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The Mystery of Sustained Adaptability

David Woods (Ohio State University SNAFUcatchers)
Grand Ballroom
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As technologies change and people adapt to take advantage of those technologies, we can contrast successful and unsuccessful cases of managing the complexity that results—whether the system is human, biological, or engineered. In the successful cases multiple interacting and interdependent groups continuously readjust to each other as they cope with, and as they exploit, changing capabilities, demands, contexts, and constraints. These systems exist in layered networks with extensive and sometimes hidden interdependencies, yet they are able to adapt in the face of variation. But much more importantly, they are able to sustain adaptability as those forms and sources of variation change. In shorthand, these are complex adaptive networks which demonstrate sustained adaptability. Sustained adaptability refers to the ability to continue to adapt to changing environments, stakeholders, demands, contexts, and constraints (in effect, to adapt how the system in question adapts).

On the other hand, much less successful complex adaptive networks are more common: initially successful adaptations unwind over time and suffer sudden performance collapses—tactics become stale, groups work at cross purposes, actions seem unable to keep pace with change and cascades from surprising events. The failures to sustain adaptability are vivid when we witness an ecosystem degrade in a tragedy of the commons, a market unravel, or a dramatic failure occur in safety-critical operations.

Resilience Engineering asks three questions about this contrast:

  1. What governance or architectural characteristics explain the difference between networks that produce sustained adaptability and those that fail to sustain adaptability?
  2. What design principles and techniques would allow one engineer a network that can produce sustained adaptability?
  3. How would one know if one succeeded (how can one confidently assess whether a system has the ability to sustain adaptability over time)?

Web services exemplify the above contrast as periods of rapid florescence occur but eventually stall, leading some organizations to the edge of collapse while others experience new periods of florescence. The participants in these experiences oscillate between extreme confidence about future decisions and a sense of precariousness and vulnerability to unanticipated surprises. Can the experiences of the organizations delivering or dependent on web services provide the insights to answer these three questions? Can the provisional answers to these questions help network web services learn how to sustain adaptability even as their past successes produce new upheavals?

Photo of David Woods

David Woods

Ohio State University SNAFUcatchers

David Woods is currently the Lead, Initiative on Complexity in Natural, Social and Engineered Systems, at the Ohio State University and Past-President of the Resilience Engineering Association and the Human Factors and Ergonomic Society.