Distributed Systems And Resiliency

“It’s bad planetary management to build large, singular and brittle projects when small, multiple and resilient answers exist and will suffice if employed.”

In the piece quoted above, Alex Steffan is referring to “geoengineering megaprojects” that have been gaining traction as potential solutions for climate change.  It’s an excellent read, and provides much needed guidance on where we need to keep our focus.

But what also strikes me is that this is yet another example of how small-scale, widely distributed solutions are increasingly being recognized as the smartest approach for an impressive variety of systems.

The most prominent local example is the debate over how to replace Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct.  There is a clear choice between large, singular, and brittle: the tunnel; and small, multiple, and resilient:  dispersed traffic across a grid of surface streets.

Other examples include:

  • Management of stormwater runoff with rain barrels, green roofs, and natural drainage located at every building, rather than with giant, centralized detention tanks and treatment plants.
  • Generation of electricity with large numbers of widely distributed, small-scale photovoltaic installations and micro-wind turbines, instead of a small number of remotely located, mega-sized, and enormously complex nuclear power plants.
  • Distribution of digital data using peer-to-peer file sharing across multitudes of individual PCs, instead of relying on a few central servers.  In this case, distributed networks are so resilient that even powerful corporate interests (e.g. the major record labels) have been unable to shut them down.
  • And of course, the most omnipresent example is our free market economy, in which the direction of markets is efficiently determined by millions of individual decisions, rather than by a centralized bureaucracy.

In addition to their demonstrated effectiveness, small-scale distributed systems represent a philosophy well-aligned with the democratic, independent mindset at the core of our culture.  So why, then, are we still so easily enchanted with the “mega-solution”?  Part of the answer is the technological hubris that has built up over the past century.  And part of it is because status-quo interests correctly perceive distributed systems as a threat to their concentrated power.

We best be getting over both of those hang-ups, and quick, because our future is destined to be a place in which we’re going to need every bit of resiliency we can scrape together.

12 Responses to “Distributed Systems And Resiliency”

  1. JoshMahar

    Unfortunately, megaprojects, with insanely large price tags can get a lot of support right now because they supply money and jobs to struggling regional economies.

    If only America was able to rise above “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age”. Hmmm, who was it that said that recently?

  2. Matt the Engineer

    I’ve heard this debate many times, and find it overly simplistic. A large scale power plant is vastly more efficient in materials, labor, transportation, and energy than ten thousand individual generators. But then ten thousand wind turbines have more swept area than a few large turbines (although they lack the height, which is an important factor). Each case has complex factors that determine if a distributed model would even make sense.

    That being said, I’m all for distributed models where they make sense. If nothing else there’s less potential for corruption.

    Why do we have fewer distributed models? Because it’s tough to get right and nobody financially benefits enough to form a lobbying group.

  3. joshuadf

    Peer-to-peer file sharing networks were modeled on the distributed nature of the Internet itself, which was designed in part to be both highly distributed and highly efficient using “packet switching”. One of the benefits of this design not lost on it’s Cold War DoD funders was the Internet’s theoretical ability to continue operating after a catastrophic nuclear attack.

  4. joshuadf

    Oh, and you could probably make good cases for academic publishing as it has existed since the 1600s. The case is quite strong for one of academia’s most interesting modern evolutions: open source software.

  5. phil on qa

    Wouldn’t our current transportation system, based on the privately owned auto/vehicle, be considered a distributed system?

  6. Kathryn

    I SO want the price tag to come down for solar. I also see some real opportunities for cisterns and wet gardens. Living small and local.

  7. Sabina Pade

    I agree with Matt the Engineer. This debate is an overly simplistic one. And I think Team Density does well to keep in mind the considerations of perspective and context, failing which it loses credibility.

    To a commercial driver in the Puget Sound area, I-5 is a shining example of a large, singular and brittle project. Local businesses are entirely justified in wanting to see Highway 99 maintained as a parallel rapid north-south corridor for commercial traffic.

    Generation of electricity on a micro scale seems a providential idea until one realises that it does not obviate the need for a vast electrical grid and that it can at best supplement, not replace our large-scale power plants.

    As highly distributed as our present-day Internet is, it is far from invulnerably resilient. Owing precisely to the Internet’s extensive interconnectedness, a single, well-crafted virus could literally shut it down – along with much of the world’s economy.

    And do any of us, at this point in history, really still believe in the infallibility of an unregulated, free-market system?

  8. serial catowner

    This is the kind of thing that can sound a lot better than it actually is.

    For example, automobiles are distributed transportation, and so is the care and feeding of automobiles. But when the Arabs shut off the oil in the early 70s, suddenly everyone was spending an hour a day buying gas- if they could get it. And as we saw recently, a network of streets may not mean that much, if they’re too snowy to drive or walk on.

    Now consider the rail tunnel under Seattle, opened 105 years ago. Since that time an entire technology- the steam locomotive- has disappeared and been replaced by diesels. The railroads almost ground to a halt in 1917 without government intervention and they almost failed in the 70s with government intervention. Freight cars today are twice as long as they were in 1903, and freight trains are twice as long.

    But for all that time the tunnel has just kept working. In contrast, the system of trucks that takes containers from the ships to the rail cars is a mess.

    In another tunnel example, eastern rail interests began to build a line across southern Pennsylvania in the 1890s. Before completion, they ’struck a deal’ and never finished building the line. The ROW and tunnels, however, were used by the state of Pennsylvania 30 years later to build the Pennsylvania Turnpike- an entirely different kind of technology, except for the grades and tunnels.

    In fact, I understand that the first tunnel built under the Thames in 1850, in London, was so well built that it is still in use today.

    I’m sure we all use redundancy in our daily lives, probably best expressed by the statement that “nothing improves reliability like a second chance”. Resiliency is a little more complicated, and usually needs to be considered in a broader context. The average street, for example, is so resilient compared with the average shoe that it is almost immortal. Run cement trucks over that same street and it breaks up in a few months.

    And I’m guessing that if the 2/3 of the Viaduct traffic that simply bypasses downtown were to drive through it, the resiliency of that street grid might get a little frayed.

  9. JoshMahar

    Sure automobiles are a distributed transportation system, but if it weren’t for the federally funded highway project then they wouldn’t be nearly the only form of transportation used in this country and we wouldn’t be quite as susceptible to peak oil.

  10. dan bertolet

    Sabina @7, why would expect credibility? It’s just some guy’s blog.

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