Managing Surprise Overview

Managing Surprise

Despite best practices for robust design, military and civilian infrastructure remains vulnerable to natural disasters, extreme weather, and hybrid attacks. In the military, the standard planning, engineering, construction, and operations guidance exemplified by the Whole Building Design Guide (WBDG) Unified Facilities Guide Specifications (UFGS) promote high-performance, high-reliability support for military missions with critical services (e.g., energy, mobility, and water). Civilian infrastructure designers and operators follow similar best-practices and standard approaches to hardening built systems. However, acute impacts of natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, and fires pose a constant threat to military and civilian infrastructure. In both cases, current guidance documents are predicated on decades of prior experience without consideration of the increasing severity and frequency of natural disasters. Consequently, they fail to address the non-stationarity of these threats (Kim el al. 2019, Markolf et al. 2018), partly because the essential tension between performance and adaptation requires a new theory of resilience to complement existing theories of risk (Park et al. 2013, Thekdi and Aven 2019). Perhaps even more dangerous are the new vulnerabilities to enemy exploits and attacks that the long-term climate variability and changes may introduce. Pacific and Arctic regions are of particular concern as national defense and force projection is made possible only by a network of isolated installations vulnerable to sea level rise, arctic ice melting, and warming temperatures.
We refer to extreme events broadly as surprises, and we treat infrastructure resilience as a capacity to adapt to surprise.

What is Surprise?

Surprise is something that is commonly understood as an event that contradicts expectation and may result in shock. There is considerable literature on the role of surprise in military history and national security (e.g., Lanir 1986). For example, surprise attacks on US and Allied forces have overwhelmed military systems and led to significant damages that resulted from the inability to stage an effective response. Recently, CID experts were some of the first to link military history on surprise attacks with work by systems scientists studying resilience (e.g., Woods et al. 1994, Wears and Webb 2014) to elucidate the characteristics of surprise events in infrastructure operations (Eisenberg et al. 2019). One key finding is that there are at least three different types of surprise-related events that challenge infrastructure provision driven from man-made and natural phenomena:
  • Normal variation: variability in events that fall within the general expectation for normal operation, e.g., hotter, wetter, colder, and otherwise more extreme weather captured in established climate models (Kim el al. 2019, Markolf et al. 2018).

  • Situational surprise: an event that falls outside of normal expectation (extreme or rare), but are still compatible with previous beliefs, e.g., a major hurricane or flood driven by uncertain climate variability and non-stationarity (Clark et al. 2019, Kim et al. 2019).

  • Fundamental surprise: an event that refutes basic beliefs about "how things work" and requires a re-framing on the part of the stakeholders, e.g., Hurricanes Irma and Maria (Alderson et al. 2018), Hurricane Dorian (Klare 2020), the Australian Brush Fires (Wired 2020).

If infrastructure managers had to consider normal variation in climate-related events, then existing risk-based approaches might be sufficient. However, as climate conditions change, military installations, communities, their supporting infrastructure systems, and the organizations that manage them will experience more situational and fundamental surprises across both acute and chronic temporal scales. As noted by Woods (2019), "Responding to surprise requires preparatory investments that provide the potential for future adaptive action".  Thus, surprise itself is not bad if we are prepared to respond. But surprise in the absence of adaptive capacity can be catastrophic. Being "poised to adapt" in this manner is the essence of modern notions of resilience (Hollnagel et al. 2006, Woods 2015, Woods 2018). Therefore, the success of our military and civilian infrastructure systems will depend ultimately on their ability to adapt in the presence of surprising events.
While best practices for infrastructure planning and operation currently follow principles of reliability and risk, these are—by necessity—based on knowledge of past events. Yet, as indicated above we know that the past is not representative of the future, and therefore these tools are not suited to adapt infrastructure to dramatic change and/or future surprising events. Thus, existing management systems are commonly structured to maintain efficiency and reliability, at the expense of adaptability.  Moreover, because testing and experimentation at whole system scales is disruptive and expensive, operators, commanders, and users lack knowledge of the sources of adaptive capacity.  As a result, military installations are often ill-prepared to handle surprise events.
Taken together, there is a need for new theory and novel tools to help us:
  1. understand surprise in infrastructure systems that challenge military missions and communities;

  2. conduct experiments to assess the adaptive capacity of infrastructure, including the people and organizations that manage them; and

  3. create experiential learning opportunities for infrastructure operators, managers, and stakeholders to  build adaptive capacity in the presence of surprise.

Further Reading

By members of the CID:
  • Blog: Don't Design for Threats, Design for Surprise (link:

  • Research Article: Rethinking Resilience Analytics (link:

  • Research Article: Kim Y, Chester MV, Eisenberg DA, and Redman CL, 2019, "The Infrastructure Trolley Problem: Positioning Safe‐to‐fail Infrastructure for Climate Change Adaptation." Earth's Future.

  • Technical Report: Alderson, D.L., Bunn, B.B., Eisenberg, D.A., Howard, A.R., Nussbaum, D.A. and Templeton, J., 2018. Interdependent Infrastructure Resilience in the US Virgin Islands: Preliminary Assessment. Naval Postgraduate School Technical Report NPS-OR-18-005.

Related References:
  • Clark SS, Chester MV, Seager TP, Eisenberg DA, 2019, "The vulnerability of interdependent urban infrastructure systems to climate change: could Phoenix experience a Katrina of extreme heat?." Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure 4(1): 21-35.

  • Hollnagel E, Woods D, & Leveson N (Eds.), 2006. Resilience engineering: Concepts and precepts. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Press.

  • Kim Y, Eisenberg DA, Bondank EN, Chester MV, Mascaro G, and Underwood BS, 2017, "Fail-safe and safe-to-fail adaptation: decision-making for urban flooding under climate change." Climatic Change 145, no. 3-4: 397-412.

  • Klare, M. T.. 2019. All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change. United States: Henry Holt and Company.

  • Lanir Z, 1986. "Fundamental surprise." Eugene, OR: Decision Research.

  • Markolf SA, Chester MV, Eisenberg DA, Iwaniec DM, Davidson CI, Zimmerman R, Miller TR, Ruddell BL, and Chang H, 2018. "Interdependent Infrastructure as Linked Social, Ecological, and Technological Systems (SETSs) to Address Lock‐in and Enhance Resilience." Earth's Future 6, no. 12: 1638-1659.

  • Park J, Seager TP, Rao PSC, Convertino M, and Linkov I, 2013. Integrating risk and resilience approaches to catastrophe management in engineering systems. Risk Analysis, 33(3), pp.356-367. 

  • Thekdi S. and Aven T, 2019. An integrated perspective for balancing performance and risk. Reliability Engineering & System Safety, 190, p.106525.

  • Wears, R.L. and Webb, L.K., 2016. Fundamental on situational surprise: A case study with implications for resilience. In Resilience Engineering in Practice, Volume 2 (pp. 61-74). CRC Press.

  • Wired, 2020 Australia's Bushfires Completely Blasted Through the Models

  • Woods DD, 2015. Four concepts for resilience and the implications for the future of resilience engineering. Reliability Engineering & System Safety, 141:5–9.Woods DD, 2018. The theory of graceful extensibility: basic rules that govern adaptive systems. Environment Systems and Decisions, 38(4):433–457.