Like many other countries, the Netherlands is increasingly confronted with disruptions to digital infrastructure, such as DDOS attacks on the payments system or the digital government. The consequences have in many cases been limited so far, but there is a chance that this could change.

The importance of cybersecurity is growing, not just for traditional computer networks but also for artificial intelligence, robotics, drones, autonomous vehicles and the Internet of Things. Digital systems have moreover become crucial for the functioning of ‘traditional’ (and sometimes vital) infrastructure in the Netherlands, such as water management, public transport and any number of processes used in the implementation of government policy. The importance, continued penetration and interconnectedness of digital technology also increases the risks and their complexity. What’s more, any number of causes can initiate a digital disruption; from terrorists and hackers to natural disasters and technical problems: all of these have the ability to spark off a digital disruption with the potential to cause enormous problems and harm to society.

Large-scale digital disruption

Cybersecurity and reducing risk is now very much front and centre. However, the question is whether we are sufficiently aware of the possibility of a large-scale digital disruption occurring – let alone prepared for the phase after such a disruption has actually occurred. In the event of a major dyke breach, an air crash or a massive explosion, there are reasonably clear procedures in place concerning the action to be taken, governance of the situation and the problems that may be expected in dealing with such incidents. By contrast, when it comes to disruptions with a digital component, for example involving a hospital, the payments system or the Internet of Things, a great deal is unknown and uncertain.

Dutch government

The Dutch government finds itself in a difficult situation when seeking to prepare for a digital disruption. By their nature, digital networks tend to be complex and not restricted by national borders, thereby constraining the ability of the national government to act. Moreover, many digital services are in private hands, giving the government a little control over critical functions, including the communication that is so crucial during emergency situations. When dealing with a digital disruption, therefore, the government is by definition forced to rely on other parties and is thus dependent on their actions. A further problem here is that some of these parties will have different interests and priorities.

Adequately prepared

This project investigates what digital disruption means for the Netherlands and seeks to outline a number of policy perspectives for the government. How does a digital disruption begin? How does it proceed? What are its possible effects? And when is it over? What dependencies are involved? The project also investigates whether we are sufficiently prepared for a scenario involving a digital disruption. Are there ways of increasing – in advance – the ability of Dutch society to recover from a disruption, and what is the government’s responsibility here? An underlying question running through all of this is to what extent a digital disruption resembles other types of crisis and disaster, and whether lessons can be drawn from them for dealing with a digital disruption and managing its consequences.