thenextwave

Grenfell Tower, predictable surprises and slow violence

Posted in future, politics by thenextwavefutures on 19 June, 2017

Grenfell_Tower_fire_(wider_view)

A predictable surprise has six characteristics, according to Bazerman and Watkins, who wrote a book on the subject.[1]

  1. Leaders knew that a problem existed and that it would not solve itself.
  2. Predictable surprises can be expected when organisational members (and/or stakeholders) recognise that a problem is getting worse over time.
  3. Fixing the problem would incur significant costs in the present, while the benefits of action would be delayed.
  4. 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.
  5. Decision makers fail to prepare for predictable surprises because of a desire to maintain the status quo.
  6. 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.”[2]

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.

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Robin Hood, austerity, and the “burden” of tax

Posted in history, politics by thenextwavefutures on 19 February, 2016
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Picture by Randen Pederson, via Flickr. Published under a Creative Commons licence, CC BY 2.0

James Meek offered a different account of the Robin Hood story in his recent London Review of Books lecture at the British Museum. Essentially, he argued that the underlying idea of Robin Hood, the apparently progressive notion that “he takes from the rich to give to the poor,” had been captured by pro-austerity politicians and rewritten as a story about the evils of tax.

Meek’s text has now been published by the paper, along with a recording of the lecture. In this post I’ve improvised a little around his argument before adding some reflections of my own.

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1932 and all that

Posted in banks, economics, history by thenextwavefutures on 12 May, 2013

I’m indebted to a letter in The Guardian for this account by J K Galbraith of the history of the American economy between 1929′ the year of the Crash, and 1932, the last year of the Hoover administration:

“Gradually interest rates were brought down. The rate at which banks could borrow was 1.5%, hardly a usurious charge. Bonds were bought on a considerable scale and the resultant cash went out to the banks. Soon the banks were flush with lendable funds.

“All that remained was for customers to come to the banks. Now came a terrible discovery. The customers wouldn’t come. Even at the lowest rate they didn’t think they could make money. And the banks wouldn’t lend to those who were so foolish as to believe that they could.”

And people say that history never repeats itself.

 

The image is a 1932 cartoon mocking Hoover for asserting that prosperity was just around the corner. It is from the Princeton Alumni Weekly,  and is used with thanks. 

Ten notes on the financial crisis (guest post)

Posted in blindspot, climate change, economics, finance, politics, sustainability by thenextwavefutures on 2 April, 2013

RobTheWorldOver at the excellent Global Dashboard, Alex Evans has a post reflecting on the things he and David Stevens called wrong (and less wrong), looking through their development and poverty lens, in the aftermath of the crisis. In a similar spirit, my sometime colleague Ian Christie sent me ‘Ten notes on the crisis’, representing his take on what we’d learnt about economics and politics since 2008. I thought they deserved a wider audience. And so, with his permission, I’m republishing his Ten Notes here. They start below the fold.

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