Innovation, Risk, Uncertainty

Understanding Improbability


Image: (Public Broadcasting Station) Twin sisters, born in China, meet their new adoptive mothers who did not know each other and initially did not know the babies were twins. On that first day of acquaintance, the infants are soon dressed by their adoptive parents in clothes from their new homes respectively in Norway and in the U.S.: identical red-checked gingham dresses.

As 2014 draws to a close, it is impossible to ignore how remarkable a year it’s been in so many ways. Whether “mysterious”, “miraculous”, or “magical”–or tragic, terrifying, or tremendous–there have been so many surprising twists and turns, and these are merely the ones we know about.

Since this blog is about investigating the roots of how we are surprised, it seems fitting to note that this year has been one of unexpected and “rare” events.  Our minds seek patterns as a way of making sense of these developments–seeing similarities and expecting correlations to help us understand what is going on–but sometimes (often?) our innate pattern-making sensibilities mislead us. Our misplaced confidence in our understanding leads us to expect outcomes that turn out, in hindsight, to have been unrealistic.

So, it bears asking:  what is the nature of such surprises?  Why are experts proving so unimaginative (often admitting as much) at anticipating the scale of potential disasters, and does this mean that they are equally impoverished in imagining how large-scale breakthroughs (or “good surprises”)  in the human condition could occur?  What are the implications of a radically more interconnected globe and the rates and scale of the surprises we face? Shall we careen from one unexpected event to the other, temporarily struck dumb by the suddenness and scale (and typically cost–economically and otherwise) of the turn of events? Or, are some of the surprises that are real crises actually avoidable, as the scientist who originally discovered the Ebola virus says this year’s Ebola crisis was?  Are surprises similar in type or are there different sorts of surprises; that is, different in ways other than normative expectations of “good” or “bad?”  Are there ways to make more fortunate surprises more commonplace?   Clearly not only quality of life but actual lives are at stake in these problems.  These are some of the questions future blog posts here will pursue.

In 2014, there were many unexplained coincidences and developments, whether on the scale of individuals going about their daily lives or on the stages of geopolitics, global travel, or global public health. What are the chances, for instance, of one commercial passenger jet going missing, with all its passengers and crew aboard, in a sad incident still unexplained nine months later? Furthermore, what is the chance that three passenger airliners–two of them from the same Malaysian airline company, and all three from Malaysia, would be involved in rare disasters in the same year–as it appears that another airliner has met a tragic end this very week?

Similarly, many were surprised when Russian forces of some sort moved into Crimea earlier this year, and still more surprised a couple months later when a hybrid group of publicly virtually unknown extremists swiftly took control of large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.  Most everyone was surprised by the rapid drop in oil prices in recent months. (And what surprises might be in store because of this?)

As surprising–devastatingly so–has been the rapid spread of the Ebola virus.  Known to be deadly, this virus had always been–before now, that is–stopped in its tracks in dozens of previous outbreaks in relatively remote African villages.  (In a just published article in the New York Times, How Ebola Roared Back, ” the results of an investigation undertaken by that newspaper show how a series of missteps by health experts and organizations since May, 2014 contributed to this otherwise avoidable catastrophe. )

As so often happens with surprises, the experts were caught off-guard by this one.  There were so many things that were different about it;  as a result, experts were overconfident in their assessment last May that the Ebola crisis was abating.  Previously, Ebola outbreaks had occurred in remote villages in Central and East Africa, where the virus could be surrounded and isolated. (Ebola had not previously occurred in Western Africa.)  All told, these previous outbreaks had killed 1,590 people over four decades, only a fifth of the toll of the epidemic still unfolding across West Africa, according to the just-published NYT article. According to Dr. Petr Piot, the scientist who originally discovered the Ebola virus in the 1970s,  and a colleague, Dr. Jeremy J. Farrar, in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine in September 2014, “The Ebola Crisis:  Immediate Action, Ongoing Strategy” (and cited in the aforementioned NYT article),  this year’s outbreak can be attributed not to unique characteristics of the virus but instead it is more likely to be:

“…a result of the combination of dysfunctional health systems, international indifference, high population mobility, local customs, densely populated capitals, and lack of trust in authorities [in the Ebola-infected nations] after years of armed conflict. Perhaps most important, Ebola has reached the point where it could establish itself as an endemic infection because of a highly inadequate and late global response [emphasis added].”

