A Flood of Complexity

Flooded Expressway

Flooded Expressway

Yesterday Toronto was hit with a massive rainstorm that dumped more than 120mm of rain on parts of the city within the span of five hours knocking out power to more than 300,000 people, stranding thousands more, and even prompting a rescue of hundreds trapped on a commuter train out of the city by the police marine unit. Yes, a train rescued by officials in boats.

For those commuting in cars they were almost like boats as the video above demonstrates.

To put this into perspective, when Hurricane Hazel hit the city in 1954 – a storm that killed 80 people and left thousands more homeless — it dropped just over 100mm of rain in 12 hours. This is the second time in a little more than a year that a massive surge of rain has flooded widespread parts of this city, the fourth largest in North America, in the Great Lakes Region of the continent.

Less than three weeks ago Calgary’s downtown was submerged by unprecedented flooding caused by combinations of high-levels of melting snow, a full water table, and more-than-usual spring precipitation. The Southern Alberta (and ironically named) town of High River is still largely under water. This part of Canada is grassland and largely dry, home to cattle ranches and some light agriculture. It is not a flood plain and this is not a normal occurrence, at least not at this level.

Earlier this year we witnessed Hurricane Sandy overwhelm New York City and the east coast of the United States and Canada.

New York City Flooding

New York City Flooding

Climate change is shifting weather patterns and making these extreme storms, floods, and other events more likely. It also will expand the consequences of these storms like rats moving to higher ground in cities like New York and Toronto. What are the health implications of this?

Transit plans are changing and the impact on insurance rates (if insurance will be offered at all) may be enormous. In Calgary, there is speculation that it could take a decade to fully recover from what happened.

Entire cities might even disappear altogether. Reporting in the latest Rolling Stone magazine, Jeff Goodell explores the very likely scenario that the city of Miami will disappear within the next century and be virtually unliveable within decades. Using a bit of foresight scenario development, Goodell begins the article with a hypothetical description of Hurricane Milo in 2030 that provides a chilling possibility based on the current threat assessment.

All of these scenarios point to increasing complexity in not just weather patterns, but the human systems that work to respond to and prepare for such weather systems. Speaking on CBC’s Metro Morning radio program, Peter Halsall from the Canadian Urban Institute points to the need for us to see things as interconnected — basically as systems – if we are to develop the appropriate policy response to deal with the treatment and prevention of excess damage caused by the kind of storm we had in Toronto last night.

Without linking issues like infrastructure, weather, housing and social policy together there is little sense that people will act to prevent problems before they occur or address the problems that form in ways that account for their complex nature and structure.

Seeing systems is critical. Acting through foresight methods, system dynamic models, and complexity-oriented scenario planning exercises are ways to prepare for the uncertainties that come with floods like we’ve seen or other storm-related phenomena. This means more than planning for the things you can see, but those things you can barely conceive of. Using creativity-based scenario plans allows us to envision futures that might seem outlandish at the extreme, but pulled back a little can yield insight when real extreme events occur.

Using foresight methods and complexity allows us to design for emergence (PDF), rather than design systems for what is expected and usually happens, because those days might be fewer and farther between. Using systems approaches to planning and responding allows us to take account for the interconnections between things, simultaneously allotting cognitive energy to contemplate flooded transit lines, insurance payouts, rat infestations, and backed-up sewers as a system and not independent events. While not easy and certainly complex, this kind of approach allows us to treat problems as systems and not falsely act on parts while ignoring the whole.

The usual is likely to be unusual in an age of complexity and it is becoming time to embrace that lest we literally and figuratively drown in the flood of changes to come.

Photos: @FirstNewsGTA ,  National Geographic Photoblog

2 Comments on “A Flood of Complexity

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