARDS_V2_low_resolution.pdf

Which is a 40-ish page document on http://STAR-TIDES ("Transportable Infrastructure for Development and Emergency Support.) The infrastructure theory section starts on page 26.

In terms of local fabrication options, check out:

http://openfarmtech.org and
http://openfarmtech.org/weblog

This is an open source project developing a complete, integrated light infrastructure system. They're starting with brick making machines, and then going to electric tractors, bioplastics, and a variety of other interconnected systems. The idea is to wind up with a set of systems which are capable of constructing each other, rather like a

http://reprap.org personal fabricator

In general, I think the "granularity" of infrastructure is really the key - small, autonomous components like solar panels, wind, composting toilets.

http://smallisprofitable.org Small is Profitable is The Economist's Book of the Year, 2003, and discusses why small, fine grained electrical infrastructure can out-compete monster projects even in strictly financial terms.

And, of course, the Great Grandaddy of them all...
http://reactor-core.org/brittle-power.html Brittle Power - Energy Strategy and National Security which is a blow by blow account of why the electricity grid doesn't work in Iraq

that was written in 1982.

Of course, the Hexayurt was designed from the ground up as having very fine-grained infrastructure - almost no infrastructure shared between homes - specifically to address this kind of systemic fragility.

In a disaster or a war zone, the more autonomous your building is, the better.

 
At 17/4/08 13:50 , Blogger deichmans said...

Vinay,

Thanks for your great comments -- and I need to rekindle my Skype account so we can talk directly soon.

I agree with much of what you say, and like your idea of an "infrastructure coefficient". However, consider what it takes to *get* to the point where a family, ot a tribe, or a village, or a town, can rely on solar power to get "off the grid": it's going to depend on a quality mfg. base chock full of interdependencies.

BTW: I do not equate interdependencies to "complex system effects". Interdependencies can increase complexity (i.e., the variety of states or conditions a system can occupy), but they are not the complexity itself.

Maybe I'm thinking too much like a "first worlder" who needs to minimize my "sustainability coefficient" -- things like my Nintendo Wii and Starbucks Barista Espresso Machines are the first to be jettisoned in a complex contingency....

 
At 17/4/08 15:38 , Blogger Vinay Gupta - Hexayurt Project said...

My prediction for the long term future is about six massive industrial megapolis areas that do pretty much all of the planet's manufacturing, surrounded by an endless high-tech, ultra-low-environmental-impact ocean of farmers.

http://liveunplugged.org is how I think that would work. In fact, I've mapped out most of the systems required for the rural areas.

In terms of global crash of first world manufacturing capability... well...

yes. it could happen. if we wanted to prevent it, we'd build out "civilization backups" around nuke plants. bit of manufacturing, an essential technological framework for doing basic chemistry, metal extraction - cluster the useful stuff in nodes which have as much capability as possible to regenerate infrastructure in a global crisis, working out from the nuke plant.

Or, better still, once they get here, from the solar plant, which is a whole heck of a lot less unreliable and worrysome than the nuke plant...

hehe

you might have to switch to an AEROPRESS after the fall, but somebody will keep the coffee flowing.

By the way, did you see my piece on pandemic flu?

Severe Panflu Response Strategies

I think I sent you a link to that before, but if not... want to talk about resilience challenges.

I share your conviction that things are way, way too fragile. What I don't see is who is responsible for dealing with that, and it worries me.

 

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