Governing Cascade Failures in Complex Social-Ecological-Technological Systems: Framing Context, Strategies, and Challenges

34 Pages Posted: 28 Oct 2019 Last revised: 18 May 2020

See all articles by J. B. Ruhl

J. B. Ruhl

Vanderbilt University - Law School

Date Written: October 18, 2019


Systems fail, and bigger, faster, more powerful and complex systems cause bigger, faster, more powerful and complex failures. Power grid blackouts have long attracted attention to cascade failure in technological systems; the 2008 financial collapse put a spotlight on cascade failure in economic systems; climate change threatens cascade failure in ecological systems triggering cascade failure in human systems; cyber attacks and the sense that social media platforms are out of control are the new cascade failure policy concerns. These are not independent phenomena—they are interdependently embedded in and cascading through large-scale social-ecological-technological systems (SETS). As such, they are not independent governance propositions either; rather, they go to the essence of how policies can build resilience into SETS while balancing the systemic risk that comes with bigger, faster, more powerful and complex systems.

Governing systemic risk to cascade failure in SETS thus is as much a scientific challenge as it is a policy challenge. The science of cascade failures in social, ecological, and technological systems seeks to understand their causes and behavior and is developing metrics and principles for describing systemic risk, failure propagation, and network resilience. Governance institutions can benefit from the techniques and strategies cascade failure science is exploring for modeling, monitoring, event prediction, and event prevention, response, and recovery. Yet these techniques and strategies could present difficult policy choices. How much censoring can governance institutions impose on people and businesses? Should we sacrifice some of the power of social media or the banking system to reduce cascade failure risk? Who decides what is or is not failure, and who decides which populations are islanded from power or communications? This Article is a first step in that direction.

As a step towards developing a governance theory and practice for addressing those questions, this Article frames the context, management strategies, and challenges of governing cascade failures in SETS. Part II provides a background on the current science of cascade failures, which focuses primarily on technological systems such as power grids and the financial systems, describing what is known about them and what remains to be explored and answered (the latter being by far the larger category). Part III contextualizes that background in the domain of SETS governance, outlining possible public and private measures that could extend strategies being developed in the technological applications into social and ecological settings, such as finance, social media, and climate change. Part IV explores the governance challenges of deploying those various strategies in large-scale SETS, particularly given that some strategies, such as walling off vulnerable system components or cutting off connections to block a cascade, can impose serious harm to some parts of a system in order to prevent more widespread harm throughout the system. Lastly, Part V extends the analysis to the special case of cascade failures within ecological systems and the difficulties of managing them through the strategies coming out of cascade failures science. Part VI concludes with some thoughts about the directions of future research on governance of cascade failures, particularly those looming large on the horizon as technology advances.

Keywords: cascade failure, systemic risk, social-ecological-technological systems, complex adaptive systems

Suggested Citation

Ruhl, J. B., Governing Cascade Failures in Complex Social-Ecological-Technological Systems: Framing Context, Strategies, and Challenges (October 18, 2019). 22 Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law 407 (2020), Available at SSRN:

J. B. Ruhl (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States

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