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Shocks and system changes

Shocks and system changes

When we set out to understand things, we tend to look for regularities. Those structures on which we can rely become the foundations of our model of how things work. We anticipate events in terms of these models, either in chains of reasoning or, more commonly, by extrapolating trends - that if he goes on growing like this, little John will need new shoes next month. We can be surprised in three basic ways: our model may be 'broken' (John and his cohort may abruptly stop wearing shoes,) the trends that drive our model may be changed (John may stop growing altogether) or our model may be rendered irrelevant by extraneous events (John is hit by a truck.) Extraneous events are often not external to the model that we should have had - John was, after all, accustomed to play with his toys in the middle of the freeway. We should have seen the accident coming, and taken appropriate steps. We can be astonished even when we have a good model, but fail to calibrate it against the real world: after all, I played with my toys on that road, and all that went by was the occasional mule.

These three forms of surprise are all too common amongst those who manage organisations. We thought that we were managing a clearly-defined entity, our haberdashery store. However, our customers have stopped using that category and, when they need needle and thread, they go elsewhere. Second, the private demand for needles has almost vanished because few people now repair their own clothing. Third, a hypermarket has just opened outside the village. Life amongst the buttons and bows had been a sound option. What ground was there to suppose that it would not continue into the Twenty-first century? Would people not need clothes?

What has failed, of course, is the essential activity of model-building and imagination. As a result, the correct questions have not been asked. Crucial information may have been detected, but it has not been recognised. Children who play with ideas and symbols learn to sort the important from the gaudy, and they do so by creating models of what matters to them. This is an indirect, trial-and-error business at which one gets better only with group practice, and it is therefore both time-consuming and a natural target for those who want to charge into action. If there is one lesson of the knowledge economy, it is that doing things is relatively easy, at least as compared to deciding what to do. If our models are bad, we will be surprised by the results of both action and inaction.

There are, of course, events which reset the board in ways which the players cannot reasonably be expected to anticipate. The dinosaurs dining at Chixulub in Yucatan 64 million years ago may well have been concerned with their daily lives, but not their prospective atomisation. Equally, there are events - such as acts of terrorism - that can be anticipated in general terms, but not specifically. We need to create models of how the world works and test these to destruction against known facts, anticipated possibilities, research which we may have triggered, intelligence which we may have targeted for collection. If we know that terrorists might do such and so, and that this is intensely undesirable, the we have a fairly good measure of what to do in order to reduce the chances of it happening. That is not to say that such research is easy to undertake, but at least - unlike the dinosaurs - we know that we should look up.

There are some major trend breaks that might happen in the next two decades. Long lists of these - "a nuclear strike on New York" - are not very helpful, and also extremely easy to compile. Here are, however, a few issues that would both change the game in a fundamental way, and about which readers may be less aware. The list is not remotely comprehensive: please mail us if you have an idea which you would like to add. We have not discussed sociopolitical surprises - but, very much for example, consider the consequences of a pan-European Gray party, which aggressively represents the elderly and their interests.

Science and technology

Access to these building blocks and to the underlying patterns of information which manage them will allow dramatic practical things to be done. If we know how organisms develop from a single cell to an adult, for example, then this will not only show us how to parallel such processes in creating replacement organs, but will also probably indicate how to avoid the degeneration of those organs in the mature individual. The genes themselves, after all, undergo no miraculous regeneration when they are passed from generation to generation. The material content of the flesh - the constituent atoms - turns over quite quickly. What lasts, but unfortunately does not last too well, is the pattern of ordering which is imposed by the developmental 'roll out' of the genes on the developing organism. It may well be that the major thrust in health care shifts from treating malfunction to the avoidance of degeneration, and to a plethora of elective changes to the body.

Further, the lessons from how cognition works may be applicable to any complex structure that processes information, such as large organisations and societies. Additionally, the capacity to understand and interact with our own sources of awareness and motivation present therapeutic, philosophical and acute social issues which we will need to address.

Materials science may also lead to sharply improved catalysts, allowing - for example - methane (natural gas) to be transformed to a fluid that can be easily shipped and transformed. The scale on which methane is available (from, for example, the deep sea bed) but which is currently non-economic to exploit due to transportation costs would mean that this was a body blow to the industry that transforms petroleum and petroleum derived chemicals, as well as to the countries which have major oil reserves.

Other transformational possibilities include the easy synthesis of diamond from natural gas for use as a constructional material. Writers have imagined using the strength of diamond to enclose large volumes of vacuum, and so constructing buildings on a "hanging-downwards" principle, or creating vast transparent dirigibles to transport people and freight: Lucy in the sky with diamonds, indeed. What is certainly true is that extremely strong, light and flexible materials will be coming forward, perhaps from conventional manufacture, perhaps from bioengineered plants. One daring scheme to manage atmospheric carbon dioxide suggests that trees coud be bred which laid down diamond or graphite in their tissues. (Both of these are, of course, made solely of carbon.) This form of carbon would, however, avoid bacterial decay and could therefore be safely harvested and either used for semi-permanent construction or else dumped into the deep ocean trenches for its eventual burial by geological processes! One might live in a house, or perhaps drive a car which was made of diamond wood. One would certainly not drive a steel vehicle, or open a package wrapped in petrochemical-derived plastic.

The natural world

However, it is also clear that mankind is simplifying the systems on which we live, partly by agriculture, fisheries and obstacle clearance and partly by introducing species which are thereafter capable of wiping out native organisms. The wild plants of Cambridgeshire in the UK are estimated to be only 23% as diverse as they were 50 years ago, due to intensive farming. Around 80% of the plant life in Florida consists of non-native species, and virtually all of the Californian grasslands consist of introduced plants. Our farming, too, relies on a few varieties of a few crop species - maize, wheat, rice and so forth.

It used to be believed that complex ecologies were naturally more resilient and productive than simple ones but this is, at best, only lightly supported by experiment. However, it is plainly true that communal susceptibility to catastrophic impacts from pests and diseases is greater in simple communities than in more complex ones. Cotton in the coastal deserts of Peru, for example, are routinely smothered by insect pests in numbers that blacken the sky until their predators in their turn build up in numbers. Ireland was subjected to famine in the 1840s because a new disease wiped out its monoculture of potatoes. Phylloxera did much the same to French vines decades later. The pressure to evolve new pests has been artificially augmented by man, and man should not be surprised if one of our world crops proves susceptible. Or, indeed, whether we ourselves turn out to be the designated host.

Once again, it should be stressed that such changes are only a tiny (and anticipated) range of what may actually occur. Please note that it is far easier to foresee downside changes, for if we are able to perceive a system, so it is straightforward to imagine a spanner in its works. We are, therefore, astounded by and frequently resistant to 'upside' surprises, where the system begins unexpectedly to work better than before. As systems changes upset our world, we tend to appeal to traditional values, community spirit and human dignity in our attempts to deny ourselves the benefit of the improvement. It proved possible to fuel Britain's coal fired power stations with imported fuel, in place of traditional deep pits. Production fell from around 110 million tonnes per annum to below 10 million tonnes. During the consequent industrial unrest, press and other commentators spoke as though it was an object of compassion and essential policy to send men two miles under the Earth to dig for rocks, and so to pay far more than was necessary for electricity. Sentimentality about the obsolete is is a tendency to note and, where it creates costs and no benefits, it is a tendency to avoid.

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