Image:  Ebola orphan approximately 4 years old (

Image: Ebola orphan approximately 4 years old (

Whatever the issue, it seems the experts were among the most surprised; x, y, or z wasn’t supposed to behave this way.  In an age in which we can program our smartphones to “Find My Phone” in case we misplace them, or microchip our pets in case they go missing, it is hard for the average person (and apparently also the experts)  to understand how a passenger jet with nearly 300 people aboard can remain lost almost a year after it went missing, or a known virus can overtake several nations in a matter of weeks.  Are there lessons that can be learned from these developments?  Whose problem is it to learn them?

Memories of improbable events, such as the terrible tsunami in 2004, also show how surprises can condition us–depending on our resources and level of political will and commitment–to deal better with future surprises. No one expected a tsunami on the scale of the one that occurred on December 26, 2004, exactly one decade ago last week.  Experts did not expect it.  Tsunamis are the deadliest of natural disasters and the one that hit the Indian Ocean region ten years ago contained energy equivalent to 10,000 Hiroshima bombs, according to a BBC  article, “Science Still Learning How to Limit Tsunami Misery” from a few days ago.  Just as in the case of West Africa this year, the vulnerability of the densely-populated areas in the path of the disaster was a factor in the tsunami’s devastating impact, including the loss of 230,000 people in more than 14 countries.

Years later, when an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011, lessons from the earlier tragedy helped mitigate but did not eliminate the resulting devastation.  No one had imagined a magnitude 9 earthquake nor unexpectedly high (30 meters) waves; designated refuge areas on higher ground were inundated as a result. By this time, however, Indonesia had a better approach than Japan, according to the BBC article, thanks to a collaboration with Germany called the GITEWS (the German-Indonesian Tsunami Early Warning System).

Image:  Washington Post

Image: Washington Post

On the eve of a New Year, those of us unaffected directly by such tragedies understandably would prefer not to think about them.   Fortunately, the desire to make sense out of events, whether tragic or marvelous, suggests that we have the capacity to eventually learn what it takes to limit the scale of disasters and maximize the likelihood of creative breakthroughs. The outset of a new year seems, therefore, a fitting time to realize how highly improbable events are not always, or even often, of the tragic variety; instead, they are the serendipitous moments that occur to each of us.  They could even be the breakthroughs that enable us to be better prepared for inevitable misfortunes and disasters.

As the subject of this blog is surprise, and not only bad surprises, it seems important to investigate the role that surprise, or at least uncertainty, plays in life. There is, for instance, the story told in a PBS special released this fall of identical twin sisters born in China, and designated to different adoptive parents–one couple from Norway and another from the United States, who were not told that the girls were twins.  When the two sets of parents went to pick up their new infant daughters on the same day at the same adoption center in China, each  couple brought with them an identical gingham dress for their baby’s first day in their respective families.  (The two couples suspected in that first meeting, however, that the babies were twins and later were able to confirm this; they continue to arrange for reunions of the biological sisters.)  And just last week, there was the story of a priceless heirloom engagement ring lost on the busy streets of Washington, D.C.–and then improbably found and (even more improbably) returned to its owner!

As the improbable year of 2014 gives way to a new year of surprises–with a toast held high for many more such happy surprises, and more rapid and effective global coordination for the tragic ones–future blog posts will examine more closely how improbably probable improbability is. Coming up: a look at the new book, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day., by British mathematician and former president of the Royal Statistical Society, Dr. David Hand. And a close look at how insights and creative breakthroughs occur, drawing especially on the work of a senior scientist, psychologist, and expert on “adaptive decision-making,” Dr. Gary Klein, in his book, Seeing What Others Don’t:  The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight (2013).

