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Expect the unexpected

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Swiss Re’s latest report on emerging risks is a testament to unintended consequences and good ideas gone wrong.

Cyber-attack fears may be regularly highlighted in insurance discussions, but the reinsurer’s Sonar report identifies a wider range of digital dangers, while also examining ramifications from past construction decisions and a number of other evolving threats.

The embrace of new technology in all areas of life may be laying the groundwork for future unexpected cyber risks if dormant flaws and vulnerabilities are triggered, it says.

Algorithms that make rapid, accurate calculations to drive business processes may prove as flawed and biased as any human operator, and are working within “black boxes” that few understand. Regulators are already becoming nervous.

“Until now there has been a lack of clear governance around development and application of algorithms,” the report says. “That said, antitrust laws have prompted the filing of charges relating to the non-transparent pricing tools applied by airlines.”

Reliance on digital assistance systems that make life easier could make people more complacent and less able to respond when it matters most.

Car navigation systems are a case in point, leading to strange accidents in which people drive off cliffs or, in Australia, instances where tourists are directed along outback roads to nowhere.

Moving to autonomous vehicles may raise the stakes, and a consequent widening skills gaps between technology and people may not only affect insurance risk but also present operational dangers.

“Unintended consequences can be reinforced if intelligent machines receive feedback from humans who understand less and less about the underlying problems,” Swiss Re warns.

Overall tech hype carries its own risks, with enthusiasts blinded to such mundane pitfalls as low supply chain resilience or a proponent simply being unable to deliver on the vision.

“It’s true that Amazon, Facebook, Google and Uber have changed the world. And this story is by no means over. But all that said, the risk of falling for tech hypes is considerable.”

Outside the tech realm, the report highlights near-term issues and risks arising from past decisions in the construction industry. The potential for combustible cladding to turn buildings into towering infernos was shown by last year’s Grenfell tragedy in London.

Australia and the United Arab Emirates have tightened fire regulations or banned cladding in particular circumstances, but more action is expected globally in scenarios that have implications for areas such as property cover, professional indemnity and product liability.

“The situation is further complicated by the different regulatory standards in fire protection worldwide and the fact that current standards to test the flammability of such materials are not adequate,” Swiss Re says.

Asbestos appears in the report as a “reloaded” risk. The industry worldwide is still counting losses from use of the deadly material, once prized for its fire-resistant properties. Loss estimates in the US alone are approaching $US100 billion ($132 billion).

In 2016 about 2 million tonnes was mined and used mainly in Asia and Latin America, while exposure to fibres continues to come from badly maintained buildings, or through construction work.

The report throws up a number of other health-related issues with implications for general insurers.

The presence of nano-plastic particles in the brains of fish has been studied, prompting concerns that long-term health effects may be in the making for people.

Research has found people are sleeping less, raising the risk of problems caused by human error, while lack of sleep has also been associated with greater rates of heart attack, stroke, obesity and other diseases.

Causes of our restlessness include changed work patterns and differing types of artificial lighting, while extensive use of smartphones and computer games is adding to the problem.

The Sonar study, published annually since 2013, uses a web-based platform to collect early signals of emerging risks, which are assessed in consultation with topic experts from Swiss Re’s business areas.

“As new risks emerge, those already well known might lose their significance,” Swiss Re Group Chief Risk Officer Patrick Raaflaub says.

“Some might also re-emerge in different guises in different areas.”

The report aims to prompt dialogue about the future risk landscape, and shows the potential for insurers to assist when changes and advances have implications that were never imagined.