The Coronavirus Crisis and the Inevitability of Improbable Scenarios

The Coronavirus Crisis and the Inevitability of Improbable Scenarios

April 3rd, 2020 | Posted in Planning Futuring Strategy, Science & Tech

One month ago I bought plane tickets for a trip months in advance.
One month ago I noticed the stock markets reaching yet another high and chose to ignore all the warning signs of a looming recession.
One month ago I read about a virus in China and figured it was too far away to worry about.

In hindsight all these choices were irrational. The information I considered was selective. The way I interpreted the information I selected was driven by wishful thinking. In other words I’m human.

The coronavirus pandemic has been called a black swan or a wildcard event. These events are “unpredictable” (was it really?) or low probability events (more on this later) with high impact. Impacts which cascade beyond direct causal mechanisms and destabilize larger, seemingly unrelated systems.

This event was predicted by experts, so why didn’t we act in time?

If I ask you about your probability of ever dying, you’d probably answer 100%. (I’ll exempt the transhumanists in my network). But if asked about your probability of dying tomorrow or within the next month or even year, you’d (hopefully) reduce that probability significantly. In other words, there is no particular day, month or even year that sticks out as particularly opportune to kick the bucket, so a probability event with a certainty of 100% ends up being considered a highly unlikely event at any given time. At least whenever we’re not skydiving or trekking in a jungle with dangerous animals.

I believe we approach other wildcard scenarios the way we approach the prospect of our own death. We may be aware of their certainty, but we fail to act as if they are high probability events because we don’t know exactly when they occur.

This is closely tied to what we call hyperbolic discounting, or our psychological tendency to discount the value of a later reward, by a factor that increases with the length of the delay. In other words we will continue to stick our heads in the sand knowing very well the costs will escalate the longer we postpone our action in response to an inevitable event. We continue to plan vacations, risk our retirement savings and go about our daily lives as if it will never happen. Until it does.

It turns out the pandemic was predicted not only by experts, but also by AI. The Canadian AI-system BlueDot did one more thing that the experts couldn’t: It predicted when the outbreak occurred. Through natural language processing of various news sources, disease networks and airline ticketing data it managed to see this new strain of pneumonia in Wuhan as an important emerging issue. Combine this insight with GIS-data showing movements and interactions between humans, and you could run a number of simulations showing how this Goldilock bug (weak enough to piggyback on viable hosts, strong enough to wreak havoc on healthcare) would become a global pandemic of unprecedented proportions.

The world as we know it is coming to halt. While we are banished to our houses, physically isolating while socially interacting across home offices and platforms, this might be the best time to consider some of the other highly probable, yet so unpredictable scenarios that are sure to eclipse us in the future. One such scenario is the looming climate crisis. It is worth noticing that the reduction in carbon footprints we didn’t think we could do for the climate we are now forced to endure in our efforts to “flatten the curve”. Had we slowly transitioned toward a greener, more local and more digital economy, the economic consequences of the pandemic might have been alleviated as well.

Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste

When your house is on fire, your first response is to take the fire out. But if you discovered the cause of the fire, you’d probably take steps to prevent another one. When it comes time to rebuild, you would probably use better construction materials and wiring, grounded circuit boxes and better engineering throughout.

This is why using foresight and anticipating the “inevitable improbable” is essential in times of crisis. As we plan how to rebuild our post-pandemic world we could easily let things slip into old patterns which all but guarantees we will go through this again. Alternatively we can choose to face the improbable we know is coming, and make the necessary transformations to be prepared.

About Anne Boysen

Anne Boysen is a professional futurist with an M.S. in Strategic Foresight from the University of Houston and Graduate Certificate in Business Analytics, and extensive training in data mining and predictive modeling from Colorado State and Penn State universities.