Risk, Surprise

Boiling Frog Syndrome

Image:  Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

We come now to the metaphor of the “boiling frog syndrome” which has many metaphorical cousins, such as an “ostrich with its head in the sand.”  This metaphor refers to the notion (apparently untrue according to biologists who have tested it) that a frog will not jump out of gradually heating up water–and, sadly, dies.  (In reality, the experts say, if the frog can jump out it will.)  This expression is used to warn of our built-in tendencies to ignore or dismiss changes that are so gradual (or long-term, or complex, or multi-faceted) as to be nearly invisible or even incomprehensible.  As specialization drives experts, analysts, and planners into focusing on ever-narrower slices of knowledge, the thought goes, they lose an ability to see the whole.

Whatever our daily preoccupation, this fragmentation of our attention affects us all, in sometimes unnoticed ways, leading me to wonder if we might all have a bit of boiling frog syndrome.  If so, what do we do to counter it?  Who are those who manage to overcome this syndrome, how do they do it, and are we able to hear them?

As someone who has been spending a lot of time in the gym lately (to get ready for those New Year’s resolutions!), it is impossible to miss the many HDTV screens propped up overhead.  They beam down at all, apparently selected to represent a spectrum of political and entertainment tastes.  Seemingly, there ought to be something for everyone, as no less than twelve different channels are simultaneously broadcasting literally in our faces.

Those who want to can tune in to the channel of their choice, wearing headphones connected to the fitness machine they’re on to hear their chosen flavor of the news. While people pump their legs on this or that machine, with water bottles propped up on the machines, towels cast to the floor, and iPods attached to their spandex belts, horrific images of violence in cities and countries around the world flash up in front of us–simultaneously.  When I leave the gym, I feel refreshed usually from exercising but usually have a vague sense of unease from having just been enveloped by oversized TV screens purporting to tell me something.

Bursts of “news” with next-to-no context tell us little, despite the inordinate amount of time devoted by each channel to endlessly rehashing details of the day’s top headlines.  Although these stories are immensely important, it is difficult to hear about them in dueling soundbites, so I generally try to ignore them altogether while at the gym.

The interconnections and deeper underlying causes or trends are rarely examined, of course, in the “news” because they are not news.  Such phenomena develop slowly over time, like gradually heating water.  Occasionally a tipping point of some sort or other is reached:  a catastrophe occurs that focuses our attention…but only for the time it takes before another sudden eruption captures the news.  Beneath the surface so much else is going on…but it is difficult to make sense of it, and thus it doesn’t ever make the news.

Some recent works (such as here  and here)  suggest that we are applying the wrong models (and thus harbor ill-founded expectations about risks) to trying to understand the complex (increasingly interconnected and interdependent) systems that make up global society today.  Mankind’s very successes in developing more efficient supply chains, transportation systems, and ICT are creating new vulnerabilities, or “systemic risks,” which we generally are poorly equipped to detect, let alone understand.  These risks represent “highways for failure propagation” which can ultimately result in “man-made disasters,” say the authors.  Highly interconnected systems, such as the financial system, or food and energy markets, are complex systems that are difficult to predict and control.  If there is a mismatch of expectations, it might be difficult-to-impossible to see these risks in time–leading in turn to the “surprises” or “abrupt changes” that are the focus of this blog.  Would such risks be like the “boiling frog”  or a “black elephant?”  It seems that this may be a fitting point at which to consider what the originator of the “black elephant” concept intended…coming up in a future post!


