Western societies and the systems we depend on to make them function are becoming ever more complex. As a result, they are also becoming more vulnerable to catastrophic, systemic failure. As individuals, communities and societies we may, at the same time, be becoming less able to cope with such events as we lose basic skills, families are more scattered and communities less connected.

What is changing?

The press coverage of the first anniversary of the Japanese Tsunami and the resulting Fukushima nuclear plant disaster coincided with warnings concerning a major solar flare and possible damage to satellites, and therefore interruption to mobile networks and /or GPS systems raises the spectre of systems failure on a grand scale.

The same week also had two other reports in the UK press. One, saying that large numbers of children aged 5 -13 were unable to do a range of basic life skills such as tie a reef knot, climb a tree, put up a tent or read a map. They were however able to use an iPhone/iPad, a DVD player, log on to the internet. The second announcing another hosepipe ban for large swathes of the UK because of a second dry winter and continued high consumption.

Why is this important?

In a word: resilience, being prepared. The ability to withstand, to cope with, to respond to, or bounce back from – before, during and after a high impact event whether major disaster or personal crisis.

The growing interconnectedness and complexity of our technological systems and supply chains are also likely to make major systems failures more rather than less likely.

The co-occurrence of those two news stories is a stark reminder that extreme and unanticipated events do happen.  The growing interconnectedness and complexity of our technological systems and supply chains are also likely to make major systems failures more rather than less likely. Preparing for such events is increasingly important. Companies often spend time focusing on their system failure, backing up information, or buying in emergency power systems. Important thought these are, they need also to look at the softer sides of resilience; the people aspects, the policies and collaboration needed to keep things going, the sense of belonging and shared goals that can create a sense of purpose.

But at the same time as those systems – communications and power in particular, but not exclusively – are more vulnerable, so our societies are also ever more reliant on them for our 24/7 lifestyles, convenience, ready-made food, year round plentiful foodstuffs of every kind we can imagine or want,  centrally heated homes…  the list is endless. That very complexity also means that our ability to mend components within them is also decreasing. Add to that the news about loss of basic skills among younger generations and we may have a bigger problem than we thought. That our ability to cope with major events is falling rather than rising, that we are anything but prepared.

Local responses to the financial crisis and concern about climate change may provide early indicators of the routes to greater preparedness. On a small scale, the community schemes for growing food providing not only skills but local connection; or a London school which is running ‘failure days’ to help pupils recognise that things do go wrong, that failure is part of life and that we can learn from it; that it is critical to problem solving.

But it is also about long term change, the ability to adapt and find alternative solutions, to work together to respond to those challenges and changes on a much larger scale; to be innovative and think differently; to have a sense of direction and objective and the determination to reach them.

The following quote from Howard Lutnick, one of the survivors in Cantor Fitzgerald, the New York trading company, of the Twin Towers attacks, speaking about the remarkable survival and regeneration of the company thanks to their London Office – perhaps says it all, but also indicates not only what is possible, but what may be needed if we do face major systems failures:

“We stood at hell’s doors, and we held the line. It doesn’t matter what you throw at us. [Our people] will hold their line, and I’ll hold mine. It’s much more personal now.”

By Sheila Moorcroft

About the author

Sheila has over 20 years experience helping clients capitalise on change – identifying changes in their business environment, assessing the implications and responding effectively to them. As Research Director at Shaping Tomorrow she has completed many futures projects on topics as diverse as health care, telecommunications, innovation management, and premium products for clients in the public and private sectors. Sheila also writes a weekly Trend Alert to highlight changes that might affect a wide range of organisations.