Supply Chains Need Protection from Covid-19

Covid-19 coronavirus is bound to have significant impact on global supply chains as it impacts all sectors of the economy. See graphs from the Spectator for illustration. It is also somewhat unprecedented as it in many area both supply and demand are impacted. Both our ability to consume and produce has in many areas been significantly impacted by many countries adopting long periods of lock-down. Covid-19 is therefore a systemic shock to the economy, and a systemic shock to supply chains.

Systemic Impact on Supply Chains

The danger with supply chains is that Covid-19 significantly disrupts what are now frequently called supply chain networks. Where the term network recognises the complex inbound and outbound interdependencies between organisations. Supply chain networks are difficult to fully map and understand. Couple to this a move in the economy post WWII towards lean supply chains. Where there are low levels of redundancy in the supply chain, and resources (in all senses of the word) are delivered just in time. Disruption in one part of the network can quickly spread (cascade) to other areas. This could cause the network to fail in unpredictable ways. Where the ability of an organisation to produce something being halted by it being unable to acquire an essential input. Materials, parts, service, resources in general.

Supply Chain Deadlock

The danger with a large scale systemic shocks is that they sufficiently disrupt something like a supply chains to the point where it can no longer function. In the case of supply chains and Covid-19, one possibility is that they become deadlocked. The term deadlock is perhaps most frequently used to describe a situation where a series of interdependent processes all stop because they are all waiting for each other to do something. Process A is waiting for process B, B is waiting for process C, and C is waiting for process A. A situation that computer programmers have long had to deal with an mitigate.

Resource deadlock between two processes that are waiting for each other.
Resource Deadlock

This situation of deadlock could arise in lean supply chains. The operations of one organisation may be halted due to it being unable to acquire some essential resource for its operations. The halting of this organisation’s operations could have effects elsewhere in the supply chain. The difficulty is that this might not be a simple, easily mapped, supply chain. Similar to that shown above. Instead it might be a complex network of interdependent relationships, and therefore understanding how to release the deadlock might be extremely difficult.

International Coordination

If Covid-19 causes deadlock, releasing this deadlock in global supply chains will require international coordination. For example, it might require organisations to temporarily produce resources that they normally wouldn’t. Or resources might have to be moved between organisations. Both to allow processes in other organisations to get underway. There will need to be some way to both map resource requirements, and move them. This will need to be done internationally. Perhaps through the production of an international register of needs are resources.

Why The UK Covid-19 Strategy is High Risk

Thursday (12th March 2020) afternoon’s post COBRA press conference with the Prime Minister Johnson provided an interesting update on the UK’s strategy to delay the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. It was interesting because it diverts significantly with what many other countries are doing to limit coronavirus spread, but in my opinion is also a very high risk strategy.

Competing Strategies

The strategy seems to be largely based on getting people to remain at home if they think there is even a relatively small chance that they have contracted the virus (UK Gov Stay at Home Guidance). Thus, if you believe you might be showing symptoms of illness, isolate yourself for the period of 7 days. To facilitate this we are to ask our “employer, friends and family to help you get the things you need to stay at home”, sleep alone when at home, wash our hands and stay away from vulnerable people. Only if symptoms persist beyond 7 days or worsen are we to seek the advice of NHS 111.

Essentially this is a request from the Government that we act to remove ourselves from the circulating population at the first sign of illness. Doing this will ‘flatten the curve’, reducing the peak number of cases at any one time, and also push that peak into the summer months. At which point the NHS will be better able to cope. Sounds great if it works, but will it?

This strategy is in rather stark contrast to a number of other countries that have imposed highly disruptive restrictions to people’s movement and behaviour. Such as Norway (and Ireland) that advises against gatherings and human contact (NIPH), and has essentially closed itself off (Visit Norway). Italy, currently the worst affected country in Europe, has also imposed tight restrictions even on things like movement and shopping (BBC News). 

