A black swan is an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially severe consequences. Black swan events are characterized by their extreme rarity, their severe impact, and the widespread insistence they were obvious in hindsight
Back in November I was listening to a talk from Melissa Sterry, the Design Scientist and Systems Theorist. She was challenging the conventional wisdom that a child born today would live until they were 100. “How can we say this?” she said. She went on to explain the complex system disruption caused by events like climate change and proposed that there was no guarantees about anything – as new diseases would emerge with strains capable of igniting pandemics.
The nature of our connected world provides the ideal base for new entrants to spread and scale – as facts, predictions, opinions and lies intermingle across all forms of media, creating viral opportunities to spread fear—and overrun the science that should guide communication as well as action.
My original post on risk probability admittedly downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19, and in the intervening weeks our entire lives have been turned upside down. Arguably we are living through a black swan event that will change the course of our lives.
Black Swan theory was popularized in a 2007 book by author and former options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The book – written a year before the financial crash – focuses on the extreme impact of rare and unpredictable outlier events — and the human tendency to find simplistic explanations for these events, retrospectively.
Why a black swan? Well , for centuries people agreed that swans were – of course – white. That was until black swans were discovered off the coast of Western Australia in 1697 by Dutch explorers. The only reason people were convinced swans were white was because they’d never seen a black one.
Never confuse the absence of evidence with evidence of absence.
Taleb has recently stated that Coronavirus doesn’t fulfill the definition of a black swan. Indeed, pandemics have been at the top of national risk registers for decades and our culture is full of apocalyptic visions of the future , with zombies rather than viral infections admittedly . Some have argued that the correct metaphor for the crisis is a “gray rhino,” which refers to highly probable but neglected threats that have an enormous impact. It was coined by Michele Wucker, who recently said “Given what we know about pandemics and their increasing likelihood, outbreaks are highly probable and high impact. I coined the term “gray rhino” for exactly such events: obvious, visible, coming right at you, with large potential impact and highly probable consequences.”
In terms of attempting to predict future disruptions on your business it’s useful to make this distinction:
- High Impact, Highly Improbable Crises
- High Impact, Highly Probable Crises. Coming right at you.
And yet – out of this darkness can come a period of opportunity.
Wars and other crisis events can have beneficial effects on innovation and technological development. For example, wars tend to accelerate technological development to adapt tools for the purpose of solving specific military needs. And later, these military tools may evolve into non-military devices, such as radar or even the internet itself.
Additionally , the fact that we are now living in ways that are highly irregular to us , puts us in a far less passive and more creative state. We are experiencing a mass perspective shift that could lead to new thinking and new opportunities.
In this short video clip David Snowdon talks about the troubled Apollo 13 mission. Snowdon explains that for innovation to happen three conditions need to be in place: starvation, pressure, and perspective shift. In terms of the current situation, we are being starved of our usual way of working and living, we have a pressure to maintain the services we provide and our perspectives have shifted towards self-isolation, limited social contact and the stark realities of covid-19.
As Simon Penny writes “perhaps during this time of isolation and slow living, we might gain a fresh perspective on what’s really important, and paradoxically our social distancing might actually bring us all closer together”.
In the past week I’ve spoken – actually spoken rather than text – to family and friends more than I have in the preceding year. I’ve spoken to neighbours who I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even know the names of.
When life returns to ‘normal’, we may never go back to living and working in exactly the same ways we did before. In fact it would be a collective failure if we were to do so.
Whatever happens during the Coronavirus post-mortem we have to accept a couple of things:
- We must getting better at preparing for high frequency, high impact events
- We have to get better at understanding and reacting to exponential growth across complex systems.
- We must understand that we’re all connected. In a globalised , perma-connected world we are all linked by increasingly close chains of acquaintance.
In the midst of a pandemic it’s sobering to be reminded that we can look after each other best by just thinking globally and acting locally.