Resilience, Decentralization, Security: John Robb in Fast Company

Stephen DeAngelis

March 14, 2006

There’s growing recognition that we need resilience — and that networked, adaptive systems are the way to achieve it.  The latest entrant into the discussion is John Robb, who blogs at Global Guerrillas; he’s the author of in the March issue of Fast Company (a nod to ZenPundit for the link, and for good commentary).

 

Robb’s near-term vision is somewhat apocalyptic.  He foresees a state security apparatus that withers under a series of attacks by non-state actors, and a private security environment comprised of “armored suburbs” that benefits from private-sector security innovation.  This isn’t inevitable by any means.  Nevertheless, a number of his points are on target:

…The end result of this struggle will be a new, more resilient approach to national security, one built not around the state but around private citizens and companies…

…the convergence of international crime and terrorism will provide ample fuel and a global platform for these new enemies…

This terrorist-criminal symbiosis becomes even more powerful when considered next to the most disturbing sign coming out of Iraq: The terrorists have developed the ability to fight nation-states strategically–without weapons of mass destruction. This new method is called “systems disruption,” a simple way of attacking the critical networks (electricity, oil, gas, water, communications, and transportation) that underpin modern life…

…One small attack on an oil pipeline in southeast Iraq, conducted for an estimated $2,000, cost the Iraqi government more than $500 million in lost oil revenues. That is a return on investment of 25,000,000%…

…the metaphorical targets of September 11 are largely behind us. The strikes of the future will be strategic, pinpointing the systems we rely on, and they will leave entire sections of the country without energy and communications for protracted periods. But the frustration and economic pain that result will have a curious side effect: They will spur development of an entirely new, decentralized security system, one that devolves power and responsibility to a mix of private companies, individuals, and local governments.

Here, Robb describes the wealthy, leapfrogging from one secure “lily pad” to another via private jet, with the middle class forming suburban security collectives, and the poor gravitating to cities to take what security the state can offer.

Until, that is, the next wave of adaptive innovation takes hold. For all of these changes may prove to be exactly the kind of creative destruction we need to move beyond the current, failed state of affairs. By 2016 and beyond, real long-term solutions will emerge. Cities, most acutely affected by the new disruptions, will move fastest to become self-reliant, drawing from a wellspring of new ideas the market will put forward. These will range from building-based solar systems from firms such as Energy Innovations to privatized disaster and counterterrorist responses. We will also see the emergence of packaged software that combines real-time information (the status of first-responder units and facilities) with interactive content (information from citizens) and rich sources of data (satellite maps)…

By 2016, we may see the trials of the previous decade as progress in disguise. The grassroots security effort will do more than just insulate our gas lines and high schools. It will also spur positive social change…

Perhaps the most important global shift will be the rise of grassroots action and cross-connected communities. Like the Internet, these new networks will develop slowly at first. After a period of exponential growth, however, they will quickly become all but ubiquitous–and astonishingly powerful, perhaps as powerful as the networks arrayed against us. And so we will all become security consultants, taking an active role in deciding how it is bought, structured, and applied…

We agree with Robb about the future of technology and security — but not about the inevitability of the social trends he projects.  The open question is whether the national security apparatus will collaborate with the private sector, and adopt flexible, resilient systems to protect critical infrastructure.  Our own conversations indicate that the Federal sector understands the value of such systems, and is moving quickly to implement them.  If that happens, then we will achieve resilience much sooner than Robb suggests, and without nearly the level of severe disruption that he seems to believe is inevitable.  A truly effective public-private collaboration — at the Federal as well as state and local levels — is a likely prospect.  Such a collaboration would create effective security for the whole society, well before 2016.

 

None of these reservations diminishes the impact of Robb’s larger point — our enemies are decentralized, sophisticated and extremely difficult to target.  They understand that an attack on critical infrastructure will have an impact on our society far out of proportion to the cost and effort of staging such an attack.  The answer is to address security with both private and public-sector resources, to establish new best practices that can be implemented as automated rule sets, and to deploy them via intelligent, adaptive network technologies.  Resilience is the answer — and the sooner and more collaboratively we establish it, the better.