Brittle New World

It is commonplace to observe that we live in an “ever more connected” world, but are we reaching a point where we are exposed to serious risks by being over-connected?

The history of human progress illustrates how many of our greatest breakthroughs have been through advances in communication and the desire to link up, whether as individuals or organisations. From printing to the telegraph, to flying and the ability to transmit data around the globe in a flash – all have advanced trade, wealth and a general feeling of progress. But now we seem to be on the cusp of a myriad of technologies that will massively increase our connectivity, and also with the potential for serious risks if not disasters.

In little more than 30 years the internet has grown from a small exclusive network to an all pervading channel for much of our lives. For the first time in human history we can now connect to a vast global network – already half the world’s population is on the net, and this will only increase. At first this connectivity brought the usual risks associated with communication; operational failures, exposure to potential fraud and the need to invest heavily in new technology, business systems and knowledgable staff. But now the risk profile has subtly changed, the network itself, whilst a carrier of great efficiency and potential wealth, is also a risk itself.

The simple diagram below shows the danger of “over-connectivity”. Here we can see as connections increase in a network, it becomes more resilient (moving from randomness to organisation) however diminishing marginal returns eventually kick in and the network becomes stressed, brittle and ultimately prone to complete collapse. We can think of this a bit like have too many dominoes to closely together – so if one domino should fall?

complex

For those involved in risk taking and decision making, the study of Complex Systems science is going to be an important element in understanding and mitigating these future risks. Complexity looks at networks and their agents and crucially seeks to understand the flows around the network and how small changes can have very large effects. Many of our new business networks whether electronic systems, management systems or actual infrastructure (eg power supply) are now at risk of moving from stable resilience to being stressed and vulnerable. Whether it be risks of an “electronic hurricane” from cyber attacks or the unthinking connections being rolled out in the “Internet of Things” we need to be aware of the consequences.

So what to do?

Policymakers, military planners, business people and individuals need to have a much clearer idea of networks and their inherent weaknesses, and their own exposures to networks that might be overly connected or overly optimised. Far too many organisations have no deep understanding of their own networks let alone those of others to which they are exposed. This is particularly true where firms have merged and there is no end to end complete analysis of the business. Network resilience testing should be the core of operational risk management and using the new analysis techniques that are coming from biology and physics via Complex Systems science.

Sensible mediation can be pretty straightforward, It really is a case of building in gaps and circuit breakers into any system…these come however with a cost (in both monetary and short term efficiency terms) but are essential to avoid heightened vulnerabilities. Whether we are planning large complex networks or happily hooking up our fridge to the net this whole area of network resilience  is becoming of vital importance.

Suggested Further Reading

The Tangled World: Understanding Human Connections, Networks and Complexity   Gerald Ashley & Terry Lloyd     Harriman House 2011

Positive Linking: How Networks Can Revolutionise the World   Paul Ormerod Faber & Faber 2013

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