Its Complex

As a complex systems theorist this difference in intervention strategies is interesting. Complexity theory takes a view of the world as a system of interacting parts. It is also a relational worldview, which means it is not only the parts (such as people, buildings, objects general) that are important. The relationships between the parts, how they interact, is also important to how a system behaves. It is a systemic view.

The UK strategy seems to have at its centre the idea that a relatively small intervention in our behaviour, our relationship with each other and the world around us, will produce a significant effect on the spread of the virus. Self isolating at the first sign of illness, hand washing and so on. These changes are intended to flatten the curve of infection, lowering its peak, and move it to summer. This small intervention might be followed later by something more like what we have seen in Norway and Italy. The problem is, will such a small intervention limit the spread of pandemic flu?

Three Assumptions

There are at least three significant assumptions underpinning this strategy. On which its success depends.

One, people are willing and able to do it. They are assuming that people will do what they ask, and can do what they ask. There could be many reasons why people do not follow the advice. They might think that their symptoms have nothing to do with Covid-19, or don’t immediately recognise them as illness. Financially taking time off work might be impossible. Not all households have enough space at home to self isolate, including ‘sleeping alone’. Lack of compliance with the changes to behaviour will mean the virus spreads more quickly and they fail in their attempt to flatten the curve and shift the peak to the summer.

Two, they will know when to switch strategy. Central to the UK strategy is an ability to know if or when there is a need to switch from this modest intervention to a more draconian one. As at some point it is likely that more restrictions will be needed. When you do that is a trade off between wanting to shift that peak to the summer, and also limiting the spread. Also in the press conference was a decision to stop testing outside of hospital. By doing this they lose good data of how the virus is spreading in the population, making it harder to know when to change strategy. Perhaps making it harder to know when the system is approaching a tipping point into uncontrolled spreading.

There are hints that some of that data and analysis might be sought from big tech companes, with Buzzfeed reporting that Dominic Cummings will chair a “Tech CEO Round Table”. With the suggestion being that they have data that could help understand and combat the flow of coronavirus. This again is risky, as a source of data to understand viral spread social media is unproven, and perhaps this isn’t the time to be testing unproven methodologies. It does seem to betray some of the thinking within No. 10. That all problems can be manipluated through data and analytics, mediated via social media companies.

Three, changing behaviours will have the effect they predict. This assumption is more difficult to analyse and impacts any strategy. When we make changes to a complex system, in this case our day to day modes of interacting, working, and living. We cannot be sure that the system will react as we predict. It could quite easily do something unexpected, and that unexpected behaviour will interact with how the virus spreads. What that will do is currently anyone’s guess, but will soon be our lived experience. However it is an area of scientific study that we should focus more attention on. What are the systemic impacts of large scale interventions in societies? The types of interventions that will be needed to fight things like pandemics and climate change.

Is It a Good Strategy?

The logic of the strategy of countries like Norway is more simple that of the UK. There the idea is to be very restrictive and try to slow it down straight away. One would assume that they have factored in that it will not be fully complied with, some non-compliance with the restrictions will cause spreading of the virus. They might even be counting on that to spread it slowly to allow people to become immune without their systems being overwhelmed. This a shock to the system that they hope will flatten the curve.

The UK on the other hand is betting on compliance with their strategy, they need people to comply for it to spread slowly, flatten the curve, and move the peak. They are also assuming that they can spot the time when they need to move to Norway strategy should they need to. Both of these are more risky, in the sense that you are reliant on getting more things right. If people don’t comply the virus will spread rapidly through the population, and if they miss the time to change strategy then again it could get out of control.

Of course, if it works it will turn out to have been the right thing to do! However it is definitely very high risk, and the costs if it fails will be significant.

Total Systemic Failure?

My new paper, “Total Systemic Failure?”, is out (this link should get you a free copy for a limited time). I wanted to write something that was more a big picture look at how the world is working. Or perhaps how it isn’t working. I think there is a problem that the world is stuck arguing about whether climate change exists when it is a least possible that multiple global-systems are failing. I also wanted to write something that is very clearly about complexity theory and systems analysis.

