The Oil Spill and the Edge of Chaos…

Yesterday, I talked about the BP oil spill and the relationships between the parties involved from a complexity point of view.   Another interesting notion that applies to the spill is the concept of the  “edge of chaos”.  

We will all agree that the oil production and exploration field is a complex system.  This system evolves over time, as technology advances, as drilling goes deeper, as the price of oil fluctuates (based on supply and demand), and as the regulatory environment responds.   The behavior of this system can be characterized as adaptive (see Wikipedia for detailed information – although I do not agree with many of the assertions made there).  In adaptive systems, participants are referred to as “agents”  interacting with one another.  Transocean and BP are agents, and the stubborn oil field spewing under the sea is another.

Complex adaptive systems (CAS) evolve along a path, or multidimensional surface.  Where the system goes may not be predictable, because each agent is pursuing a behavior that has not, or cannot, be totally modeled because our lack of knowledge, incapacity to model or randomness.  For instance, the behavior of the oil well as it was capped could not be modeled and therefore was not anticipated.  Why is that?    Each agent seeks to “influence” system behavior through their own behavior and reaction.  BP, it is alleged, sought to maximize profit and accelerate the project by short-cutting safety.   This created the potential for instability by increasing the probability of accidents, and brought the system as a whole closer to the  “edge of chaos”.

Agents seek to push the system from areas where it is safe and predictable (but costly) to this edge of chaos where the system best performs.   Over the edge, the system is thrown into a chaotic and unpredictable state.   The signs of this chaotic boundary at the oil well were there: failed tests, forewarning incidents, which altogether should have warned BP and their partners that they we were stepping into dangerous territory.  Now we are left with a very unpredictable situation, not knowing if this top-kill procedure will work… until hopefully, soon, we can jump over this edge of chaos, and get the system back on safer grounds.

See the live oil well cam here

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