The Digital Agency for International Development

The Rise of Digital Resilience

By Alan Jackson on 29 January 2011

What I really mean is "ICT Resilience" but that doesn't sound as memorable.

I've been wanting to write some thoughts about Digital Resilience for a while and reading Janet Gunter's blog post about Mobile Blackouts and the Poor has prompted me into finally doing it.

I think we're going to see the subject of Digital Resilience rising in our consciousness over the coming years... at least we should. What do I mean by it? We regularly allow ourselves to rely on information and communication technologies but these tools can be  fragile and have many modes of failure. Often this fragility is not taken into account. I see this all the time.

Here's a typically example. I'm on the phone to a friend organising an evening out. How many times have I heard the phrase "I'll call you when I get to town"? This relies on us both having signal, on our batteries not running out and on our phones not breaking, being lost or stolen. Modern "smart" phones eat through their batteries at a tremendous rate and sometimes crash or reboot so these failure scenarios are not that unusual. If any of the things that our phones rely upon fail what is our back-up plan? Are we going to wander around the city, aimlessly, hoping to bump in to each other? Or go home?

A failed night out is not the end of the world. The point I'm wanting to make is that most of the time people seem oblivious to the failure modes of the technology they use or the need for back-up plans. And yet when you're in the habit of considering technological risks it becomes second nature, like finishing a sentence with a full-stop .

So when I hear "I'll call you when I get to town" I usually can't help myself say "And if I don't hear from you, I'll meet you at the station..."

The situation gets a little more serious in a business context. Take the example of a conference call. Scheduling a call between several people can take a lot of planning trying to find a time when everyone is free. If this time-slot is missed it can represent a significant opportunity cost to the organisations involved. The duration of the call itself represents a cost when you consider the time of the people involved. There is growing use of Skype for conference calls in the professional community. Sometimes Skype works very well but in my experience it frequently doesn't work at all. Many times I have been asked to participate in a Skype conference call with no back-up even when many of the participants are in developing countries. When the Skype call fails much time is wasted, sometimes several participants are excluded and sometimes the call is abandoned all together. My automatic response to a Skype invitation is usually to send round the number of a phone conference service just in case.

OK, failed conference calls are still not the end of the world. For someone poor or vulnerable a technology failure could be much worse. At the recent ICTD2010 conference I was very interested to hear for the first time a few people talking about vulnerabilities to the poor caused by reliance on ICTs. For years the ICT4D community has been promoting the use of ICTs in poverty reduction. There has been a fair amount of work in adapting technologies for harsh environments. However these technologies still have failure modes and it was very encouraging to hear the resulting vulnerabilities being discussed.

Digital resilience is less about building robust technologies and more about building an understanding of its failure... and the habit of back-up plans.

Jan. 29, 2011, 3:37 p.m. - Janet Gunter

Thanks for this Alan. Amazing how world events have us making linkages between our personal experience and that in so many other contexts. As for “vulnerabilities to the poor caused by reliance on ICTs” – I would say that microentrepreneurs, underemployed people and people existing in “informal”, local economies, are in fact extremely agile and used to having to work-around failures in services. This is not to romanticize things, or say that these blackouts or sudden failures in services cannot have devastating consequences, as I mention in the post. Are there any papers or abstracts from the ICT4D2010 conference you can share?