This story starts with futurist Patricia Lustig and me thinking about existential threats, while we were discussing our next book project.
Our thinking resulted in a blog for Long Finance’s Pamphleteers series where we suggested that in addition to nuclear war, climate change and other threats, software failures might end the world. We have both been software engineers, so we were able to imagine the end of the world through software failure only all too easily. The blog quickly attracted over a thousand hits.
So once work on the book was underway, I started to investigate what was happening to improve the quality of software and reduce the potential for failures. Software failures could easily bring down crucial infrastructure such as the electrical grid, affecting many other parts of a city or state’s infrastructure, from telecoms to food supply chains.
Scoping the Issue
With this premise in mind, I contacted Professor Ed Steinmueller, an experienced researcher on industrial economics and software policy, based at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex. He offered to work with me on the investigation. I raised the question at the annual meeting of the IT Leaders Forum of the BCS and the Chair, Dr. David Miller, and Professor Jon Hall of the Open University, agreed it was an important topic. So we (Ed and I as co-chairs) asked for volunteers to be part of a Working Group to carry this forward. We attracted 17 people with a wide range of IT-related interests, from legal issues and strategy, to architecture and incident reporting/ disaster recovery. And, Patricia Lustig, Jon Hall and I published a blog explaining the issue, with again over a thousand reads.
The Working Group’s research showed that software failure was not only a problem for the economy and society – comparable to road accidents -- but the trends in technology meant that the likelihood of failure was increasing. Furthermore, at the wider use of software-based services means that more people will be affected now and in the future. We published a report via the BCS website, which outlined the problem and what sort of organizations and perspectives were needed to work together to fix it. Ed Steinmueller and I wrote a Pamphleteer for the Long Finance series about the results, called “Software – the Elephant in the Room.”
We reached out to Lord Toby Harris, Chair of the National Preparedness Commission. He agreed that the Commission would invite people from their network of Commissioners to a jointly run Round Table to be held at BCS premises in central London. The report from the Round Table has appeared on the Commission’s web site, and Toby has also published a blog on the PICTFOR web site – both called “The Elephant in the Room – software.”
Now that we had identified the problem – what to do about it?
During 2023, we spent time in the Working Group trying to refine our aims:
What else was going on?
Where could we have the most effect?
The National Preparedness Commission had published a series of reports on organizational resilience. We decided that we could add value by focusing on the user view. In other words, reducing the number of user hours lost through software failures. Reducing lost hours would contribute to service resilience. We answered a call for views from the UK government on the size and impact of the software failure issue, focusing on the need for greater transparency about failures – a potential area for government action.
Our effort to define what to do culminated in a second Round Table this autumn, with the Business Continuity Institute (BCI) as well as the National Preparedness Commission. The RoundTable report is a joint one – the topic being important to more than “techies.” It will be widely shared and distributed to Policy Makers and CEOs throughout the UK. The BCS and BCI are planning joint training on service resilience, and the development of standards and certification. And the BCS is planning to produce a series of Policy Briefs for government, including on the need for greater transparency around the resilience of services to users.
The Working Group has achieved its Terms of Reference – engaging IT professionals and others to take seriously the issue of the social and economic impact of software failures. We are now closing the Group as there are people with “day jobs” (rather than volunteers) taking forward the issue of the impact of software failure, by improving the resilience of digital services. Their work will be advised by experts who have contributed throughout the two years of the project. There is a network now of people who know each other. And experts in aspects of resilience, software, architecture and security will contribute to further thinking and spreading of the message about the need for improved service resilience.
Often, the greatest challenge of a foresight project is “the last mile,” – persuading leaders to embrace the findings of a foresight project, communicate the need of embracing those insights, and taking action.
Through this process, here’s what we learned, which we offer as advice to other professional futurists who want to see their internal or external client take action on their foresight work.
Lesson 1: Combine talents to produce a stronger and well-defined set of recommendations: in this case an academic with expertise in both IT and economics, combined with a practitioner worked well.
Lesson 2: Focus on outcomes – in this case the impact on UK productivity – meant we avoided many of the rat-holes that bug this topic.
Lesson 3: Build a broad church network -- which requires tenacity -- by following up expressions of interest, creating meaningful interaction, and finding ways to pass on the initiative within and outside this network.
The impact of software failure is an important issue for the resilience of our economy and society. Both Ed Steinmueller and I know that there is much more work to be done to continue to drive improvement in the digital services upon which we increasingly rely, and expect that our colleagues and networks will carry it forward.
About the Author
Gill Ringland was CEO, Director and a Fellow of SAMI Consulting (Strategy with a view of the future) from 2002 to 2017, with clients in the public, private and NGO sector projects globally from Mexico to Malaysia, including the European Commission and UK government centrally and locally. She became an Emeritus Fellow in 2017, has since been a Director of Ethical Reading and is a Trustee of Newbury u3a. She is completing a project with the BCS (was British Computer Society) on the impact of digital systems failure on the economy and society.
Gill’s early career included stints at the University of California, Berkeley and Oxford University. She has been active in seven start-ups and was responsible for building a £3bn new business over four years for computer firm ICL. She wrote Scenario Planning while responsible for strategy at ICL.
She has B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees and is a Life Fellow of the BCS. She is a graduate of Stanford University's Senior Executive Program, an ICL Fellow Emeritus and a Fellow of the World Academy of Art & Science. She is a Liveryman of the City of London. She was co-opted to the UK Science Research Council’s Computing Science Committee, the UK Economic and Social Research Council, and to three separate European Commission High Level Expert Groups on Foresight.
She has over 100 publications and contributes globally to conferences and workshops. Her books on scenario planning and strategy are used at Business Schools including Harvard. Her most recent published book, the 9th, with Patricia Lustig, is New Shoots, published in 2022. She regularly publishes thought pieces and blogs through the BCS, Long Finance and Radix, often with Patricia Lustig, and their next co-authored book is in preparation. She can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org .
References and Notes
 Was the British Computer Society
 Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum of the UK Houses of Parliament