Megan Walters: The significance of property management in managing complex and interconnected risk

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I was at the World Economic Forum in Dalian in China last week on a panel addressing “How Can Businesses and Governments Manage Complex and Interconnected Risks in the Fourth Industrial Revolution?”

Three of our previous industrial revolutions have transformed cities, with electricity providing light and thus safety, while the invention of the elevators has led to soaring buildings and the rise of skyscraper cities. The Fourth Industrial Revolution has also brought changes and risks. So how do we manage risk in buildings? What is a sensible framework for analysing and managing risks in urban environments?

We discussed the importance of good property management in dense urban environments to the risks from data and connected infrastructure systems. One framework for analysing risk is the body of works that examines man-made disasters and incidents, such as the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear accident and the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The works of Barry Turner, Nick Pidgeon and Charles Perrow had also provided an outline to look at situations as either “linear or complex” or “loose or tight”.

For instance, a bakery is a linear and tight system. The order of baking the bread is linear; the timing is tight — there is a specific sequence that needs to be followed. There is no slack in the system, otherwise the bread fails to rise or burns.

In contrast, universities are complex and loose arrangements. A failure in one university department does not usually affect others; it’s a loose confederation of complex parts.  But a nuclear power plant is both complex and tight, as is a space shuttle; the systems are complicated and failure can spread quickly.

To avoid systems failures in complex or tight situations, organisations need to be aware of a build-up of minor errors in systems. An error on its own is not enough to cause system failure but each error is akin to pumping air in a balloon. The size of the disaster depends on the number of errors building up in the system before a trigger bursts the balloon. As a result, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Other panelists raised points that the analysis of sudden and discontinuous failure in physical systems also applies to data infrastructure systems.  The solutions of good management to mitigate risk can be used equally to data management as to property management.  In a world where we discuss digital failure, it was interesting to hear the parallels drawn between urban environments and to be reminded that physical failure is just as risky as digital failure.

It reminded me that our JLL property and facilities management teams are crucial to maintaining the safety and well-being of the people who live and work in buildings we manage. Sudden and discontinuous risk events can occur in any situation, so our property management teams perform an incredibly important job in managing risk in increasing complex mixed-use situations.