Innovation in insurance

Run for cover

The insurance industry is stuck in the 20th century. That leaves swathes of the economy dangerously unprotected

EVERY MORNING, from a room in Birmingham, some of the world’s largest firms are briefed by phone on the weather in store. As continents, arrows and weather fronts flicker across their screens, meteorologists at The Weather Company (TWC) help British grocers decide whether to stock soups or salads, and Chinese energy firms when to operate wind turbines. Yet such sessions are getting rarer. Computed by 172 models crunching 400 terabytes of data—33 times the amount Twitter stores every 24 hours—most of TWC’S 25bn daily forecasts now feed directly into customers’ computer systems.

Big data has turned weather into a big business. TWC, which was bought by IBM in 2016, serves governments, media channels and 40% of the world’s airlines. But many property insurers, whose fortunes rely on forecasting climate-induced losses, are still learning how to use the information, says Leon Brown of TWC. Their cluelessness is symptomatic of a problem for all insurance lines, including casualty, life and health. Reinsurance firms (which insure the insurers) and Asian insurance champions are almost the only innovators in an industry that is moving at a glacial pace.

Meanwhile the risks insurers are meant to cover are becoming more severe and unpredictable. Since the 1980s average annual losses from natural disasters have more than sextupled in…