|Targeted News Service|
The terms "black swan" and "perfect storm" have become part of the public vocabulary for describing disasters ranging from the 2008 meltdown in the financial sector to the terrorist attacks of
Her research (http://engineering.stanford.edu/profile/mep), published in the November issue of the journal Risk Analysis, suggests that other fields could borrow risk analysis strategies from engineering to make better management decisions, even in the case of once-in-a-blue-moon events where statistics are scant, unreliable or non-existent.
Pate-Cornell argues that a true "black swan" - an event that is impossible to imagine because we've known nothing like it in the past - is extremely rare. The AIDS virus is one of very few examples. Usually, there are important clues and warning signs of emerging hazards (e.g., a new flu virus) that can be monitored to guide quick risk management responses.
The attacks of 9/11 were not black swans, she said. The
Similarly, she argues that the risk of a "perfect storm," where multiple forces join to create a disaster greater than the sum of its parts, can be assessed in a systematic way before the event because even though their conjunctions are rare, the events that compose them - and all the myriad events that are dependent on them - have been observed in the past.
"Risk analysis is not about predicting anything before it happens, it's just giving the probability of various scenarios," she said. She argues that systematically exploring those scenarios can help companies and regulators make smarter decisions before an event in the face of uncertainty. Think like an engineer
An engineering risk analyst thinks in terms of systems, their functional components and their dependencies, Pate-Cornell said. For instance, in many plants that require cooling, generators, turbines, water pumps, safety valves and more all contribute to making the system work. Therefore, the analyst must first understand the ways in which the system works as a whole in order to identify how it could fail. The same method applies to medical, financial or ecological systems.
In the case of a nuclear plant, the seismic activity or the potential for tsunamis in the area must be part of the equation, particularly if local earthquakes have historically led to tidal waves and destructive flooding. Pate-Cornell noted that the designers of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant ignored important historical precedents, including earthquakes in 869 and 1611 that generated waves similar to those witnessed in
Pate-Cornell says that a systematic approach is also relevant to human aspects of risk analysis.
"Some argue that in engineering you have hard data about hard systems and hard architectures, but as soon as you involve human beings, you cannot apply the same methods due to the uncertainties of human error. I do not believe this is true," she said.
In fact, Pate-Cornell and her colleagues have long been incorporating "soft" elements into their systems analysis to calculate the probability of human error. They look at all the people with access to the system and factor in any available information about past behaviors, training and skills.