Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It (Review)

Book Review

Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It

Chris Clearfield and Andrȧs Tilcsik

Penguin Press 2018

In my field of global environmental health, one of the great failures of development funding was the drilling of thousands of wells in Bangladesh to reduce water-borne disease, only to belatedly discover that this “solution” introduced a wholly new disaster from arsenic in the groundwater. Thus, as noble-missioned an organization as UNICEF inadvertently perpetrated  “the largest poisoning in history” by not recognizing systematic risk.

This sort of unintended consequence and systematic failure, even by well intentioned actors, is the type of problem that Chris Clearfield and Andrȧs Tilcsik aim to prevent through better system design in their award-winning book, Meltdown: Why Our systems Fail and What We Can Do About It.

The book starts off with a litany of system failures across industries and scales, from airplanes and nuclear power plants, to Starbucks coffee and cooking our Thanksgiving meal. In our modern world, as both systems and problems become more complex and more intertwined (“coupled”), the possibility and scope of disaster grows.

Fortunately for us, the majority of Meltdown is oriented towards solutions that are relevant from our own kitchen all the way to a war room in prevention problems from becoming disasters. Chris and Andrȧs offer specific, actionable advice and tools to improve our systems for reducing disaster.

Meltdown is an excellent book for anyone curious about making lives, communities, and the world more resilient. The stories are relevant, authentic, and engaging, and lead directly to lessons worth trying out in our own organizations and systems. In world that at times can feel like it is replete with disaster Chris and Andrȧs remind us that we can take small steps in any place to improve the robustness of our systems to stop meltdowns of the large and small.