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A crisis is defined as the dramatic and rapid change of a system which is the culmination of a complex preparatory stage. Crises have fundamental societal impacts and range from large natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes and tornadoes, landslides, avalanches, lightning strikes, meteorite/asteroid impacts, catastrophic events of environmental degradation, to the failure of engineering structures, crashes in the stock market, social unrest leading to large-scale strikes and upheaval, economic drawdowns on national and global scales, regional power blackouts, traffic gridlock, diseases and epidemics, etc.

The outstanding scientific question is how large-scale patterns of catastrophic nature might evolve from a series of interactions on the smallest and increasingly larger scales, where the rules for the interactions are presumed identifiable and known. For instance, a typical report on an industrial catastrophe describes the unprobable interplay between a succession of events. Each event has a small probability and limited impact in itself. However, their juxtaposition and chaining lead inexorably to the observed losses.

The common denominator to the various examples of crises is that they emerge from a collective process: the repetitive actions of interactive nonlinear influences on many scales lead to a progressive build-up of large-scale correlations and ultimately to the crisis. In such systems, it has been found that the organization of spatial and temporal correlations do not stem, in general, from a nucleation phase diffusing across the system. It results rather from a progressive and more global cooperative process occurring over the whole system by repetitive interactions. An instance would be the many occurrences of simultaneous scientific and technical discoveries signaling the global nature of the maturing process.

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