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.