Why digital systems are not fit for purpose


Digitalisation is in the news. Recent topics include whether Google’s LaMDA system shows sentience[1], and on the legal and other issues raised when robots or AI systems have agency[2], that is make decisions which cannot be checked by humans.

The question we ask here is different. We ask whether digital systems are resilient enough now to be fit for purpose now. Here we define resilience as the ability of a system to deal with operational software or hardware failure in ways that do not destroy or corrupt data and, ideally, preserve some degree of functionality.

The Consortium for Information and Software Quality have estimated the costs of software failure to the US economy. Based on a comparison of the UK economy to the US economy, we estimate that the annual cost to the UK economy of software failure could be about £30 bn. This compares with the cost of road accidents of about £15 bn.

There has also been a flurry of articles on the lack of physical social interaction among children and the rise in mental health issues in children during the same period.[3]

How does this cost manifest itself? It is a cost borne by organisations, the public and private sector, and individuals, rather than the software or hardware supplier. It is manifested in one of three ways which are qualitatively different, for example:

  • Interruptions that cause minutes of disruption such as those that require restarting a programme with few or no effects on data integrity, but inconvenience to the end user.
  • System interruptions that halt operations for hours and that involve significant repair and restoration costs, with costs to the organisation and end user.
  • System collapse that requires substantial rebuilding of data or other system elements or that create substantial harm in other systems – such as power outages on an electrical grid. 

From our own experience, the frequency of disruptions in the first category above appears to be increasing. This could be because organisations that have not historically provided digital services are now doing so. For instance:

  • the NHS – GP’s surgeries and other providers.
  • schools and universities.
  • local government council tax collection.
  • travel ticket purchase.

These, among many others, have shifted to digital provision. This has often been without consideration for access by those without good internet access, a recent phone or computer, and a printer, which is raising many concerns about increasing inequality.

But our concern here is the level of service to those who do have adequate personal IT.

We ask whether interruptions in service of the first category are not insidiously making our lives less convenient, also less productive and less safe? We certainly would not accept from our cars the level of resilience that digital systems currently provide to us.

One example of inconvenience from an interruption in digital service: Microsoft frequently downloads updates to its software.

These are not voluntary: the end user cannot refuse them.

They can take so long to download that line faults on residential phone lines cause them to hang part way through and freeze the end user’s system. The system then needs expert help to unlock. And other upgrades make printers obsolete, by not supporting them.

The number of user hours lost in aggregate surely reaches many thousands. But it is difficult to measure impacts across end users.

The question we asked at the beginning – are digital systems fit for purpose – raises issues of system design and end user support as well as resilience. System design is the province of IT professionals. End user support is often the province of customer service or marketing.

We think that resilience – the ability of digital systems to provide an ongoing service to users – will be of increasing concern to the board and owners of organisations. And to governments, as the economy moves towards recovery.

[1] Susskind, Jamie, Rights of the robots: the new laws we need before AI takes over, Sunday Times, 19 June 2022

[2] Agency is defined as the ability to choose what action to take.

[3] Harford, Tim, The high price society pays for social media, FT Magazine, 18 June 2022.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Gegenbeispiel says

    Good piece, but the reason systems are not resilient (the correct jargon is “fault-tolerant”) is because capitalism’s markets impose completely wrong values on technology: user attractiveness, video-game look and feel, lots of useless, bandwidth energy and latent fault probability decorativeness wasteful decoration

    Where state regulation imposes severe, explicit requirements things are much better, as in civilian air transport, now the safest mode of travel. Bonfires of regulations are in fact massacres of people, as Grenfell has shown. The markets, if allowed to exist at all, must be shackled by society to serve it, NEVER vice-verse.

    The solution is obviously world-wide egalitarian democratic socialism, with markets limited to at most 25-30% GDP.

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