Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Reading in a New Fiscal Year

Lake scene 2

Illustration: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Today begins a new month, a new fiscal year even, and fall is in the air. Since every now and then, someone asks what I am reading, I have turned my attention to the question myself.  Some books on innovation have been covered earlier on this blog, particularly here.   But, why begin with innovation if we are not sure where, when or why, it matters?  Context can be helpful.

Upcoming on this blog, therefore, will be a few brief overviews of some important, and possibly even provocative, books which provide fresh optics on historical contexts, and which were published in the last year.  Some of these books review how we got to now and make suggestions for how to move forward.

These include:

The Shape of the New:  Four Ideas and How They Made the Modern World, by Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot.

Fields of Blood:  Religion and the History of Violence, by Karen Armstrong, an expert on comparative religion.

This Changes Everything:  Capitalism vs. The Climate, by Naomi Klein, who may be familiar to some for her investigation into “disaster capitalism.”  This book is so sweeping “and of such consequence,”  in the view of The New York Times,  that it is “almost unreviewable.”

But, to lighten the load, some fun reading is also in order.  I recommend:

Illustration: Painting by Giovanni Boldini (1888) - Wikipedia

Illustration: Painting of Madame Marthe de Florian by Giovanni Boldini (1888) – Wikipedia

A Paris Apartment, by Michelle Gable, a book which also came out last year. It is based on the true story of an apartment the contents of which came to light in 2010, 70 years after its tenant had hurriedly left Paris.

Illustration: Self-portrait of Giovanni Boldini (1892), from Wikipedia

Illustration: Self-portrait of Giovanni Boldini (1892), from Wikipedia

In the apartment among antiques and other valuables, which had been untouched or unseen by anyone in all this time, was an original painting of a beautiful lady. Martha de Florian, by Giovanni Boldini.  Boldini was a contemporary of Edgar Degas, whose life and works was discussed earlier on this blog, in mid- and late-19th century Parisian artistic circles.

The painting depicts Madame Marthe de Florian whose diaries also were in the apartment when it was opened in 2010.

The novel, A Paris Apartment, recreates this true story in a fictional modern context.  The author has a fresh writing style which makes the most of her talents for creating realistic dialogue and alternating between periods of time separated by more than a century. Boldini himself–not to mention Madame de Florian–come alive here in a story that includes other better known figures of their time.  All this…a true story…and a fictional story…because of one real-life dusty old apartment filled with stuff no one wanted for nearly a century.

Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

The Health of Nations

Image Source:  UNICEF Pacific/AFPGetty Images

Image Source: UNICEF Pacific/AFPGetty Images

The strong cyclone that swept through the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu yesterday occurred at the same time that government representatives, including the President of Vanuatu and the head of Vanuatu’s National Disaster Management Office, were meeting at a UN conference in Japan to devise a new global plan to reduce the risk of disasters such as this one.  According to media reports, Vanuatu has prepared for cyclones but not for one of this intensity.  There are reports that even the National Disaster Management Office’s emergency communications systems have been disrupted by the storm.  In a statement today, Oxfam Australia said that up to 90% of the housing in the capital of Port Vila  had reportedly been seriously damaged.  An Oxfam official said that this “is likely to be one of the worst disasters ever seen in the Pacific.”

Although communications reportedly have been reestablished in the capital city, the extent of the devastation in Vanuatu, a country of 267,000 people spread out across 65 low-lying islands, is not yet clear, according to media reports.  The convergence of the cyclone and the UN conference on disaster risk reduction in the same weekend seems to underscore both a growing global reality of more frequent extreme weather events and increasing global recognition of the need for formal mechanisms to help societies prepare for the unexpected–whether from extreme weather events, disease outbreaks, or conflicts.

Illustration: Conte crayon by Black Elephant Blog author modeled upon "Rider and Fallen Foe" by Titian

Illustration: Conte crayon by Black Elephant Blog author modeled upon “Rider and Fallen Foe” by Titian

As we have seen when regions undergo recurrent stresses and shocks, the health and well-being (or security) of any people’s “homeland” must unavoidably concern us all.  It turns out that resilience is a local issue with global consequences–with effects that eventually come home to roost. Ignoring what is happening on the other side of the world is not a viable option. Taking a larger view of the challenges is necessary–and may help with acquiring a larger perspective on possible responses.  We have much material and experience, as well as creativity, imagination, and resourcefulness to draw into the viewfinders.  The UN Secretary General has similarly observed that the rebuilding effort of Sendai, Japan, four years after it was destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami, is a reminder that “we must turn all of the painful lessons of disasters into new policies for a better future.”

What the officials at the UN meeting in Sendai, Japan have concluded is that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, powerful storms in the Asia-Pacific region and ongoing conflicts around the world are compelling reminders that “health and stronger health system capacities must be central to the new framework for managing disaster risk,” as reported by U.N. health agency officials today.  Public health is interconnected with, and a foundational requirement for, the ability to withstand disasters of all kinds. In whatever language it is conveyed, this message is relevant to all people of the world…  Threats and unwelcome surprises come in many forms; traditional means of defense, including walls and barricades, may no longer suffice. Different thinking and relationships may be needed.

Illustration:  Graphite on paper by Black Elephant Blog author after "Group of Figures" sketch by Luca Cambiaso circa 1560s

Illustration: Graphite on paper by Black Elephant Blog author after “Group of Figures” sketch by Luca Cambiaso circa 1560s

As we have just completed a session on “Resilience” in the class I am co-teaching, for which we relied on some excellent materials from varied sources, my next blog post will assemble some notes in one place regarding some of the latest thinking and practices related to “resilience,” including what it is, and some of its characteristics.  How is resilience different from other sorts of preparedness and who needs to be involved?  How do we know when we are “resilient” enough in an age of high-impact, unknown probability risks?  Perhaps these notes–which draw from, among other sources, the helpful new book by Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, The Resilience Dividend–will be as useful to someone else as they have been to me recently!  As our class continues to explore:  Understanding more about resilience is important not only for island nations but for the health of nations generally.


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.)