Your choice of seating at work may affect much more than your sensory pleasure at knowing when someone is eating tuna fish or onions versus citrus fruit or chocolate. Google has discovered that it's the most important factor in your being in the loop: in particular, whether you win or lose based on your close colleagues' prediction market trading.
(See 'heat map' at right: successful traders are depicted in green; losing traders in red).
'Real' traders take note! (Pick your desk-mates carefully.)
Random thought: this adds a whole new dimension to the elaborate strategies seasoned business travelers use to get primo seating on airplanes. Exit row? No thanks. Just give me the seat next to Warren Buffett.
From global warming to obesity, bird flu to terrorism: 2007 was the year when the threat of an apocalypse became an everyday, even banal public issue... The fear market in apocalyptic scenarios continued to flourish in 2007. Almost every week we were told that ‘the situation’ is far worse than we originally thought... Public figures appear to have lost the capacity to reassure or lead people. Instead, they frequently opt for evoking frightening futuristic scenarios where the line between fiction and reality become unclear.
One consequence of Western societies’ obsessive preoccupation with the apocalypse-to-come is that less and less creative energy is devoted to confronting the all too important problems that exist in the here and now. Take the global credit crunch unleashed by the sub-prime home loan crisis this year for instance.
In terms of its material impact, this was arguably the most significant event of the year. After more than a decade of economic stability, the world economy faces the threat of a major recession with important implications for people’s lives. This threat may not make an exciting plot for a sci-fi movie, but it has a direct bearing on the quality of life of millions of people. It also raises important questions about an economic system that is so heavily reliant on using fictitious capital to reproduce itself.
Events over the past 12 months suggest that what we think and how we think influences how we experience our reality.
Some rules and questions we use to avoid these traps and test whether scenarios are useful include:
Are scenarios sufficiently orthogonal to and distinct from one another? Does each embody both 'good' and 'bad' elements? Real world developments are seldom all good or all bad at the same time and from the same perspective. If participants in a scenario workshop find it trivial to line up the scenarios in the same way from "good/easy for us" to "bad/frightening for us", we haven't done our job of representing real-world nuance in hypothetical future stories.
Do scenarios incorporate "here and now" events and choices? (We usually embody these in what we call 'events', a component of modular scenarios). Scenarios entirely about some far-off, visionary 'place' with no explicit ties to current issues are seldom useful beyond the fiction stacks.
Are scenarios directly comparable to current conventional wisdom? (I.e., as Furedi puts it, "how we think... [and] experience our [present] reality"). Without a concrete "you are here dot" scenario that represents what constituents are thinking and assuming, it's impossible to describe how "far away" hypothetical future scenarios really are, or what change they imply. If I'm contemplating a trip to Miami, it helps to know (in terms of budgeting, preparation and mode of transport whether I'm currently in Juneau, Ft. Lauderdale or Tiera del Fuego.
Zenpundit Mark offers some important insights in this piece, discussing the role that historians might play in helping elected officials to set public policy--especially on the ever-tumultuous and always uncertain international stage. Mark writes [emphasis added]:
As a discipline, history requires the cultivation of a very large cognitive map that serves both as a knowledge base as well as a starting point for recognizing patterns and analogies. Historians spend much time assessing the validity and reliability of data and discerning cause and effect.
Like scientists ( perhaps the only time when historians are like scientists), historians attempt to isolate causation from mere correlation. When policy makers have to deal with uncertainty, historians can reduce that uncertainty at the margins by providing the context in which to make logical extrapolations...
His observations are equally valid on a smaller
scale: helping executives set strategy and (in some cases)
deliberately shape the future of their industry.
Often, I've found, the skill-sets and 'cognitive maps' needed to recognize strategic patterns, develop appropriate analogies (flawed ones are relatively easy to churn out!), and provide a rich, shared context for uncertain decisions don't have a natural home inside most large organizations. That's not a complaint but a fact--and a pragmatic one in an investment environment characterized by its orientation to short-term results.
