Friday, 26 June 2009

How fragile is our society?

The UK's Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) recently published State of the Nation: Defending Critical Infrastructure. Having seen the press reports I eventually got around to looking at the original. Entertainingly, its publication nearly coincided with the Government's decision to announce (or admit) that it was steeping up its strategy to defend against (or initiate?) cyber-attacks.

It turns out that the BBC's report is a fair summary of the ICE original. The thing that strikes me is that we have 'sleep walked' into a position where so many things are fragile. Here are a few examples:
  • Many homes only have a central heating system that relies on both gas and electricity to work. Remove either in a cold snap and how many will freeze?
  • New supermarkets have almost no storage space. One missed delivery and the shelves will empty.
  • People purchase enough food for a couple of days. They have little or no staples in store - and probably couldn't cook them if they did.
  • The interlinking of support contracts between communications providers which means that two simultaneous failures could be difficult to manage. For example, Virgin Media has outsourced its voice network management contract to BT - while, I understand, offering BT backup circuits for voice communication.
  • Striving for 'efficiency' often means cutting back to the bone - shown in how stretched the NHS is each winter.
Those who work with complex systems will tell you that real failures usually involve many things going wrong at the same time - hence the "Swiss Cheese" safety model. There is one crucial layer missing in the current security systems - security at home.

Interestingly, there are things that the individual can do to reduce the problem - both for themselves and for their neighbours. The first rule is "do not add to the problem". This means that if there is panic buying at the supermarket, you don't want to be there.

Here are some practical suggestions:
  1. Do not rely on any particular service or supply. Do not get rid of that gas fire, or block up that chimney.
  2. Keep a stock of food that will mean that you won't starve if you can't get to the supermarket for a week. If you don't have a cold water tank, include some cheap bottled water - if you do, keep some empty PET bottles to fill up.
  3. Make sure that you have something to cook on (and fuel for it) - if you go camping, you probably have this already.
  4. Be prepared to check on your neighbours, and help them if the need arises.
If we decided to build a truly resilient society, it would be based on distribution of resources and systems. Homes would be responsible for not only reducing their consumption when there were shortages, but in storage when there were surpluses. This can be applied to food, water or energy. Unfortunately, the government is too focused on the short term to find such sensible solutions attractive.

3 comments:

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