Computer Weekly (UK)

20th March, 1997

Millennium infrastructure: Urban worriers

It's 31 December 1999, all your systems are year 2000 compliant and you're feeling pretty pleased with yourself. Well you can wipe that smile off your face because tomorrow all hell is going to break loose and your business will be lucky to survive. David Bicknell reports on the infrastructure timebomb threatening the world's cities.

Businesses trying to cope with the millennium date change face a new nightmare. For even if they manage to make their systems compliant, the chances are that the urban infrastructure in which they operate will fall into chaos come 1 January 2000. Even far-sighted companies which realised years ago that their programs needed date-change manipulation could come a cropper.

For example, if their location is deemed to have a fragile infrastructure they could face a crippling insurance bill. Are you ready to move your IT operations to avoid paying huge premiums?

Research by the UK company Corporation 2000 has found that city infrastructures could have a profound effect on the ability of companies to survive the date change relatively unscathed. It is perhaps no surprise that London, with its fragmented transport system and patchwork of local authorities, does not do very well in comparison with other major cities.

Corporation 2000 has ranked the world's leading metropolitan areas according to their ability to overcome infrastructure problems. With the Olympics in 2000 to concentrate its mind, it is no great surprise to learn that Sydney heads the list along with Stockholm and Oslo, followed by Dallas, Chicago, Paris, and New York. Then comes London in 11th place, followed by Tokyo and the three German cities of Frankfurt, Bonn, and Berlin, whose excuse is probably a greater concern about achieving European monetary union compliance.

New York is the subject of the most extensive research on infrastructure to date. Stephen Lithgow of the University of Portsmouth focused on Manhattan, spending a month collecting data in an attempt to identify those resources that are most important to the safety, well-being and economy of the city and its occupants. A further study is due to take place in the latter

half of this year, which Corporation 2000 hopes will attract sponsorship from a number of companies. It hopes its findings will serve as a benchmark for other cities to see how their urban infrastructure could be at risk from the date change problem.

Although research into the effects of year 2000-related problems is still in its infancy there are already concerns that industries not previously considered as immediate potential victims unlike transport, energy, or the emergency services - could be seriously affected, with knock-on effects lasting for months afterwards. For example, energy problems could have a serious effect on the "just-in-time" manufacturing of pharmaceutical companies, which in many cases operate on a six-month production schedule. Any problems in the production of such drugs could have a detrimental effect on patients who are used to receiving different types of medication.

Already pharmaceutical giants such as Glaxo Wellcome are having to consider what infrastructure issues could mean for their businesses in the future. David Prior, vice-president of pharmaceutical technologies at Virginia-based drug specialist Fuisz, a developer of improved drug delivery methods, believes an infrastructure problem could seriously affect certain areas of the pharmaceutical market.

"The drug companies may be better able to cope long term with disruption than they could in the short term," he says. "For example, the provision of summer drugs to counteract hayfever, or winter solutions to flu might be affected by any millennium data change effect on just-in-time systems." He believes patients taking a range of drugs could be at risk from any prolonged disruption to medical infrastructure. "If you are taking a number of drugs, some of them may be simply to counteract the side-effects of others. A disruption of overall delivery could affect long-term health," he says.

Despite the ongoing research into the effects on infrastructure of the year 2000 date change, insurance policies covering possible chaotic effects on business have yet to emerge, although one company, Marsh & McLennan, is said to be close to launching its offering. When it does, according to Corporation 2000 chairman Martin Emery, the effect on business premiums could be significant.

"Normal business insurance premiums will have to rise to cover the possibility of year 2000 chaos," Emery says. "Now insurance companies are aware of what problems the systems date change might cause, policy premiums could even begin to rise in the next month. Once one new policy begins to emerge, all insurers will have to cover themselves. And it could get worse.

"You could even find household premiums rising to take advantage of any future civil unrest caused by an infrastructure breakdown, though I'd probably be accused of scaremongering to suggest it." What is clear is that it will not simply be a question of waking up on 1 January 2024 and seeing how many systems fail to work. The bigger problem could be actually getting to work.

Where to be in the year 2000

Copyright © Reed Business Publishing 1996

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