Lessons from Ukraine for Civil Engineering
A DISCUSSION OFWhat Ukraine Can Teach the World About Resilience and Civil Engineering
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The resilience of Ukraine’s infrastructure in the face of both conventional and cyber warfare, as well as attacks on the knowledge systems that underpin its operations, is no doubt rooted in the country’s history. Ukraine has been living with the prospect of warfare and chaos for over a century. This “normal” appears to have produced an agile and flexible infrastructure system that every day shows impressive capacity to adapt.
In “What Ukraine Can Teach the World About Resilience and Civil Engineering,” Daniel Armanios, Jonas Skovrup Christensen, and Andriy Tymoshenko leverage concepts from sociology to explain how the country is building agility and flexibility into its infrastructure system. They identify key tenets that provide resilience: a shared threat that unites and motivates, informal supply networks, decentralized management, learning from recent crises (namely COVID-19), and modular and distributed systems. Resilience naturally requires coupled social, ecological, and technological systems assessment, recognizing that sustained and expedited adaptation is predicated on complex dynamics that occur within and across these systems. As such, there is much to learn from sociology, but also other disciplines as we unpack what’s at the foundation of these tenets.
Agile and flexible infrastructure systems ultimately produce a repertoire of responses as large as or greater than the variety of conditions produced in their environments. This is known as requisite complexity. Thriving under a shared threat is rooted in the notion that systems can do a lot of innovation at the edge of chaos (complexity theory), if resources including knowledge are available and there is flexibility to reorganize as stability wanes. The informal networks Ukraine has used to source resources exist because formal networks are likely unavailable or unreliable. We often ignore ad hoc networks in stable situations, and even during periods of chaos such as extreme weather events, because the organization is viewed as unable to fail—and therefore too often falls back to its siloed and rigid structures to ineffectively deal with prevailing conditions.
Ukraine didn’t have this luxury. Management and leadership science describe how informal networks are more adept at finding balance than are rigid and siloed organizations. Related, the proposition of decentralized management is akin to imbuing those closest to the chaos, who are better attuned to the specifics of what is unfolding, with greater decisionmaking authority. This is related to the concept of near decomposability (complexity science). This decentralized model works well during periods of instability, but can lead to inefficiencies during stable times. During rebuilding, you may not want decentralization as you try to efficiently use limited resources.
Lastly, modularity and distributed systems are often touted as resilience solutions, and indeed they can have benefits under the right circumstances. However, network science teaches us that decentralized systems shift the nature of the system from one big producer supplying many consumers (vulnerable to attack) to many small producers supplying many consumers (resilient). Distributed systems link decentralized and modular assets together so that greater cognition and functionality are achieved. But caution should be used in moving toward purely decentralized systems for resilience, as there are situations where resilience is more closely realized with centralized configurations.
Fundamentally, as the authors note, Ukraine is showing us how to build and operate infrastructure in rapidly changing and chaotic environments. But it is also important to recognize that infrastructure in regions not facing warfare is likely to experience shifts between chaotic (e.g., extreme weather events, cyberattacks, failure due to aging) and stable conditions. This cycling necessitates being able to pivot infrastructure organizations and their technologies between chaos and non-chaos innovation. The capabilities produced from these innovation sets become the cornerstone for agile and flexible infrastructure to respond at pace and scale to known challenges and perhaps, most importantly, to surprise.
Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Sustainable Engineering
Arizona State University
Coauthor, with Braden Allenby, of The Rightful Place of Science: Infrastructure and the Anthropocene
In their essay, Daniel Armanios, Jonas Skovrup Christensen, and Andriy Tymoshenko provide insightful analysis of the Ukraine conflict and how the Ukrainian people are able to manage the crisis. Their recounting reminds me of an expression frequently used in the US Marines: improvise, adapt, and overcome. Having lived and worked for many years in Ukraine, and having returned for multiple visits since the Russian invasion, leaves me convinced that while the conflict will be long, Ukraine will succeed in the end. The five propositions the authors lay out as the key to success are spot on.
Ukraine’s common goal of bringing its people together (authors’ Proposition 1), along with the Slavic culture and a particular legacy of the Soviet system, combine to form the fundamental core of why the Ukrainian people not only survive but often flourish during times of crisis. Slavic people are, by my observation, tougher and more resilient than the average. Some will call it “grit,” some may call it “stoic”—but make no mistake, a country that has experienced countless invasions, conflicts, famines, and other hardships imbues its people with a special character. It is this character that serves as the cornerstone of their attitude and in the end their response. Unified hard people can endure hard things.
A point to remember is that Ukraine, like most of the former Soviet Union, benefits from a legacy infrastructure based on redundancy and simplicity. This is complementary to the authors’ Proposition 5 (a modular, distributed, and renewable energy infrastructure is more resilient in time of crisis). It was Vladimir Lenin who said, “Communism equals Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” As a consequence, the humblest village in Ukraine has some form of electricity, and given each system’s robust yet simple connection, it is easily repaired when broken. Combine this with distributed generation (be it gensets or wind, solar, or some other type of renewable energy) and you have built-in redundancy.
During Soviet times, everyone needed to develop a “work-around” to source what they sometimes needed or wanted. Waiting for the Soviet state to supply something could take forever, if it ever happened at all. As a consequence, there were microentrepreneurs everywhere who could source, build, or repair just about everything, either for themselves or their neighbors. This system continues to flourish in Ukraine, and the nationalistic sentiment pervading the country makes it easier to recover from infrastructure damages. As the authors point out in Proposition 3, decentralized management allows for a more agile response.
The “lessons learned” from the ongoing conflict, as the authors describe, include, perhaps most importantly, that learning from previous incidents can help develop a viable incident response plan. Such planning, however, should be realistic and focus on the “probable” and not so much on the “possible,” since every situation and plan is resource-constrained to some degree. The weak link in any society is the civilian infrastructure, and failure to ensure redundancy and rapid restoration is not an option. Ukraine is showing the world how it can be accomplished.
Supervisory Board Member