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The Future of the Future
Getting serious about economic resilience

This article appears in the issue April 2011 [Volume 20, Issue 4]
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Noon. You’re wrapping up your third Skype video chat for the day and ready to break for lunch, which has just arrived. It’s like a corporate “meals on wheels” tailored to help you lose those extra 15 pounds you’ve been carrying around. You carefully open the box as steam pours through the cracks.

While your chicken teriyaki cools down, you follow up on the last conference call by creating yet another shared workspace, using one of the many free cloud services that seem to crop up almost daily. You check out a document to review, and post a question to the discussion board.

Your workflow tool alerts you to several invoices that need to be approved. A few mouse clicks initiate the electronic funds transfer process. Your financial statements are immediately updated, and your business analytics software shows a positive trend in the making. You’re doing all this from your balcony overlooking the harbor. You are operating as a true enterprise of the future. Life is good.

12:05 p.m. A small vial containing anthrax spores slips through customs undetected, the contents of which are released into the air in the airport lounge. People are oblivious to the danger as they, serving as carriers, board hundreds of outbound taxis and connecting flights.

5 p.m. In the middle of rush hour, a few explosives placed strategically under a bridge along a major coastal rail corridor go off as a freight train passes over.

7 p.m. Just as the news agencies begin to pick up on the possibility that a coordinated strike may be underway, a denial-of-service cyber attack is launched slowing Internet communications to a crawl, including confirmation of your electronic funds transfer.

Days turn into weeks as the real impact of the disruption sets in. Emergency executive orders are dusted off and activated, enacting mandatory quarantine and isolation measures. Freeways are empty. Little is moving as roadblocks are set up, and fuel is tightly rationed. Freight sits in rail yards while repairs are made to the damaged bridge, as few alternative routes exist. Internet service is restored but is under strict controls, and usage is limited. Bank withdrawals are severely restricted as the possibility of collapse of the entire financial system looms large.

Weeks turn into months. You look back. You’ve done everything right. Your cloud provider has backup systems overseas which, although not nearly as fast as before, still allow you to access your corporate data. You’ve even had enough pre-packaged food and drinking water to get you through to this point, as things have finally started returning to normal. But if your business is resilient and your customers and suppliers aren’t, you’re out of business anyway. That’s where economic resilience comes in.

An electronic house of cards

We’ve frequently observed that the global knowledge economy is creating massive interconnections and consequently, massive interdependencies. There’s no such thing as a supply chain anymore—it’s a supply web.

The good news is with its multiple paths and redundancies, a web can be extremely resilient. By the same token, it can also be highly vulnerable. Some of the critical services we depend on almost daily include: communications; utilities; security and law enforcement; emergency services; critical care; transportation and logistics, including distribution of food, fuel, medicines and other essentials. And don’t forget those electronic funds you thought were there, but you won’t really know until you can get to a working ATM or financial institution website. None of those sectors operate in isolation. They need each other. As a result, the whole thing can come crashing down in an instant as soon as some unknown tipping point is reached.

If you like horror fiction, believe me, you can get just as many chills and more by reading about the real thing. Volumes of doomsday scenarios and emergency procedures are already in place. The publicly available New York State Public Health Legal Manual: A Guide for Judges, Attorneys, and Public Health Professionals is one example. But as frightening as it is, at least give New York credit for examining the law in depth, thinking through the various response options, and inviting review and comment—ahead of time.

Herein is where our hope lies. An unrelenting focus on knowledge can be our best defense against such disasters. Planning, preparation, surveillance, response and recovery are all knowledge-intensive activities. That means we can have much of the necessary plans and connections already in place. But when all heck breaks loose, we will still need every bit of our collective brainpower engaged so we can make rational sense-and-respond adjustments in real time as conditions deteriorate.

Steps to take

We have no lack of experience and lessons-learned to draw from. We’ve already seen the consequences resulting from both natural and manmade disasters, which can range anywhere from total chaos to complete immobilization. And we have no lack of resources to draw from to come up with innovative solutions for the inevitable surprises headed our way.

Let’s start preparing now. It’s important to note that we can’t depend solely on the government, especially given current budgetary problems at the federal, state and local levels. This has to be a real public-private partnership.

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