Butterfly Effects

Continuing a consideration of the “Zoology of Surprise,” –from the Hummingbird Effect, Black Swans, and Hippo Paradoxes–it is time now to confront the much-misunderstood “Butterfly effect.”  As I have learned, this phrase is not so much a metaphor about butterflies as it is about the nonlinear, unpredictable, and yet chaotically “orderly” behavior of hurricanes, epidemics, and (potentially even) stock markets!  Perhaps it is possible to tease out some implications for dealing with surprises by understanding a bit more about this metaphorical creature of surprise.  When looking into the matter, it is easy to see why people have become confused. Yet, it is also is apparent that understanding this concept is increasingly important to making sense of our past, present, and future wherever we are…

Traditionally the “butterfly effect” is discussed in phrases such as “as a butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo could cause tornadoes in California” but this is a misconception of the meaning of the term. The concept of the “Butterfly Effect” comes from the research and mathematical literature (which generally has little to do with butterflies) of chaos theory.  This in turn is a subset of the currently rapidly evolving “complexity theory” (which will be addressed at much greater length in future posts on this blog). Chaos theory is applied in many scientific disciplines, including: geology, mathematics, microbiology, biology, computer science, economics, engineering, finance, meteorology, philosophy, physics, politics, population dynamics, psychology, and robotics.

Image:  Gouache, charcoal and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Image: Gouache, charcoal and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

As the Wikipedia explains: In chaos theory, the butterfly effect refers to “the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.”

The Wikipedia entry continues: “The name of the effect, coined by Edward Lorenz, [an American mathematician (23 May 1917 – 16 April 2008)],  is derived from the metaphorical example of the details of a hurricane (exact time of formation, exact path taken) being influenced by minor perturbations such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier. Lorenz discovered the effect when he observed that runs of his weather model with initial condition data that was rounded in a seemingly inconsequential manner would fail to reproduce the results of runs with the unrounded initial condition data. A very small change in initial conditions had created a significantly different outcome.”  In this important sense, the phrase “butterfly effect” is not a metaphor, as mathematician and statistician Dr. David Hand explains in his new book, The Improbability Principle, discussed here on this blog.

What scientists painstakingly emphasize is that they are not talking literally about butterflies flapping their wings and causing hurricanes.   Instead, they are talking about nonlinear systems which demonstrate disproportionality (outcomes are not directly proportional to inputs) and, in particular, the relatively recent (made in the last century or so; see “Henri Poincare“) scientific observations that such systems are complex, dynamic, and exhibit sensitivity to initial conditions.  These systems include many natural systems such as weather, climate, and population growth in ecology.  (Nonlinear systems–of which chaotic systems are a subset–also include most systems, such as ICT (Internet, etc.) and social media, energy grids, finance and banking, food and water, transportation, and medical and health systems, upon which our modern societies rely to function.)

These chaotic systems, paradoxically for those of us educated to see mainly directly connected causes and effects, demonstrate a strange sort of “order”:  they are deterministic but not predictable.  Even though there are no random elements involved in their iterations,they are characterized by irregularity.  This behavior is known as “deterministic chaos” or “chaotic systems.”

Image:  Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

It appears that some disagree whether chaotic systems are really a subset of complex systems.  This is because, while chaotic systems are deterministic, truly complex systems aren’t.  According to one of the early proponents of complexity theory, Ilya Prigogine  (known for pioneering research in “self-organizing systems”), complexity is non-deterministic, and gives no way whatsoever to precisely produce the future.  Therefore, some say (also here and here, for instance) that there is a dividing line between a “complicated” deterministic order that is “chaos” and an order in which randomness prevails that is “complex.”   Some maintain that complexity is the opposite of chaos. Chaotic systems are sensitive to initial conditions whereas complex systems (such as social systems) evolve “far from equilibrium at the edge of chaos.”  Complex systems evolve at a critical state “built up by a history of irreversible and unexpected events,” also known as an “accumulation of frozen accidents,” by physicist Murray Gell-Mann.

What’s important about all this for a blog on surprise, change, and abrupt change, arguably, is that irregularity and unpredictability are inherent parts of the complex systems that make up our world. Apparently, we have known this (to varying degrees) scientifically for about a century.

