When society breaks down: how do we respond?

Consider this: internet is down. Power is out. And the water in the tap is no longer safe to drink. The stores are basically out of groceries. And the banking sector is not working. No mobile payments. No credit cards accepted. And no ATM’s are working. Scenarios like this may be dystopia but are perhaps less far-fetched today than a few years ago. Some recent reports hinting of this have come out of the Ukrainian conflict as well as more recent events of cyber attacks targeting the utility sectors in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. There is no other way to put it than this: we are as a society vulnerable.

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When social functions break down, a failure of businesses and organizations to provide basic services make the situation even more difficult ot cope with from the individual to the government level.

Sweden is taking steps to increase the population’s preparedness for a major crisis, up to and including invasion by a foreign power. Norwegian authorities are planning a similar move. This type of communication was common during the cold war but feels chilling today. We are no longer used to thinking about disasters that target society at this scale.

A major conflict today would for sure include cyber domain operations, and most likely not only for information gathering. Availability of key services would be hit, and this could lead to power outages, water supply failure and payment system collapse. How do we cope in this situation?

Most people are not prepared for the “usual channels” to be unavailable. Most organizations are unprepared for disasters like this. This further exacerbates the challenges individuals would be faced with in the event of a crisis, because many businesses are essential for providing services and goods. When these businesses cannot deliver, it means power is unavailable, hospitals close, food is not available in the store and the fancy autonomous public transport systems grind to a halt.

Because of this, it is a civic duty for businesses to plan not only for a rainy day, but for long-term hurricane conditions. When the economy fails to produce the services and goods people depend on, we all suffer. Here are five bullet points for building resilience from the individual level, to our workplaces, and to society as a whole.

  1. Do like the Swedes: keep an emergency supply of food, water, and other necessities at home. Have a plan for how to act in the case of a crisis.
  2. At the workplace, do not stop at a risk assessment for “normal operations”. Identify business continuity challenges, and abnormal situations that can occur, including natural disasters, nationwide cyber attacks, terror attacks and a state of war. What services should the organization be able of supplying under such conditions? How can a plan be put in place to be able of doing so?
  3. Planning is smart, but without training its value is very limited. This is why businesses run stress tests, table-top exercises, red-team simulations and the like. We do, however, focus on risks under “normal conditions”. Have you tested your business continuity handling plan the same way? You probably should. Exercise emergency response with no network access, with phone lines down and your staff dispersed.
  4. Do not get paranoid, but also do not be afraid to mention what people typically would see as “black swans”. Only by acknowledging that disasters do happen, we can prepare to restore functionality to the level we have defined necessary.
  5. Engage in conversations and organizations that keep you on top of societal risks, and how you can contribute. Contributing to the security of society as a whole is the essence of social corporate responsibility.

If we keep contributing during a crisis, we will increase our collective ability to handle adversity. This is why business continuity needs to be part of our thinking around social corporate responsibility.


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