University of Vermont

University Communications

Big Scale... Big Fail?

TEDxUVM will be streaming live

toppling dominoes
Where and why do big systems fail? TEDxUVM looks for the red dominoes, black swans, and other answers.

Why does the electric power grid usually work -- but then sometimes, suddenly, fail spectacularly?

This question and many others will be taken up as the University of Vermont hosts TEDxUVM, the third TED event to be held on campus since 2010.

This round of short talks, sponsored by UVM’s Complex Systems Center, will be held Friday, Oct. 19 from 2 to 5 p.m.

Registration is now full, but TEDxUVM will be live-streaming at:

In this 2012 TEDxUVM gathering, speakers from across the scientific landscape -- from within UVM and beyond -- will report on the resilience and failure of large-scale complex systems -- including climate, power grids and cryptography.

And they’ll explore our prospects for explanation, prediction and prevention of these toppling domino-style problems.

From complexification to catastrophe?

Large-scale, complex systems enable economies, communication, the distribution of energy, transportation, food production and public health, notes Peter Dodds, director of UVM's Complex Systems Center. They're defined by "continual growth and increasing interconnectedness," he says.

"These systems can be seen as attempting to gain efficiency of scale, to solve problems," he says -- like clean energy for all, or new forms of social communication. "By their very existence," he says, they "demonstrate remarkable robustness."

But this growing complexity can also lead to unexpected catastrophe: "From massive power blackouts to global financial crashes to the collapse of ecosystems, large-scale complex systems have also repeatedly shown an unpredictable fragility," Dodds writes. "What can we learn when looking across these diverse examples? Are these system-level failures universal, few in type, or a collection of special one-of-a-kind disasters?"

Event schedule:

2 - 3:30 p.m.

3:30 - 4 p.m.: Break

4 - 5 p.m.

What is TEDx?

Started as a four-day gathering in California 27 years ago, TED is a non-profit organization devoted to "Ideas Worth Spreading," and TED's presentations and lectures -- with their signature 18-minute time limit -- have become an online sensation.

In the spirit of ideas worth sharing, TED has created TEDx: a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share what the organization calls a "TED-like experience," of brief talks, videos and discussions.

At TEDxUVM, TEDTalks, video and live speakers will combine to spark discussion in a small group. The TED conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but the UVM event is self-organized.

UVM’s independent TEDx event is operated under license from TED.