It’s worth asking if standard analytic and planning processes have caught up to the science? We can forecast the weather but within time-limited bounds.    If we consider that these natural systems, such as weather and climate–while complex–are less complex than those involving human interactions (and, especially, human interactions with natural and digital systems!!), there seems to be a need for an abundance of caution when attempting to predict what individuals or social groups will do in the future.  As the head of the New England Institute for Complex Systems, Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam, says, “No empirical observation is ever useful as a direct measure of a future observation.”  He adds:  “It is only through generalization motivated by some form of model/theory that we can use past information to address future circumstances.”

Unpacking what all this means for more standard approaches to planning, investing, predicting, forecasting, hiring, and organizing and managing work is a daunting task.   Butterflies and frozen accidents…what are we to make of it all?  As we move beyond the tenets of the Industrial Age into a digital, hyperconnected age, delving into these matters, arcane as they seem, may be an unavoidable task.  As this blog matures, I’ll link to some seemingly great work in this area, and welcome suggestions for the same.  (This post may be updated.)


Hippo Paradoxes

We return to the book, How We Got to Now,  (discussed in “The Hummingbird Effect” blog post) sooner than expected!   A reader of the last post asked if Johnson addressed at all in his book whether the “hummingbird effect” ever led to negative consequences.  Well, he did, as a matter of fact, and this leads straight to the topic of today’s blog.  But first, by way of explanation, a bit more on How We Got to Now.

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

At the outset of his latest book, Johnson maintains that this book will be “resolutely agnostic on these questions of value”; i.e., whether the ripple effects of innovations represent change for the better or worse.  For instance, the invention of air-conditioning allows us to live in deserts, “but at what cost to our water supplies?,” he writes.  He explains that his emphasis in writing the book is primarily to gain insights into how changes come about in the first place.  While acknowledging that we need a value system to decide which “strains” of innovation to encourage, he says he has tried to spell out the range of consequences, good and bad, in his book.  He cites, for instance, the fact that the invention of the vacuum tube helped bring jazz to a mass audience, [but] “it also helped amplify the Nuremberg rallies.”  How one considers the values of different innovations depends on “your own belief systems about politics and social change,” he writes.

Thus, in his chapter on the evolution of the concept of “clean,” which traces the creation of the first comprehensive sewer system in America, Johnson highlights the fact that the idea of bathing at all is a relatively modern idea. Attitudes began to shift in the U.S. and in England early in the 19th century, he said, as the availability of soap and showers helped lay the groundwork for a new paradigm:  the “germ theory of disease.”   With the cleaning business today worth about $80 billion, according to Johnson, another ripple effect of the discovery of clean technologies was the creation of an advertising industry to promote the benefits of cleaning products, such as chlorox.

But all this happened in the short span of the last two centuries and has had many unanticipated consequences, including  booming rates of urbanization. (An article in the December 6 issue of The Economist magazine refers to this phenomenon as “suburbanization.”) From a world of cities of no more than two million people, cities grew to accommodate tens of millions of residents, including the “megacities” of today.  In some cities, the benefits of the paradigm shift embracing cleanliness are evident in lower mortality rates and nearly nonexistent epidemic disease, Johnson writes. But around the world, there are still more than three billion people who lack access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation systems: “in absolute numbers, [therefore], we have gone backward as a species.”

Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

Johnson asks whether there has not yet been sufficient innovation to enable the developing world to bypass the big-engineering phase of the developed world that involved building massive public infrastructure to filter and pump water.  So, in this chapter, it’s clear that acceptance of the concept of “clean” has led to benefits even as it has enabled urban sprawl in countries where there are inadequate sanitation facilitations and access to potable water.  Such tensions and paradoxes lead to new requirements for innovation.

  • To step back for a moment from the book, it is clear today that failures to adapt in the largest, poorest of cities–even if they are a half a world away from us–can bring us full-circle, paradoxically: back to dealing with viruses and bacteria against which we have little or no defense.  We need look no further than the front pages of any major newspaper to see that this is the case.  Which brings us to:

“HIPPO Paradoxes”

Edward O. Wilson, one of the world’s most prominent naturalists and biologists, addresses the concept of “HIPPO” (actually an mnemonic, rather than a metaphor) in his latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence.  In order of relative importance, the letters in this acronym (which is one well-known to those in Wilson’s fields but was new to me) represent aspects of the human impact on biodiversity, as in:

H = “Habitat loss”, which he defines as the reduction of habitable area by deforestation, conversion of grassland, and climate change.

