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Achieving resilience in an increasingly digital world

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 19 Jul 2022

Embracing rather than avoiding digital technologies is the key to digital resilience in the face of uncertainty, finds a report from Resilience First. Ian Pay, ICAEW Head of Data Analytics and Tech, explains what that means in practice.

Recent world events have highlighted the importance of resilience; the inner strength to weather any storms, and to adapt and recover quickly. As the digital world continues to advance at pace, digital resilience – the ability to embrace rather than avoid new technologies – is also growing in importance.

Already in the late 2010s, the UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS) established a Digital Resilience Working Group, having recognised that it is neither possible nor desirable to shield people entirely from the risks associated with digital technologies. “Learning how to recognise and manage risk, learn from difficult experiences, recover and stay well, is a vital part of individual development and agency,” it says.

In May this year, a report published by business network Resilience First – Digital Resilience – written in collaboration with Accenture and Cranfield University, explores the question, further focusing on three major areas of technology development: artificial intelligence (AI), quantum technology and cloud computing. 

While the evolution of these technologies presents huge challenges for society, they also bring huge opportunities, the report says. Each technology in isolation has potential, but in combination the prospects are almost limitless. And as their use becomes more widespread, so too do they become more accessible. 

Used effectively, they could raise global income levels and improve quality of life, but we also must be open to the risk of reducing our resilience through over-reliance. Digital resilience must therefore be at the heart of business decisions on the implementation of technology. 

Professor Brian Collins, Emeritus Professor at UCL, says: “It is important that our populations are better educated and capable in the exploitation of these technologies to help ensure that society becomes more resilient in the face of more extreme events and unexpected circumstances.”

Artificial intelligence

While society increasingly relies on AI, the scope and growth of the technology continues to astound many. With this comes a natural fear that our reliance on AI impacts the resilience of organisations and risks a two-tier society, whereby smaller businesses and developing countries cannot afford the costs of implementing AI at scale. 

Professor Weisi Guo of Cranfield University notes that global AI investment has increased fivefold between 2015 and 2020, from $12.75bn to $67.75bn. But while healthcare, manufacturing and financial services benefit, more traditional industries such as farming need greater engagement between AI and industry experts in order to build their resilience in the use of AI. 

There are other resilience challenges too, around the oft-cited concern that AI systems become gamified or start to make decisions that are contrary to the benefit of the population they serve. This ties into issues of trust, which can also undermine resilience. While depictions of AI “taking over the world” may just be science fiction, such perceptions are hard to shift. 

Nonetheless, the opportunities AI presents are clear, such as identifying potential issues before they occur, or detecting fraud by analysing patterns of behaviour that deliver new perspectives via a wider range of attributes. AI can improve the resilience of organisations when faced with threats to business continuity.

Quantum technology

While traditional computing utilises switches that exist in either an “on” or “off” state, quantum computing uses switches that can exist in both states simultaneously. This exponentially improves the computational power of systems and can benefit resilience in many ways. For example, quantum computers can be used to develop sophisticated models. 

Carl Dukatz, Global Lead on Quantum at Accenture, explains that for supply management quantum computing can be used to model patterns, identify critical bottlenecks and optimise the supply chain. Users can “simulate chaotic systems and make more precise predictions about what may occur”. 

Quantum-based sensors also offer significant performance improvements, supporting resilience when faced with risks from natural disasters, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or even pandemic viruses. Meanwhile, research suggests that quantum-powered anomaly detection in cyber security can identify threats with near 100% accuracy.

With such computing power also comes significant resilience risks, most notably around security. The theoretical capability of quantum computing suggests that current industry standards for encryption will be redundant by the end of this decade, which would pose significant risks to businesses. However, while quantum-safe cryptography will be required, the technology also can inherently support such solutions.

Cloud computing

Cloud technologies have been growing in popularity as organisations move away from desktop and server-room based solutions towards more remote technology ecosystems. The flexibility and agility that cloud computing offers is at the heart of its ability to support greater digital resilience. 

Inherited resilience is achieved by being able to draw on a shared pool of computing resources, which distributes the computational workload across a network rather than relying on a single device. This also is key to mitigating against the risk of failure – if one node goes down, another picks up the slack. If something happens that means a business rapidly requires more computing resources, these can be accessed at the touch of a button.

Different organisations are at very different stages of their cloud journey, which poses a resilience risk. Many are nervous about the risk that cloud service providers fail to deliver. However, as the Digital Resilience report notes, without cloud the customer is wholly responsible for the resilience of their systems, which places significant pressure on their internal infrastructure and the teams that manage it. 

Cloud computing – if managed correctly – effectively distributes that risk, so while there are now more potential points of failure, the likelihood that any one of them can take down an entire business is substantially reduced. That requires good contract management, having clear SLAs, continuity management and financial liability in place, with cloud service providers central to the resilience of systems.

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