THE MAGAZINE

Making Security Adaptive to Change and Complexity

By Sherry Harowitz

Many academicians have proffered all-encompassing explanations of history or physics to help us make sense of a complex world. In pre-Socratic times, Thales believed that water might be the unifying basis for all matter; Einstein, too, pursued a unification theory.

Better to avoid the temptation to “jam all this complexity into tightly constrained models,” says Joshua Cooper Ramo in his book The Age of the Unthinkable. We should accept the world as dynamic—always changing in nonlinear ways—and acknowledge, as the Nobel Laureate economist Friedrich Hayek advised, that we can never acquire sufficient knowledge to fully anticipate future events.
 
We need not despair, but we must factor these realities into our thinking as we develop security policies.
 
With regard to dynamism, Ramo writes, “what you want to know is when change is going to begin. In Chinese philosophy this sense is known as a mastery of incipience.”
 
We can increase our odds of doing that if we “master the skill of looking deeply,” seeking out the signals in the background noise of daily events that augur new directions and looking at data holistically.
 
This way of seeing does not come naturally to Westerners, Ramo notes. He cites a study involving college students—half educated in China, half in the United States—in which they were shown a series of pictures with the same dominant object shown against different backgrounds; the U.S.-educated subjects focused on the foreground object, while the Chinese-educated group studied the changing background—the context. This tendency to let the main object dominate can blind us to small but important changes in the threat landscape just as a magician can distract the audience with one hand while performing tricks with the other.
 
Even the highest mastery of incipience cannot, however, give you total knowledge of what an enemy—such as al Qaeda—will do next. That was Hayek’s point. Thus, Ramo notes, government should not overemphasize a threat-based approach. Defenses must be highly adaptive, preparing for the widest possible range of contingencies.
 
And because even that open-ended approach to prevention has its limitations, writes Ramo, “the essential skill of the next 50 years [will be] crisis management.”
 
Ramo highlights the importance of government encouraging and empowering citizens to play an active role in disaster response. Businesses need to learn that lesson as well with regard to their work force, a point made by William Lokey in “Don’t Let the Plan Be the Disaster,” part of our special focus on business continuity (p. 70).
 
A final key component Ramo emphasizes is resilience—the importance of developing within every business and system the capability to bounce back from the blows that can’t be deflected. It’s a critical issue that, as noted in “Intelligence” (p. 20), was once—inexplicably—resisted by government but which now appears to have gained acceptance as a tenet of homeland security among policymakers.

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