I =   “Invasive species,” which refers to alien animals, plants, and even fungi that cause damage to humans or the environment or both when they travel, or are transported, into areas where they are not native.

P =  “Pollution,” which Wilson writes has inflicted most of its damage on fish and other life in freshwater systems but also is the cause of more than four hundred anoxic “dead zones” in marine waters “that receive contaminated water from upstream agricultural land.”

P = “Population growth,” which Wilson writes is “actually a catalytic force of all the other factors.”  He continues:  “Damage will not be so much from the growth itself, which is expected to peak by the end of the century, but rather from the rapid and unstoppable ascent in per capita consumption worldwide as economies improve.”

O = “Overharvesting,” which, Wilson writes, “is best illustrated by the percentage of global decline in the catch of various species of marine pelagic fishes such as tuna and swordfish from the mid-1850s to the present: 96 to 99 percent.  Not only are these species scarcer, but the individual fish caught are on average also smaller.”

In this latest book, Wilson reissues his warning (familiar but no less sobering to readers of his earlier work) that the “remainder of the century will be a bottleneck of growing human impact on the environment and diminishment of biodiversity.”  Wilson is a scientist.  He writes that science “builds and tests competitive hypotheses from partial evidence and imagination in order to generate real knowledge about the world.”  “It is totally committed to fact…[and] cuts paths through the fever swamp of human existence,” he writes.

But, this book is a warning about the limitations of science and technology-driven paths to the future.  Wilson calls for reuniting the humanities with the sciences as the way forward.  He envisions a future where science and technology will be the same almost everywhere–“for every civilized culture, subculture, and person.”  But, “what will continue to evolve and diversify most definitely are the humanities.”  And only by fusing science and the humanities, Wilson suggests, can mankind deal with the coming onslaught of biology-based and technologically-enabled challenges to the “human nature we have inherited.”

Current technological and biological trends create “a dilemma of volitional evolution,” he writes.  In Wilson’s view, the choices ahead require nothing less than re-visting what it means to be human.  “Do we really want to compete biologically with robot technologies by using brain implants and genetically improved intelligence and social behavior?”   More knowledge doesn’t always equal more understanding or situational awareness; for boosting the latter, Wilson states that the humanities are “all-important.”  This is a powerful (if also controversial–can something be powerful without controversy?) book from a lifelong and keen observer of natural life from its most microscopic to (potentially) galactic scales.  It is rich with reminders of the many creative paradoxes of human and natural existence.  We are simply bound to be surprised.


The Hummingbird Effect

Hummingbird reduced

Image: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Moving through the literature on how innovation occurs both in human society and nature,  it wasn’t long before I encountered another creature of surprise: the hummingbird!  If you’ve read Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From (2010), you’ll have a good idea of how he got to now in his latest book, How We Got to Now (2014) where he introduces the “hummingbird effect.” In the earlier work, he focused on identifying the most fertile conditions for innovative thinking. In his view, traversing across disciplines the way he does in his work does not just give us new metaphors: “It gives us new facts.”

It is best to look at the previous book in order to place the newer book in a helpful context for purposes of this blog.  In Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson identified a “series of shared properties and patterns” that recur in unusually innovative environments. His ambitious aim in this earlier book was to present the common attributes of innovative systems, whether they involve natural systems, like coral reefs,or the sociology of urban life, or the intellectual evolution of a particular scientist.

