Friday, March 8, 2013

ANT and Antifragility in ‘No Man’s Land’ Oklahoma

A recent paper by Rebecca Sheehan and Jacqueline Vadjunec  (Oklahoma State University) in Social and Cultural Geography (Volume 13, December 2012, pages 915-936 you will need an account to access the journal online) on communities in Oklahoma’s ‘No Man’s Land’ is a very good demonstration of how actor network theory can be used to analyse how communities are constructed and, importantly, how they behave under stress. Sheehan and Vadjunec note how residents work together on tasks such as branding in the spring, collecting necessities in towns that could be 30-150 miles away and travelling to hospital when a ranching or farming accident happens. This neighbourly behaviour and the relations it is based on underlies what they describe as a robust actor network of relations.

I was wondering if you could go further than this and suggest that the actor network is actually antifragile? The authors point out two examples that may back up this idea that the actor network actually gains strength from adversity. Medical expenses for individuals in the community were often covered by fundraisers or anonymous donations that were also made to cover funeral expenses. Likewise, these adverse events produced responses of kindness that ranged from phone calls of sympathy and understanding to practical help of meals and contributions to ranch work. In one case the death of a farmer at harvest time resulted in the unplanned, spontaneous reaction of several farmers turning up with their combines within 36 hours of his death to help the widow to collect the harvest.

Adverse, or what seem to be adverse events, activate relations in the actor network that produce behaviour that help individuals and seem to strengthen the sense of community and the actor network as a whole. It is only by the enactment of these relations in times of adversity however that this strengthening can occur.
If this argument is accepted then a whole battery of other issues arise that only the detailed analysis of actor networks in particular locations can answer. These actor networks need to be studied before during and after adverse events to analyse which relations are activated, how and if there is any pattern to these relations. Events are the only means by which relations can be identified and their role in strengthening the actor network understood. Similarly, it is through such detailed analysis that we can begin to map out the limits to such antifragile behaviour. The strengthening behaviour in this case seems to be an organic outgrowth from the underlying relations that define and bind the community. Eroding these relations will erode the ability of the community to define itself and to strengthen itself in the face of adverse events. Understanding the type of adverse events such actor networks can cope with, absorb the impacts of and gain strength from is also an important aspect that requires further research. Communities may be antifragile in the face of certain adverse events but be extremely fragile should the nature of the adverse event change. In the case of this community, if the adverse event is a general failure of all harvests then the capacity to respond and help other members of the network dissipates. If the encroachment of ‘new’ people into the area happens then this again may weaken the underlying relations that aid community definition, eroding the capacity to activate relations in crisis events and so gain strength from the community-based respond to a crisis event. Starting to map the contours of what an antifragile actor network looks like and the limits of antifragile behaviour could be an interesting area of research.

Haddon Matrix and ‘Black Swans’

The Haddon Matrix is an extremely useful way to express the factors associated with a hazardous event and the changes that need to be affected in the host, the equipment and the environment (both social and physical). I have covered the Haddon Matrix in a previous post, in fact to date the most popular post on this blog. I am not denigrating the Haddon Matrix and its usefulness but recent publications Nassim Nicolas Taleb such a The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007, second edition 2010) highlight the potential of unexpected, rare events in systems. Taleb does not believe that effort such be wasted trying to predict these rare events but rather than robust systems should be devised to avoid the negative impacts of these events. So does the Haddon Matrix help to prevent hazards or accidents when a Black Swan strikes?

The Haddon Matrix tends to focus on specific events and their immediate impact. The ‘classic’ example often seen on the Web is a car accident where there is a clearly defined agent or host, a clearly defined piece of equipment and a fuzzy but often clearly defined environment at least in the mind of the person who constructs the matrix. The matrix is focused on a particular event usually one that is well known to the person constructing the matrix. The event is singular and derived from thinking about common scenarios of ‘what ifs’. Importantly, the event is divorced and isolated from its complex context. The event is treated as an individual example of an oft-repeated set, as an individual example of a particular kind of hazard or accident. This means that the contours of the event are relatively well know, the limited impact and the limited range of changes that need to be made to the host or equipment clearly demarcated. The event is somewhat simplified by removing it from its context.

