Learning from the Pandemic
Much meaningful innovation arises through a lack of money, time, people or other resource. These ‘system boundaries’ force us to see things differently. Thus, we can learn from a pandemic how to adapt our behaviour in response, say, to environmental threats. Opportunities like this don’t seem to come around often. Yet, systems are all around us, in high-impact global risk, and we can learn to think in ‘their language’.
While COVID may feel scary to us now, infectious disease features as a risk ‘less-likely’ and ‘lower-impact’ in 2020’s World Economic Forum Global Risks Perception Survey. According to the thought-leadership from Davos, if we think Coronavirus has been disruptive, just wait until we’re hit by the full force of climate change.
There’s one particular question that seems to be puzzling the armchair scientists: in spite of several weeks’ notice, why were so many people caught out by the speed at which the pandemic spread? One reason is that we are used to linear ‘straight-line’ thinking. As Sir Isaac Newton tried to teach us: ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.’ Yet, the kind of risks we are now encountering are systemic issues, which behave fundamentally differently to the kinds of ‘straight-line’ puzzles we are more used to solving — most unlike apples falling from trees on a windless day. By their nature, complex problems are ‘messy’ and respond unpredictably when we try to intervene.
Models developed in one setting are rarely transferable to another, even though the contexts may seem similar. Most of us had switched off science by the time that lesson came around.
When we think of time in a linear way — equally-spaced days, weeks and years — we fail to notice things getting worse. Logarithmic scales can show us the rate of change, as explains. This is the school maths that we whined we would never need. But it’s critical to help us evaluate risk properly.
Complex systems are characterised by delay followed by sudden change that can be very difficult to control. As we have seen, pandemic spread can be measured in days and weeks; our bodies might take decades to show the effects of earlier abuse; and climate change has taken 100 years to exhibit obvious symptoms.
When dangers interact, the picture becomes even messier. Whether you’re a company or country, these interdependencies — say, between transport and energy; or staying at home and buying toilet roll — make or break your ability to effect change. They teach us the critical importance of collaborating across corporate and national boundaries. If we hoard all the hand-sanitizer, the people without will become dangerous. We might also want to think about the markets without ventilators or testing kits.