Systemic Failure

So what is systemic failure? The paper goes through how complex systems theory describes how the world works. It then moves onto the idea that if a system is put under enough pressure, and this starts to affect the relationships between the parts of the system, then that system could collapse. This might either be a change in the nature of the system, so that the global system behaviour changing significantly. Or it might be that the system collapses completely.

We don’t have particularly good methods for understanding if a system is likely to collapse. How close it is, or if it is in the process of failing? We don’t know what we need to know. If we did then we might be better able to understand which systems are likely to fail, and perhaps what we might do to change that.

Total Systemic Failure

So what is different about total systemic failure? Here we are asking the question of if a number of systems start to fail, will this result in all systems failing? Systems are connected, and the degree to which they are connected and the significance of these connections is difficult to understand. Therefore, could the failure of one system precipitate the failure of another system? If this happens could it cause a cascade of failures? We do not understand how individual systems failure, we are even further away from understanding how a system-of-systems might fail.

What Can We Do?

We need to work out what state we are in, perhaps there are things we can do. Perhaps there is an opportunity to build a connected, distributed, sensor network that can provide data on global systems? It will not be easy to build this network, or analyse the data. Artificial intelligence could help, perhaps we can build AIs that can help develop the sensor network and also analyse the results. A global distributed sensor network. The AI could learn about what data is needed and what interventions could be made.

We need to start thinking more about the big picture. Otherwise we are going to find ourselves in a real mess with little hope of getting ourselves out of it.

Panama Revisted

The people over at The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists have updated the released panama data. Its not clear to me if that is more data than they had already released, or that this time it is a ready made Neo4J database. They provide two versions of the database, Windows and Mac. Its easy to get it to work in Linux, just copy the graph.db file from out of the archive into the databases directory of your Neo4J install.

I made a quick query to look for officers with the same address. Seems there some, it would need something more sophisticated to did any deeper.

MATCH (n:Officer)–(a:Address)–(m:Officer) RETURN n,a,m LIMIT 25







Security Algorithms Need to be More Transparent

I wrote a piece for The Conversation, “It’s time to shine a light on the unseen algorithms that power ‘Big Brother’”. I try to make the point that we as citizens know very little about the algorithms that power the security services (not to mention all sorts of other things too). Which is troubling as there is a great potential for them to discriminate, or plane get things wrong. This is both potentially damaging to us, but it also makes them less useful. I also draw a comparison between these analytical algorithms and cryptographic algorithms, which are often deliberately opened up to ensure there strength. Analytical algorithms that have the power to refuse someone entry to a country, or potentially assist with putting someone behind bars, should also be open.It’s time to shine a light on the unseen algorithms that power ‘Big Brother’








RGS Panel: Risk and Complexity in Finance and Beyond

Our Royal Geographical Society panel, “Risk and Complexity in Finance and Beyond” has been accepted for this years RGS annual conference!

Some details below:

Session organiser/s: Philip Garnett, The University of York, UK; John H. Morris, Durham University, UK
Session chair/s: Philip Garnett, The University of York, UK; John H. Morris, Durham University, UK

Session authors and presenters: Louise Amoore, Durham University, UK; David Chandler, University of Westminster, UK; Nat O’Grady, University of Southampton, UK; John H. Morris, Durham University, UK; Spencer Cox, University of Minnesota, USA; Philip Garnett, The University of York, UK; Eli Lazarus, Cardiff University, UK; Vanessa Schofield, Durham University, UK

The conference takes place at the University of Exeter from Tuesday 1 September 2015 (when registration opens from midday and there will be pre-conference workshops and an evening plenary/welcome event), through to Friday 4 September 2015. Sessions may be scheduled at any time between 9am and 6:30pm on Wednesday 2 and Thursday 3 September, or between 9am and 4.20pm on Friday 4 September 2015.