Rare events can also be considered within the Haddon Matrix and planned for but events that have never happened or are not within the experience of the constructor of the matrix can not be considered. A series of events could be dealt with by interlinking matrices or even by using Reason’s Swiss cheese model of accidents but each matrix or cheese slice will deal only with a single event not the interconnected system as a whole not the complex and potentially unique relations that these rarities activate within the whole system of which the event identified is only a part. In this case, however, the accident or hazard itself is actually a chain or web of events operating in unison under the influence of the rare event. The exact connections in the system will give the rare event its character. Given the rarity of the event can you be sure that when it happens again the system will be connected, or rather interconnected, in exactly the same manner and so will the precautions that you take have to be exactly the same? As the complexity of the system behind the hazard or accident you are dealing with increases then the possibility that impacts will occur via different connections or pathways is likely to increase. A static Haddon Matrix may not be able to cope with such dynamism that a Black Swan generates within a system.

Black Swan events may also imply that there are two classes of hazards or accidents that need to be considered. The first is the hazard that is known about, one for which have occurred and reoccurred again and again with sufficient regularity that their characteristics can be well defined and clearly defined steps taken to prevent their escalation. The second class of hazards or accidents are those that occur so rarely that each instant is a novel and unusual case with its own set of peculiar characteristics. These events are so infrequent that no reasonable plans can be made to prevent them. It is only after they have happened that we can understand why they happened, what aspects of the system were compromised and then take steps to ensure that the same pathways to failure do not happen again, although the next Black Swan event may be so different as to circumvent our efforts.

If the Black Swan, almost by definition, falls outside the experience of the matrix constructor then is the matrix of any use in these cases? Black Swans may not be predictable but that should not stop attempts to build a robust system to manage impacts. A densely connected system is likely to transmit impacts rapidly from one part to another, maybe along channels or by connections that can be predicted as weak links or pinch points.  Ensuring that there are ‘firebreaks’ in the system, potential break-points in its connectivity, could help prevent a systemic failure even if the exact nature of the rare event is unclear and unpredictable.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

UK government not reducing pollution in line with legal limits

With all the concern over atmospheric pollution levels in China a story may have escaped notice. The UK government is facing a case in the UK Supreme Court over its failure to reduce air pollution in line with legal limits ( The government admitted that limits would not be meet in 15 regions until 2020 (London will not comply until 2025). This comes on top of the government having to issue a severe pollution warning for London this week.

The response of the government has been to say that the laws are unrealistically strict and that the EU didn’t set proper limits on pollution from diesel exhaust in the first place. Why they view these limits are unrealistic is not clear. Do they mean given the current economic situation it is not realistic to expect pollution to be tackled? Do they mean the limits are to be meet in too short a timeframe? Does the comment imply that there is an expected time lag between introducing the limits and compliance – if so why? Does the comment relate to how the government expects such changes in polluting behaviour to be tackled within the particular political and economic context of the UK.

DEFRA stated that the government has acted to reduce emissions of nitrogen dioxide through trying to encourage behaviour changes in divers via tax breaks and subsidies for low emission vehicles. Likewise, there has been investment in green bus technologies  (£75million) along with £560m to encourage local sustainable transport. This is the government response to trying to improve the atmospheric levels of PM10s and nitrogen dioxide, key pollutants from road traffic. In other words responsible for implementing and resolving the issue has been delegated downwards to the local level, indeed even as far as down the individual driver. Action is also indirect via tax incentives to which individuals are meant to respond in the manner the government thinks they should.  Rather than direct action or legislation, the government has taken a ‘nudge’ approach to the problem, developing policies and the context or environment that they believe will provide the impetus to encourage change in the direction they want. Reduction in atmospheric pollution is a side-effect, an outcome of these nudges. The question could be asked will these nudges be effective? Likewise, how can you measure the impact of such nudges to assess if they have been effective?

The threat of court action also places the complaints over Chinese pollution in a different light. It could be argued that the atmospheric pollution levels in the UK are much lower than in China and so different criteria should be applied to the problems of the UK government. The UK is not dealing with dense smogs that clog lungs and increase death rates (although calculations do suggest that traffic pollution does cause excess deaths in the UK as noted in the above report). The pollution of concern in the UK seems to be focused on road traffic and so a linear pollution source whilst the Chinese are having to deal with point, linear and areal sources as they go through rapid urbanization and economic growth.  Indeed the Chinese are having to cope with multiple sources of differing magnitudes and with both private and official institutions involved. The magnitudes of the pollution maybe of different orders in the UK and China but both are struggling to balance the needs of economic development and the pollution it produces.  So is atmospheric pollution the unavoidable price for economic development?