The wrong sort of evidence

Many years ago, on my commute home from London to Wendover, we used to get get regularly delayed by “leaves on the line” or “the wrong sort of snow”. Those days are long behind me. The experiences left me with a determination to avoid commuting like the plague.

Right now however, we have plagues of sorts, but the thinking that drove me away from commuting remains.

Over the years, we have developed an obsession with evidence based decision making.

My local council will not entertain measures to calm traffic along rural ‘rat run” routes without evidence of enough accidents. I assume that somewhere in their policy there is a CQ (“Carnage Quotient”) level that must be exceeded. A quality of evidence based that conveniently ignores the probability of an accident that will at least ruin someone’s day – if not their life – is high, but we need evidence.

We have known about the probability of a pandemic for decades, but in the absence of precise evidence as to when and where, we sidelined it. I guess we have evidence now. That’s OK then.

We know, beyond reasonable doubt that climate change, demographics, technology, and our current forms of capitalism all have high probabilities of causing increasingly disruptive events.

The wait for deterministic evidence is a form of predatory delay (great phrase – thank you Raj Tharotheram). A delay designed to procrastinate whilst we finish strip mining the planet for the benefit of a very few. Waiting for the evidence that this is so is likely to be life changing for many, if not lethal.

it’s about time I think we took the hint, and redefined our idea of evidence to incorporate something altogether more integrated.

Probabilistic as well as deterministic, or as my Grandmother would say as I passed her the eggs, sheer bloody common sense.

If we wait for those whom predatory delay benefits to finish strip mining before we take action, or for the bureaucrats for whom likelihood means an estimate of ROI is more difficult, we will wait a very long wait.

Over the next months, as we deal with the fallout of this crisis, we have a choice as to whther we go back to the old, fragile normal, or a new, less precise, less traditionally evidence based, less assymetric normal.

As we recover, we can choose who to work for, what to buy, how to live. It doesn’t need to be instantly radical, it can be incrementally radical. People obsessed with infinite growth will start to get the hint. The strip miners who uproot everything in pursuit of a very small part of what they excavate, leaving the rest as forms of social slag heap will start to get the hint.

We can decide what form of evidence we will accept as cause for action.

Friction

Friction gets a bad press. I don’t think it should.

Around a year ago, I wrote a short piece on Friction, and got some generous and thoughtful flak from a reader in the USA. A marine, he was steeped in the notion of friction as embodied in concepts of mission command, where friction is anything that slows down strategy execution. From his standpoint of course, he was right.

Friction as inefficient versus friction as signal.

A lesson for me. Be clear. What I was focused on was friction as a signal of resistance, of something not working. A constraint, as in a beautiful constraint where we turn the constraint to advantage. From “we can’t because” to “we can if”

The position we currently find ourselves in brought it to mind. As we struggle with the unknowns of Coronavirus, and even more with the unthinking fear it generates in people, we are faced with a tsunami of “we can’t because”.

Serious though the issue is, it’s a learning opportunity. The things we can’t do – fly, meet up, buy hand sanitiser – are all contraints with alternatives. The share price of Zoom, the video platform, has doubled in the last month. Not without reason. I now use zoom regularly, and am working to make it, rather than face to face, a default. Meet face to face and make it special, not routine.

For the next few months, we are going to be immersed in friction. Business very much not as usual. We should make the most of it, as individuals and businesses. because this is not a blip. It may be unexpected, but what it’s triggering is just a foretaste of what is to come with the reality of Brexit, the challenge as AI encroaches in all sorts of areas, and response to climate change makes the restrictions we are suddenly seeing on travel the norm.

The Airlines and Railways queuing up for bailouts are being given a foretaste. (and just why would we bail these businesses out? – dividends are not a divine right, and this is, in the end, a normal business risk. We don’t bail out homeowners whose houses flood.)

For individuals, it’s more nuanced. Evidence is already indicating that those who can, like working from home. They are more efficient, more engaged, and happier. The politics of the office reduce. Their networks support them. For the businesses, their hold over the employee reduces. When you’re working from home, who you’re working for sinks more into the background for those with in demand skills and doing great work.

So, how do we use this unexpected, if unwelcome opportunity that is Coronavirus?

  • Take note of the friction. Is it coming from how you’ve been used to working. If you changed that, would the friction reduce?
  • What might you do differently? Which established habits no longer serve you?
  • Where are the beginnings? As you improvise to cope, what new ideas and possibilities are emerging?

My Marine friend was right. Friction is a signal of inefficiency, but what is efficient is not always effective. Somewhere along the way, what is efficient can easily lock you into obsolete ways of working that are being replaced, into complacency and wilful blindness.

Friction is signal. Use it.

Are we nearly there yet?

For those of us interested in the nature of change, this is a fertile time.

It’s a though a whole bevy (what a great collective noun!) of black swans have taken flight (when they become a wedge – another great metaphor) and are heading right for us.

Our individual and collective reactions vary, but in general we tend to be negative. We see them as a potential threat, and hope that somehow we can stop them arriving – as though where we are now is where we really want to be.

We’d actually like other people to take care of it for us, whether its climate change, technology change, our politics or Brexit.

The inconvenient truth is that this is a system. All of it. And we’re part of that system. We have a duty to ourselves, and the communities we are part of not just to have a view, but to exercise it. We’re hugely privileged to live in what is still a democracy, no matter how bent out of shape it may have become.

What is clear is that these swan are coming in to land, and it behooves us to be ready. Depending on our mindsets, there will be as many positives (which we may not yet see) as there are negatives (most of which we see, and make up a few more for good measure)

What seems certain is that there will be significant change. I suspect, to switch metaphor, that it will be like a forest fire. It will take out old wood and dead wood to create room and nutrients for new growth. Parts of it will be frightening for us. It already is, because it’s something that is happening rather than something that is going to. We’re in the middle of it.

There’s lots we can do. We can not hope it will go away. We can not wait for somebody else to deal with it.

We can take action, no matter how small. Drive less, fly less, use technology, learn new ways of doing old habits, reduce unconscious dependence on chindogu. Use our imaginations. Refuse to be afraid. Do more than talk about it.

What we face is a great challenge, but that’s what, as humans, we are designed for.