Inderscience Publishers

Catastrophic failure in complex socio-technical systems

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This paper reviews the sequences leading to catastrophic failures in complex socio-technical systems. It traces some of the elements of an analytic framework to that proposed by Beer in Decision and Control, first published in 1966, and argues that these ideas are centrally relevant to a topic on which research interest has developed subsequently, the study of crises, catastrophes and disasters in complex socio-technical systems in high technology sectors. But while the system perspective is central, it is not by itself entirely adequate. The problems discussed cannot be discussed simply in terms of system parameters like variety, redundancy and complexity. Much empirical research supports the view that these systems typically operate in degraded mode. The degradations may be primarily initiated within the social components of the socio-technical system. Such variables as hierarchical position, actors' motivations and intentions are relevant to explain the ways in which communication systems typically operate to filter out messages from lower participants and to ignore the 'soft signals' issuing from small-scale and intermittent malfunctions.

Keywords: complexity, failure sequences, redundancy, risk, slack, socio-technical systems, vulnerability, communication systems, catastophic failures, system failure, human factors

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