Such studies need to be carried out, he said, with public policy experts so that the scientific and engineering lessons get translated into effective policies and regulations.
"Typically, systemic failures occur due to fragility in complex systems," Venkatasubramanian said. "Modern technological advances are creating a rapidly increasing number of complex engineered systems, processes and products, which pose considerable challenges in ensuring their proper design, analysis, control, safety and management for successful operation over their life cycles."
The sheer scale and complexity of interactions between elements, including people, in such systems-of-systems make them fragile.
"In particular, the nonlinear interactions among a large number of interdependent components and the environment can lead to what we call 'emergent' behavior," Venkatasubramanian said. "In other words, the behavior of the whole is different than the sum of its parts and can be difficult to anticipate and control. This is further compounded by human errors, equipment failures and dysfunctional interactions among components and subsystems that make systemic risks even more likely if one is not vigilant all the time."
Postmortem investigations have shown that major disasters rarely occur due to a single failure of equipment or personnel. Instead, layers of failures of equipment, systems, processes, regulations and people usually are at fault, he said.
Often, Venkatasubramanian said, the responsibility for an accident rests with the top levels of company management and a poor corporate culture regarding safety.
"Professor Venkatasubramanian's article in AIChE discusses the surprising commonalities of systemic failures that lead to disasters, such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and outlines a role that academic inst
|Contact: Emil Venere|