Security Officials Need to "Adapt" to a New Security Environment, ArgueTwo Academics

By Matthew Harwood

Yesterday, two academics in the Philadelphia Inquirer argued that the U.S. model for homeland security is outdated and doomed to fail unless its practitioners adapt, much like biological systems, to a changing security environment.

Terence Taylor, vice president for global health and security and director of biological programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and Raphael Sagarin, assistant research professor at Duke University and associate director for ocean and coastal policy at Duke's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, write that while 9-11 was indeed a "failure of imagination" in the words of the 9-11Commission, the larger problem when dealing with homeland and national security is a "failure of adaptation."

If we as humans, the most highly evolved of all biological systems, are to improve our security, Sagarin and Taylor argue we need to learn from nature.

Biological organisms have adapted to persistent and unpredictable threats in a hostile world for at least 3.5 billion years. With a little imagination, we can use their adaptations to guide our own.

Adaptation, going back to the first amphibians leaving the sea, is fundamentally about leaving your comfort zone. This is a lesson we have egregiously ignored.

Our adaptations to changing security risks since 9/11 have mostly been to deploy more guns, more guards and higher gates, all under the direction of the top-down, centralized bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security.

In nature, however, adaptable systems generally eschew central control in favor of semiautonomous, distributed authority in which individual units can sense and immediately respond to changes in the environment.

Nature also teaches that all risks cannot be mitigated—a concept politicians ignore when they declare war on  abstractions, such as the "War on Terrorism." Sagarin and Taylor note that highly-adapted organisms that prosper within a certain ecosystem do not try to eliminate risk, they either avoid their predators, evolve, or form "symbiotic partnerships" with their predators.

Cooperation, therefore, is also key to promoting security, even if that means cooperation with our enemies. For instance, Sagarin and Taylor provide examples where hatred and long-standing conflicts can be transcended, such as in networks of health-care officials and practitioners across Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority working together to solve common problems.

"The early success of these networks," write Sagarin and Taylor, "gives us hope that we can apply lessons from natural adaptation to our own security."


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