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Flood control: exemplified by governance of road traffic

Disastrous Floods as Indicators of Systemic Risk Neglect (Part #10)

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Many systemic imbalances are described metaphorically as "floods" because floods offer the most graphic imagery through which to indicate the chaotic nature of more abstract forms of "flooding" -- as well as the implication, as "Acts of God", that no human can be held responsible. Extensive use of related meteorological metaphors ("hurricane", "storm", etc) was made in the case of the recent financial crisis to avoid any responsibility for systemic strategic and management failures, as separately reviewed (Credibility Crunch engendered by Hope-mongering: "credit crunch" focus as symptom of a dangerous mindset, 2008).

Rather than consider metaphors based on the control of flooding by water -- even though this requires very concrete measures -- of potentially greater relevance is the understanding to be derived from the control of a "flood" of traffic. This involves forms of "governance" with which many are personally familiar on a daily basis -- and which they consider credible and appropriate. It also implies a higher degree of self-organization and self-governance. The degree of personal responsibility and engagement in the face of risk "on the ground" is strikingly contrasted with that articulated from an abstract perspective through representation in complex systems diagrams -- notably with respect to issues of sustainability.

As discussed separately (System Dynamics, Hypercycles and Psychosocial Self-organization, 2010), the more complex the map of a system, the less likely it is to be widely comprehended and used, and the greater the potential for unremarked errors. This is relevant to mapping the current strategic issues in Afghanistan (Dion Nissenbaum, Graphic Shows Complexity of US Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, The Huffington Post, 22 December 2009; Dion Nissenbaum, The Great Afghan Spaghetti Monster, Checkpoint Kabul, 20 December 2009). Such mapping offers possibilities in reframing the systemic challenge of climate change, as discussed separately (Insights for the Future from the Change of Climate in Copenhagen, 2010).

It is understandable that people find it difficult to identify with the dynamics indicated by such systemic representations. These can be usefully recognized as offering a "false" sense of perspective dissociated from those which are required to navigate within a flood of traffic. Such concerns were raised with respect to commentary on the follow-up United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun (From Changing the Strategic Game to Changing the Strategic Frame: Missing cognitive possibility in changing the system not the planet, 2011).

Road and traffic signs are widely accepted as a necessary and valuable indication of risk, whether or not neglect of their information is subject to legal process. The emergence and standardization of such signs has been a response to the increasing "flood" of traffic worldwide and to the need for a succinct (often pictorial) indication of risk. Curiously there is as yet little acceptance of the need for equivalent indication for many other forms of risk.

Sets of road signs can therefore be creatively "mined" for indications as to the kinds of comprehensible signs that might be of value with respect to navigating various other classes of risk. Such "mining" -- effectively a form of "research" -- follows from the argument of Susantha Goonatilake (Toward a Global Science: mining civilizational knowledge, 1999).

The emphasis on flow, and "being in the flow", recalls the arguments on learnings to be derived from water (Enabling Governance through the Dynamics of Nature: exemplified by cognitive implication of vortices and helicoidal flow, 2010). This certainly holds the "freedom" which people value in being empowered to explore highway and freeways. Does framing the collective challenge in this individualistic way offer a vital key in the elusive quest for sustainable governance?

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