In Johnson’s view–the “long zoom” view–unusually innovative (or “generative”) environments “display similar patterns of creativity at multiple scales simultaneously.”  He proposes that by moving across these scales we can gain insights we would not if we stay within the boundaries of a single domain. Johnson emphasizes that, whatever our goals, “we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.” Science “long ago realized,” according to Johnson, “that we can understand something better by studying its behavior in different contexts.” The different contexts he explored included ones he called: “the adjacent possible,” “liquid networks,” the “slow hunch,” “error,” and “serendipity,” among others. This earlier book is an excellent conceptual reference, in my view, for those keen to generate more hospitable conditions for creativity and innovation wherever they work. (Perhaps a future blog post will delve into it more.)

The newer book, How We Got to Now, investigates what Johnson calls the “strange chains of influence” that make up the “hummingbird effect.” The hummingbird effect refers to the phenomenon of innovations in one field triggering innovations in another domain altogether. He notes hummingbirds themselves evolved in such a way that they can hover alongside a flower, something few other birds could manage, according to Johnson. These unusual flight mechanics emerged from “coevolutionary interactions” between flowering plants and insects that led to the production of nectar that could only be tapped by birds with a capacity to hover–or, the hummingbird.

(Johnson distinguishes the “hummingbird effect” from the better-known “butterfly effect,” the latter of which also will be addressed in our zoological taxonomy of surprise in coming blog posts.)

In subsequent chapters, Johnson considers how the hummingbird effect influenced externalities and unintended effects in other fields after an innovation in one field took root. Sometimes breakthroughs open up new possibilities that are recognized only much later. Sometimes innovations lead to tools that influence us “metaphorically,” he writes, citing the connection between the clock and the “mechanistic view of early physics.” A main point is that, when we set out to do something, there can be many unintended, even invisible, ripple effects.


Image: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

It can take generations, centuries, and even millenia to see those ripple effects, as underscored by Johnson’s long zoom look at the “history of glass” early in the book.He traces the evolution of the discovery of layers of what we’ve come to know as glass on a vast stretch of the Libyan desert to the use of glass as an ornamentation, for windows, for magnifiers and reading glasses, beautiful transparent Murano glass vases, highly sensitive microscopes and telescopes and even fiber-optic cables. Less tangible but no less significant were the transformative possibilities brought forth by the advent of the mirror, changing the way artists managed perspectives in their paintings and how people everywhere literally saw themselves.

In our more interconnected world today, most important innovations “arrive in clusters of simultaneous discovery,” he writes. All around the world people will work on the same problem and approach it with the “same fundamental assumptions.”

As for individuals who appear to make conceptual leaps that propel them far beyond present-day boundaries, Johnson suggests that some of their genius stems from the fact that they “worked at the margins of their official fields, or at the intersection point between very different disciplines”–disciplines as varied as stenography, printing and anatomical studies of the human ear (influencing the development of a predecessor to the phonograph).

Johnson maintains that explorations of such interconnecting influences, even if prone to be speculative in hindsight, can be helpful for dealing with modern challenges:

“Learning from patterns of innovation that shaped society in the past can only help us navigate the future more successfully, even if our explanations of that past are not falsifiable in quite the way that a scientific theory is.”

Great stuff indeed! And we will come back to it in future posts, I’m sure.


Surprising Creatures

It wasn’t until I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, The Black Swan, that my naturalist sensibilities became attuned to proliferating species of surprise. They are everywhere! As the years tick by, I have come to think that understanding the origins of surprise are fundamental to solving the greatest challenges of our times–including those so-called “black elephants!” (This is the main reason I am devoting a whole blog to the subject.)

How we learn, create, and share knowledge…how innovations occur…what role collaboration and teamwork play in fomenting breakthrough thinking…how the subconscious mind works with our conscious selves…how sparks of serendipity ignite new possibilities… All such themes and more belong in an examination of the “black elephants” of our times. But why am I talking about black elephants when I started with “black swans?” Clearly our taxonomy for surprising creatures needs attention. So let’s get started!

Before all these metaphors entered our lexicon, most of us were familiar with the thought cloud images from cartoons, showing a bright lightbulb over someone’s head! The lightbulb signified a new idea!!! Archimedes in the bathtub shouting “Eureka”…that’s another visual image of surprise.


