A predictable surprise has six characteristics, according to Bazerman and Watkins, who wrote a book on the subject.
- Leaders knew that a problem existed and that it would not solve itself.
- Predictable surprises can be expected when organisational members (and/or stakeholders) recognise that a problem is getting worse over time.
- Fixing the problem would incur significant costs in the present, while the benefits of action would be delayed.
- Related to (3), measures to avoid predictable surprises require costs that constituencies will notice, but leaders are not rewarded or recognised for the disasters they helped to avert.
- Decision makers fail to prepare for predictable surprises because of a desire to maintain the status quo.
- A small and vocal minority benefits from inaction and is motivated to subvert the actions of leaders for their own private benefit.
The Postnormal Futures Institute has a similar concept, originally formulated by Vinay Gupta. The black elephant is a cross between a ‘black swan‘ and an elephant in the room, or, in Gupta’s words, “an event which is extremely likely and widely predicted by experts, but people attempt to pass it off as a black swan when it finally happens.”
The Grenfell Tower tragedy seems to match all of these conditions. The Observer journalist Jamie Doward has written an exhaustive piece this weekend outlining the multiple ways in which Grenfell Tower was a disaster waiting to happen. (The article is headlined ‘Chronicle of a tragedy foretold’, which you can read both as a nod towards Gabriel Garcia Marquez and also a suggestion that a big fire at a social housing block, somewhere in the UK, was ‘overdetermined‘.) It is a grim litany, and I am not going to diminish it by summarising it here. It is worth noting that he traces the first warnings on cladding to the 1990s; by the end of the decade the risks were widely flagged to local authorities by a House of Commons select committee.
Some Conservative ministers, including the thoughtless Boris Johnson, have tried to portray the fire as an accident rather than being the product of financially-motivated neglect, helped along by endless budget cuts.
The most telling detail for me was that the £10 million refurbishment of Grenfell Tower came in £1.4 million under budget, that one of the savings was apparently the £5,000 on cladding saved by buying the flammable version, and that the management of the KTCMO, as far as we know, didn’t stop for a moment to ask if that 14% saving had been achieved by cutting corners on quality or safety. I’d certainly be interested to see the minutes of that Board meeting, but I suspect the general tone was one of quiet congratulation.
One of the starkest chapters in Bazerman aand Watkins’ book is the one on 9/11, too often regarded as a ‘black swan’ event, in which they list myriad reports by official agencies warning of how lax US airport safety was, and the ways in which terrorism was evolving. Far from being a back swan, it turns out that 9/11 was a black elephant.
I’m not trying to compare Grenfell Tower to 9/11. For one thing, as I’ll discuss later in this post, slow violence is always different from, and more insidious than, quick violence. But as systems of political neglect, they have similarities. In particular, there is the political willingness to ignore a series of reports, even as they mount up on the desk apparently unread, as they seemed to do on the desk of Gavin Barwell, the then housing minister, now Theresa May’s Chief of Staff at Number 10.
In particular, one similarity is that the reason that the piles of reports were ignored is because of the business interests of those who would have had to implement the reforms. Before 9/11, the aviation sector lobbied the Bush administration to kill off security improvements.
In the case of Britain’s housing system, landlords lobbied the government to prevent reforms, also on the grounds of cost. In the US, with its more diffuse political system, the proposals simply got lost in the endless noise on Capitol Hill. In the UK, the Labour party introduced a bill to the Commons which was voted down by Conservative MPs. Again, the grounds were that they would have imposed too great a cost burden on landlords. Then again, British politics has been designed as a racket to protect the interests of landlords ever since the Conservatives’ wheeze in the 1980s to sell off council housing and prevent more being built, and many of the MPs who voted down the bill were landlords themselves.
The value of lives
Incidentally, one of the more contemptible things I have read this week is Megan McArdle’s article in Bloomberg that argued that we make cost-benefit decisions about the value of human life as a society all the time and that as a result bad things sometimes happen. But cost benefit analysis is never neutral. It always has social and political values encoded into it. But at least such arguments make the terrain visible. We know, when we see them, that we are dealing with a worldview driven by markets above social values.
Something similar, about a conflict of values, was seen in an evocative interview by Channel 4 News with someone who lives in the area.
Anyway, this overall sense that Grenfell Tower was a predictable surprise, that it could have happened at any one of 4,000 tower blocks in the UK, and that people who knew this decided to do nothing to reduce the risk of it, is, I think, the reason why the outpouring of public anger has been so quick and so hot. I was out of the country in the three days after the fire, but was astonished to read of spontaneous demonstrations outside Downing Street.
When you look at the history of civilian disasters in the UK over the past 50 years, a few stick out. At Aberfan, in 1966, 144 people died, most of them children, when a slag heap rolled down the hillside and destroyed the village school. In 1987 the Herald of Free Enterprise sank off Zeebrugge, killing 193. 167 people died on Piper Alpha in the North Sea. 96 died at Hillsborough, 66 died at Ibrox, and 56 died in the Bradford stadium fire. 31 people died in the King’s Cross fire and 31 in the Ladbroke Grove train crash.
In their own way, each of them were disasters where those who knew beforehand about what was going on were worried that there could be a disaster in the making. Often, the structural causes were long-run neglect, or a change in operating cultures that de-prioritised safety. All of them led to changes. Some of them had long-running political effects. As a Financial Times editorial said of King’s Cross:
The fire that swept through King’s Cross underground station in 1987 prompted tougher regulation, a huge programme of works to make the tube network safer and a fundamental rethink of approaches to fire safety. The towering inferno in North Kensington was a tragedy that could almost certainly have been prevented and it demands a similar response.
And one theme that run through all of them was captured by Ronnie King, the former chief fire officer who is now secretary to the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group:
“They seem to need a disaster to change regulations, rather than evidence and experience. It was the same with the King’s Cross fire and the Bradford City football club fire. They always seem to need a significant loss of life before things are changed.”
In other words this is about slow violence. The concept was developed by the environmentalist Rob Nixon, to describe the way that environmental disasters creep up on communities, before erupting as disasters. As one reviewer put it, slow violence represents “a refusal to speak only of short timescales, spectacular events, or visible environmental impacts”.
Subhankar Banerjee, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, explained the idea in this way:
Slow violence, however, as Nixon points out, occurs “out of sight.” He also works with two concepts of time: strictly temporal (slow or fast) and aesthetic (spectacular or unspectacular). Slow violence occurs, needless to say, “gradually”; the “insidious workings of slow violence derive largely from the unequal attention given to spectacular and unspectacular time.”
It’s clear, though, that slow violence is not limited to the environmental sphere. There are many forms of economic, political and social violence that also work in just the same way. Austerity is clearly one of them, along with the way that those cuts slowly and steadily erode any form of social wellbeing or social wage. When you read the accounts of the housing officers trying to maintain safety standards in social housing, or when fire safety audits are cancelled because of staff shortages, or–more widely–in community policing numbers or the end of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, these are all forms of slow violence.
Grenfell Tower was a tragedy, and it was a tragedy caused by accumulated years of slow violence. The politics of the tragedy started a long time ago. The conflagration made that slow violence suddenly visible to everyone.
. Bazerman, Max, and Watkins, Michael (2008). Predictable Surprises. HBR.
. Sadar, Ziauddin (2017). The Postnormal Times Reader. The Centre for Postnormal Policy & Futures Studies.
. Nixon, Rob (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press.
The image at the top of the post is from Wikimedia Commons. It was taken by Natalie Oxford and is shared here with thanks under a Creative Commons licence.