Network resilience: learning the lessons needed for tomorrow

What can we learn from the resilience, adaptation and reinvention capacity of networks, whether for energy or telecommunications, in the face of the pandemic?

While resilience has established itself as a watchword in many cities in the face of climate change (see this report by La Fabrique de la Cité), how is the response to this large-scale crisis caused by the Covid-19 epidemic structured from the operational standpoint? Above all, does it tell us anything about our ability to withstand other shockwaves tomorrow?

Apart from the health-related and social consequences directly stemming from the epidemic, the radical and sudden move towards “demobility” caused by lockdown (at least for those experiencing it from their home office) is perhaps the most visible experience of this period, already paving the way for new possibilities when it comes to the use of public space and transport systems. The permanence of networks (energy, water, telecommunications), in contrast, is making less of an impact, being less prominently “felt”.

And yet they are holding up

That permanence is not self-evident, however, and is owed in particular to: the adaptability of network infrastructures; the foresight shown by their managers and operators; the development of crisis scenarios; and the implementation of “business continuity” management systems, one of the main ways in which the operational implementation of these companies’ resilience strategies plays out.

In energy, while demand is declining, the availability of workers has also receded; nevertheless, the sector has quickly shown its ability to secure both production and distribution. In France, RTE (the Electricity Transmission Network) triggered its Business Continuity Plan (PCA, in french) on 16 March, in particular centralising its resources and continuing to provide certain essential activities, with individuals on-site. This adaptation process includes, where necessary, operations “in downgraded mode”, which will not hinder the final objective of being able to “adjust the production-consumption balance in real time”. No restrictions on energy markets are expected for the time being. On the distribution end, Enedis activated its “BCP” on the same day, assuring that it is “thanks to the digitalisation of the networks, underway for several years”, that many of the guaranteed essential operations (such as restoration of supply to any customer without electricity) can be carried out remotely. As concerns the gas network, the focus is primarily on HR measures and flexible work organisation, implemented to make operations safer (working twelve consecutive hours instead of three shifts for example).

With regard to data infrastructures, the first priority was to deal with a spike in demand for connectivity, and exceptional measures that would ultimately make it possible to manage over-traffic were introduced. These legal infringements, which are exceptional in relation to the principle of Net neutrality, have enabled operators to give priority access to their bandwidth for certain uses and to degrade the accessibility of some others. These measures must be proportionate and ensure that “equivalent categories of traffic are treated equally”. In fact, the risks on telecoms networks “are real, but are under control”, stated ARCEP in France: no general congestion on the horizon, which already has the United States concluding that “The Internet has stood the test”. While nearly one out of every two major American cities did experience Internet slowdowns, access remained “high speed”, because the network was built precisely to offer enough capacity to absorb such shocks, and its architecture was characterised by very high operational flexibility. In Europe, where data flows, monopolised even under normal circumstances by Google (including YouTube) and Netflix – which, alone, take up 40% – increased by 10% to 30%, and where 4G may have faltered locally, the main operators have, for instance, reduced their speeds to relieve the network. Flows levels hit a record-high, but were far from the limits of network capabilities: The Internet has indeed stood firm.

(Even) more resilient infrastructure tomorrow?

Adapting to episodes of environmental crisis, the consequences of which largely remain to be understood, and to the predicted risk of future climate shocks is a necessity, for two reasons. For the sake of business continuity, first of all, and secondly, for long-term contracts related to the operation of any infrastructure. The resilience imperative in the face of climate challenges has already been on the horizon for many years for designers and operators (see our Emerging Trends overview). At a time when all of us are experiencing what it means to feel like everything can suddenly come to a grinding halt, will this sudden awareness speed up the movement towards greater resilience?

As the WHO sees it, the answer is “yes”: with Covid-19, we are feeling the need for risk management more acutely, to the point that it is becoming part of our culture for good. Faced with the newly-revealed vulnerability of certain groups in the face of this multiplier of inequalities — the pandemic crisis –, the question of “universal access” to the networks is also more than ever in the spotlight. Does the question arise above all for the Internet? The former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) summed it up as follows: “Three months ago, universal access to the Internet was important. With Covid-19, it became critical”. The digitisation of the operating processes used by infrastructures and networks of all kinds, including energy, does not give much reason to believe otherwise… But up to 40 million Americans and 30% of the French still do not have access to broadband.

McKinsey, urging us to learn the lessons of resilience in order to “take on climate change in a post-pandemic world”, would only concur: we are going to do more to take into account the notion of risk, including long-term risk, and, insofar as demobility can take root in our usage patterns, we will rely more and more on the networks. What does this mean for companies? McKinsey’s view on this is just as clear: “think at the systemic level and over the entire cycle of their activities to build resilience” and perpetuate, in the day-to-day, that resilience of in their operations (shorter supply chains, more efficient energy production, and increased digitalisation of the organisation of work and activities). Beyond that, however, energy players are being called upon to develop networks that are also resilient, capable of supplying all communities, including the most remote, and essential structures, starting with health spaces, whatever the circumstances. This quickly puts the issue of access to energy for all, including in times of crisis, on the agenda: micro-grids, which rely on the production and local storage of renewable energies (solar in particular), which are starting to crop up here and there, are currently and most definitely part of the solution. Will we remember this all tomorrow?

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The VINCI Group created Leonard to tackle the challenges posed by the transformation of regions and lifestyles. Our goal is to unite a community of key stakeholders in order to build the city of the future together.