On Resilience ...

Problems are extracted from messes by analysis

"Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are extracted from messes by analysis." (Russell Ackoff)

We have, over the last two years, confronted our lack of societal resilience. The last few weeks, with challenges in food and energy supply, have again brought this to the fore. There has been ample comment on each of these issues and I will not, you should be pleased to hear, add to it. Rather, I would like to stand back and suggest we need a different approach to thinking about resilience. I apologise that this is, necessarily, a somewhat technical discussion (prof serious, after all).

My starting point is that we are not going to retreat from our complex, global, digitally-enabled, highly optimised, just-in-time, supply chains. These generally serve us well. The idea that we can increase resilience by localising key supplies, adopting a different approach to the economics of trade, eschewing technology, or that we will, in general, be willing, across the board, to pay for greater resilience, is, frankly a chimera. Similarly, seeking solely to protect a narrow set of critical national infrastructure resources, facilities or services, will not in itself assure resilience.

The alternative approach is then, as follows: that we orient to 'systems resilience'. Rather than looking for specific vulnerabilities, we seek to map out the networks and relationships upon which critical national outcomes depend.

To illustrate this imagine a regional transport hub, perhaps a port. We can harden the perimeter, protect the specific software systems on which it depends and develop the managerial capacity to deal with incidents and emergencies. None of this effort would be wasted. But, as we know, the operation of the hub depends on a large range of other services, fuel, catering, contract security, cleaning, parking, road transport, supply of parts for maintenance and more distantly on local schools and supermarkets, health services, borders and policing, data services, telecommunications, and so on and so forth. The hub is embedded, may be a critical node, in complex UK, or possibly global, supply chains. It should be clear that the overall risk to the UK from the failure of the hub arises in the largest part from systems failure relating to these dependencies.

It will be necessary to build a comprehensive data-informed 'intelligence' picture of the state of these networks and the risks to which they are subject. We will need to look at the networks structurally, seeking out pinch points, fragilities and assess the integrity of the network. We must simultaneously build and - this is important - maintain, a dynamic 'model' looking for the ways the networks behave (cascades, feedback loops, and so on), and their susceptibility to disruption. We can then use these models to predict and mitigate. Clearly, this is a demanding task and one that will need co-development with industry, local government and beyond.

Systems resilience is not simply a conceptually different approach. It has practical implications for how we manage national risks and organise protection. The understanding that this approach generates might still lead you to decide that you need to develop sovereign supply in a particular critical component, or that exposure to an unreliable supplier is unacceptably high. But this ‘systems understanding’ will be a far better basis for drawing such conclusions than the case-by-case analysis that we currently attempt. It entails stepping away from a simplistic management model of risk management and moves the national risk register from a static and reactive tool to a proactive national resilience capability.

[Credit: Claire H again!]