Where such capabilities existed at all, they used to reside in the strategic planning function. (Younger readers would not be faulted for asking "what's that?")
As more and more of them have been down-sized as unaffordable luxuries, handed off to individual business units, or turned into glorified budgeting mills (repeat after me: "the Excel 'goal-seek' function is not a scenario generator..."), very few have retained the integrative cross-functional or cross-unit (much less the cross-industry, cross-geography and cross-time) perspectives needed to inform big-ticket strategic decisions.
What's needed to turn the seeming surprise of today's urgent corporate decision into an historically rooted, deeply contextualized choice?
Exactly the same kind of context-setting, "map-making" capability and cross-functional engagement (deciders with academics) that Mark observes to be lacking in the higher echelons of government.
Cartegic does that with modular scenarios, wherein each scenario-building component references analogous situations faced by other industries, in other markets, with other technologies, by other clients and/or at different points in time. (Side note: the dot.com era, as most now appreciate, did not "re-invent" the rules of business; it merely made some business models more viable--and some less viable--than they had been before.)
With the view of the historian (whether geopolitical, industrial or technical) seemingly open-ended, highly uncertain, "new to the world" decisions without any apparent guideposts can be brought down to earth and seen as natural (if imperfect) analogues to things that have gone before.
As the saying goes: "there's nothing new under the sun".
That's not a popular view in Silicon Valley (or biotech for that matter), but it's true. Many things that appear to be unique, industry-specific issues are only regarded as such because lifelong industry insiders are rendering the judgment.
All historians understand that they must never, ever talk about the future. Their discipline requires that they deal in facts, and the future doesn't have any yet. A solid theory of history might be able to embrace the future, but all such theories have been discredited. Thus historians do not offer, and are seldom invited, to take part in shaping public policy. They leave that to economists.
But discussions among policy makers always invoke history anyway, usually in simplistic form. "Munich" and "Vietnam," devoid of detail or nuance, stand for certain kinds of failure. "Marshall Plan" and "Man on the Moon" stand for certain kinds of success. Such totemic invocation of history is the opposite of learning from history, and Santayana's warning continues in force, that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.
I see this often in my work with large organizations. Both positive and negative milestones in corporate history get concatenated into iconic (and largely useless) buzzwords. E.g., "Macintosh" may refer to halcyon days when Apple could do no wrong, while "New Coke" might refer to the need to understand one's customers. Such newspeak makes for shorter conversations but as Brand notes, it doesn't exactly lead to precision.
Mark adds (sagely):
Historians, of course, are just as liable to bias as anyone else, so no pretensions to omniscience should be aired.
To which I would add: amen!... with one amendment...
The best kinds of map-makers don't try to bury or deny their inevitable human biases (reporters and news editors take note) but rather work to clarify and acknowledge them. To wit:
Ever notice how world maps are centered on the country that produced them and oriented so that that country is towards the top? My understanding of how deeply rooted bias can be in making maps (geographic, cognitive or otherwise) was altered on a trip to New Zealand where I came across this.
Check out this extremely cool visualization of how life expectancy relates to national income, region and population--all over time (be sure to press the 'play' button in the lower left). Cleverly (a la Tom Barnett's core and gap concept), the tool is called the "Gap Minder".
Everyone's mind works a little differently, but if there's universal truth in the adage that "a picture is worth a thousand words", then such data-rich portrayals of complex interrelationships have got to be worth millions. In a world increasingly dominated by PowerPoint, we can only hope that they will play a much bigger part in our public and private dialogues about dynamic, complex problem spaces.
Following up on communications resiliency in and around the PRC after the Taiwan earthquake (previous posts here and here) an individual from Telegeography (whose maps I'd linked to in those posts) contacted me with links to maps that more accurately portray what I'd been seeking: physical undersea cable routes (page soon to be updated, I'm told), as well as overland routes and services between Asia and Europe via Russia... all of which is only as useful as the knowledge, foresight and budgets of those charged with provisioning resilient capacity for offices in-region.