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Volume 27, Issue 3

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May 3, 2013

Globally networked risks and how to respond

A paper in the journal Nature by Dirk Helbing, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, has looked at the various global networks that exist and illustrated how cascade effects and complex dynamics amplify the vulnerability of these systems.

Our global networks have generated many benefits and new opportunities. However, they have also established highways for failure propagation, which can ultimately result in man-made disasters. For example, today's quick spreading of emerging epidemics is largely a result of global air traffic, with serious impacts on global health, social welfare, and economic systems.

Helbing's publication illustrates how cascade effects and complex dynamics amplify the vulnerability of networked systems. For example, just a few long-distance connections can largely decrease our ability to mitigate the threats posed by global pandemics. Initially beneficial trends, such as globalization, increasing network densities, higher complexity, and an acceleration of institutional decision processes may ultimately push man-made or human-influenced systems towards systemic instability, Helbing finds. Systemic instability refers to a system, which will get out of control sooner or later, even if everybody involved is well skilled, highly motivated and behaving properly. Crowd disasters are shocking examples illustrating that many deaths may occur even when everybody tries hard not to hurt anyone.

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