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24 December 2007

Systems of systems analysis, with zombies

One of the harder concepts to teach within intelligence studies is the analysis of systems of systems, particularly given the complexities of real world PMESI examples. This is compounded by the natural tendency of students (and instructors with experience on related accounts) to focus on the disruption of systems – terrorism, warfare, economic crisis, etc. – far more than on aspects of resiliency that allow these systems to adapt even under severe strain. (From this originates our most serious criticisms of John Robb’s Global Guerrillas theory.)

Teaching systems of systems analysis in the foreign intelligence environment is one thing. Typically, those students are familiar – or at least interested in learning about – theories of political science, international relations, and macroeconomics that help to understand complex and dynamically adaptive structures. This is not such an easy task when teaching in the homeland security environment. The student population tends towards the far more practical aspects of more narrowly focused and concrete problems – as one would expect from a group comprised largely of cops, firefighters, and emergency medical staff. They also tend to reject what they do not perceive as inherently governmental – no matter how critical the impact of that systems failure might be. Absent a scenario in which they can more readily grasp the implications, it is a difficult if not impossible task to inculcate the perspective required to properly address the evolving all-hazard approaches that homeland security intelligence professionals must grapple with.

And herein lies the rub. Even the most carefully crafted teaching scenario can be challenged by those intent on avoiding the intellectual aspects of the exercise under the rubric of “experience”. Even recent major real world cases, such as Katrina or the California wildfires, are considered to be such anomalous Black Swan events that they are beyond the practical scope of most anticipated homeland security scenarios. This is to say nothing of a potential mass casualty or catastrophic event. This extremeness aversion (covered well within Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s discussions of Mediocristan) makes it exceptionally difficult to address major incident scenarios in a manner that truly engages the participants and forces them to consider the full spectrum of consequence management issues.

One potential answer that we have found is taken from the realm of the jesters that occasionally visit the futurists’ table. Since the fundamental premise of national event training scenarios are often rejected by participants who cannot visualize the circumstances under which they personally would be involved in the response, no matter how plausible the simulated injects, we change the premise entirely. Rather than attempting to force a willing suspension of disbelief in a plausible, realistic scenario – no matter if the participants should believe in the first place – we introduce a completely unrealistic scenario that borders on the ludicrous. However, it is precisely this over the top element that stimulates not only engaged participation but what rapidly evolves into a serious discussion within a more grounded analytical framework.

The scenario, of course, is a wide-scale zombie attack. Yes, as in the undead - not the computer type beloved of the boffins out there. The staple of countless bad movies requires little explanation –almost everyone is familiar with the rules of zombie behavior and infection. (For those that are not, a review of the “literature” is one of the more enjoyable homework assignments, no doubt.)

The underlying principle of why this scenario works to engage even the most reluctant of participants should of course be very familiar to intelligence professionals. It is identical to the purposes of the analytical technique of divergence. And it is an excellent way to keep discussion at the unclassified level when working in mixed groups of professionals that have varying degrees of access (thus preventing arguments based on “inside information” which may or may not actually support the point under contention), in a way that no scenario grounded in a real world event necessarily could.

The real key to making the scenario work for a good systems of systems discussion depends entirely on the ability of the instructor (or facilitator, in breakout session groups) to tie the discussion back to PMESI effects. This can be quite an enjoyable exercise, however, in a manner that avoids many of the traditional objections raised by those insistent on the limited focus of the classic inherently governmental perspective.

Fortunately, we recently found an excellent work of fictional speculative “history” that presents an excellent look at the higher order effects of such a scenario, called World War Z. While it goes far beyond the level we typically would focus on for a homeland security class or table top exercise, it is quite well executed and entertaining in its own right. Its interview style structure gives it unique potential value to the educator, as most of the presented chapters can be used in whole or in part to introduce the scenario. For this, we actually recommend the audio book version, with excerpts played as scenario injects or to introduce break out discussion sessions.

As an instructional exercise, this becomes certainly a far more ludic activity than we traditionally seek in the serious business of thinking about the unthinkable. Nonetheless, we see it as an excellent way to introduce some difficult high level concepts to audiences which might not otherwise want to engage them. We think the results are far better than the limited appreciation retained after a dry lecture, or a hot but entirely off topic debate over the plausibility of underlying events of a different scenario.

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