Image: Google Images

But in recent years, particularly since the Financial Crisis of 2008, we’ve seen a stampede of elephants and hippos, flights of swans and hummingbirds, and pots of boiling frogs cross our fields of vision. What in the world is going on? Are we more prone to be surprised these days? Surprising creatures are helping us to make sense of these developments: let’s begin with the “black swan.”

The Black Swan…

Unless you live in Australia, black swans are rare and, according to Taleb, in most of the world–before the discovery of Australia–the absence of black swans led to an unexamined assumption that all swans are white. Such unexamined assumptions are typical to all of us: having a cognitive framework, or mental map of how the world works, enables us to function. The downside (one of many) to how we go about making sense of things normally is that our knowledge is limited by what we have observed or experienced. The size of our ‘sample set’–or real-world experiences–influences our concepts of reality and possibilities for the future.

Taleb tells us that his metaphor for a “black swan” event comprises three attributes:

  • It is an “outlier” in the sense that it “lies outside the realm of regular expectations.” Nothing in our experience has prepared us for this possibility.
  • It carries an extreme impact.
  • It was “predictable” but only in hindsight! (Taleb says, our human nature persuades us, after experiencing an outlying event with an extreme impact, that it was predictable.)

In Taleb’s view, the way our human brain is wired makes what we don’t know more important than what we do know:

“Black Swans can be caused and exacerbated by their being unexpected,” he writes.

Our concept of what is “normal” tends to rule out outliers and uncertainty.  But, more and more, what we’re learning, from the “law of large numbers” and other principles of improbability, is that what seems normal often is not!  So, how do we manage in a world of surprising creatures like the black swan? It turns out that rare events are behind most breakthroughs in human history…so understanding how we get locked into assumptions, and when we need to unlock our assumptions, seems critically important not only to business success but perhaps survival in all its meanings.

Coming up: I’ll look at what Steven Johnson, the author of so many great books on where good ideas come from, says about the “hummingbird effect” in his new book, How We Got To Now. Why does it matter to know how we got to now?


The Zoology of Surprise

Image: Watercolor and ink, by Black Elephant Blog author

From boiling frogs to butterflies, hippos to hummingbirds–and black swans, and now “black elephants”— there is a zoological taxonomy evolving to describe how and why we are surprised. We are surprised when a seemingly random event occurs. The rapid proliferation of a new technology, not even imaginable just a few years ago, surprises us. We can be surprised by the generosity of strangers. Or, we can be surprised by an extreme, and extremely dangerous, event or development.

We are surprised, simply, because we were not expecting x, y, or z to occur. How can so obvious, or even banal, a statement be so fascinating and still so poorly understood? Some surprises we like and look forward to, while others we dread or haven’t imagined.

The reasons for surprise are still being investigated as, for example, in the new book by mathematician, David Hand: The Improbability Principle.  Hand and others explain to us how surprises are inevitable: there are laws of improbability! (The Improbability Principle will be addressed in a future blog post.)

As I have considered the issues of surprise, risk, uncertainty, and probability, colorful metaphors recur. Not everyone appreciates metaphors but I do. The “black swan” made famous by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s groundbreaking book of the same name is a case in point. Sometimes, even if not exactly accurate (as we shall see, black swans are not so rare, depending on where you live), the metaphor helps to sharpen our thinking.

The imagery of surprise taken from the natural world seems evocative of so many things, including how inevitably surprised we are the further removed we become from nature itself. In the worlds of science and mathematics, we have discovered that we actually still have so very much to learn about the interactions and behaviors of natural systems. A recent review of two new books made a distinction between the “Newtonian Moment” and the relatively recently recognized “Quantum Moment,” for instance.

Answers may well prove elusive in this quest but the journey I envision on this blog is going to be surprising in many ways. It will convene ideas from disparate sources and thinkers on the origins of surprise and, relatedly, creativity and innovation. So, I will begin with creating a glossary of the “Zoology of Surprise.”