The response by many public utility and government officials to the recent massive power outage in Lansing uncovered severe problems, particularly with the Lansing Board of Water and Light’s lack of ability to:
- adaptively listen to/respond back about what is happening on the ground,
- accurately track/model problems, and
- coordinate the response based on that information to resolve issues effectively and in a timely manner.
What plausibly could have been done differently within the existing conditions, budgets, and assets/resources available?
Let’s break down the three assertions above and see how they would have made a difference:
Adaptive Listening/Response: It’s clear from reports that leadership of both the City of Lansing, and Lansing Board of Water and Light did not have an accurate picture of the size of the problem (see Accurate Mapping/Modeling below). Therefore they also had no way to reasonably project the time span that the problem might persist.
“Adaptive” here means that “if” you cannot “hear” what is happening out there, and if you lack capacities or channels to reflect back what you can “hear”, you need to quickly adapt on both fronts immediately. You need “adapt” to the situation, to use whatever channels are available to you, to request any reasonable resource to help you “hear” a more accurate picture of the problem as quickly as possible. This means you put out calls for volunteers to check and report on sectors (such as Neighborhood Watch groups, area police and fire, state police, other utility companies, if and where available).
If you lack tools or services, you need to call out to the community to suggest or supply those tools or services that allow you to do the listening. Once you have a assembled a system that gives you effective listening, you need to close the loop and continuously “respond” back to those you are listening to.
You can ask the community to step forward. Work with stores to post information. Reach out to local radio stations and television stations to relay information Use social media/internet, phone calls, reverse 911, etc.
In a crisis, you may need to “adapt” and seek volunteers from the community if you lack people or resources. Let the community help themselves, by enabling them to become part of the response to the crisis. This is crucial to rapid problem-solving and adapting to the situation. Listening/Response is a crucial need for critical service providers that can find themselves at the mercy of unexpected massive and rapid change.
(Editor’s Note: Sam Rose has worked with Howard Rheingold on projects with Institute for The Future. Rose suggests Rheingold’s report on Rapid Decision-Making could be helpful in informing the process of crisis response development.)
Accurate Mapping/Modeling of the Landscape: Alfred Korzybski was famous for declaring: “The map is not the territory” It’s true that a model you create of a problem will never be a one-to-one match with the conditions on the ground. However, it is incumbent upon managers of complex systems to understand where to draw the boundaries in their model so that it is “good enough” to gather data, process the data into information that fits into the model, and reflect this back as knowledge in a way that others can process and understand.
A simple way to accomplish this is to focus on the “metadata” or a set of categories under which any incoming data resides. In the case of a crisis like a power outage, “categories” can include “location,” “status” (power is on/not on), “severity,” etc. This model is your key to quickly resolving this crisis, your key to adapting to emerging issues. A person who is effective in managing this model is worth the salary of 10 executives, yet typically is available for much less.
Both the University of Michigan and Michigan State University have programs graduating people with these skills right now. Reach out to them and hire a person who can do this for you. The School of Information at University of Michigan would probably help you solve these problems for free, if you merely reach out and ask.
You need someone dedicated to making sure this model has good data. They need to be comparing what is assumed to be known with information emerging from the actual thing being modeled. This data needs to be put into a database and updated based on an efficient process of vetting incoming data and information, so that it can be turned into knowledge that lives in the database. Once you have this model – and if you make it well- you can actually use it to run projections/simulations based on increasing/decreasing various parameters in the model.
Coordinated Response: The challenge is to create a coordinated response based on the Adaptive Listening/Response and Accurate Mapping/Modeling. The reality is that there will always be a lag in response to disaster, crisis, and unexpected situations. A pre-made plan can help fill the gap when starting in a situation largely of unknowns, and trying to move toward what is known.
For instance, in the power outage over the holiday, Lansing Online News’ Todd Heywood revealed that the BWL never mobilized it’s “Command and Communications Center” or “CCC” (https://lansingonlinenews.com/news/ice-storm-bwl-command-and-communications-center/ ), even though it was part of their emergency plan.
Getting the “CCC” up and running would have been critical to accomplishing adaptive response, and accurate modeling, not to mention coordinating the response. In reality, a service such as Board of Water and Light requires a continuous “Command and Communication Center” that can escalate and de-escalate as the situation on the ground changes.
Beyond all of this, it has been reported by Lansing State Journal that software that Board of Water and Light would use for databasing these problems was and is not yet functional. It should be known that the resources and technologies needed for this kind of database are no longer “cutting edge” technology, and much of the needed infrastructure has existed on a computer/network/software level since the late 1990’s. A small group of full time software and systems developers paid a reasonable salaries could get a functioning system together in 6-8 weeks.
It is not normal that a critical basic utility, or municipal government, would lack these kinds of tools to listen, understand and coordinate response. Again, the tools, and effective approaches for using them are not cutting edge any more. Let’s hope we see these approaches implemented both in our utilities, and our municipal government information systems before another crisis arises.