Is change really going to come?

It was no so long ago, about three months ago from my fading memory, that pundits were predicting that life would be forever changed by the pandemic. “Nothing will ever be the same again” was the kind of headline I recall reading. No more going to work in an office, no more handshakes, no more getting on airplanes to travel to far flung places. We were all going to be humble and above all more human.

I’m not so sure about that. It’s hard to predict what will happen next, but I think it’s worth a go. My feeling at the moment is that there will not be a significant second wave. There will be outbreaks, but they will be dealt with by regional lockdowns or separation for certain groups of people. We are already seeing this, although what’s interesting to me is that any re-growth in cases is not being met by any similar growth in hospital admissions. Maybe cases are now among groups that are more able to fight the virus, or perhaps the virus has mutated into something less dangerous than before (as an aside, I’m also cynical about a vaccine on the basis that it seems to assume that there is a single strain and a single vaccine will thus defeat it). I am also optimistic that the global economy will snap back to business as usual faster than many people expect.

But back to change, or the lack of it.

Janan Ganesh, writing in the FT, has observed that it is one thing to renounce an activity when it is no longer an option, another to continue to do so once a temptation has tangibly returned. My view is that many of our habits are hard-wired, built up over decades of familiarly and use. Moreover, human memories are increasingly short and there is probably a desire to forget what has just happened and move on. Therefore, many of our old ways will return and something resembling the outskirts of normal will be back before we know it. That sounds like a good thing, and it is on so many fronts, but it also perhaps represents the loss of a once in a generation opportunity to redesign how the world works. With the end of Covid-19 may come the death of hope for significant change.

Corona is not a Black Swan Event

Bank scenarios from 2005

There is a narrative slowly emerging that Corona (Covid-19) is a true Black swan event. For example, according to Fred Cleary, a portfolio manager at Pegasus Capital, quoted in the FT’s excellent Long View Column, “Covid-19 is a black swan”. I could be wrong, but from recollection of reading the book, a Black Swan event is something that people cannot possibly imagine and therefore cannot possibly predict.

9/11 was a Black Swan event. Corona virus is not. In scenario-speak it is a wild card event that breaks all scenarios, but this is most definately not something that has not been foreseen. I worked with an Australian bank back in 2005 and a pandemic was on the table so to speak. It was one of the main topics of a UK government risk workshop in 2015 (by main topic I mean it was one of the events considered most probable (when not if as they say), it featured in some strategic trends work with the UK Ministry of Defence too (again, as a strategic shock), in some library scenarios, some work for KPMG and finally some disruption cards created with Imperial College.

The problem, of course, is not predicting, forecasting or foreseeing, but in assigning probability to such events or ideas. If the probability is widely considered to be low it will be largely ignored. It also touches on not what, but whom, in the sense of who gets listened to, why and when. BTW, is this is all a bit doom and gloom, my view is that the current pandemic is quite mild in terms of mortality. This too will pass, although next time we may not be so lucky.

From the Bookends Scenarios (PLNSW) 2010
KPMG cards circa 2012
Imperial Disruption cards 2018 – note linkages between cards

Some things you can see coming…

i just remembere that i wrote this back in 2012 for a book called The Future: 50 Ideas you really need to know. Of course, if you write enough, and then wait long enough, almost anything can come true.

The text below is from the draft, so doesn’t exactly appear above.

41 Biohazards & Plagues

You might have noticed that some of the previous ideas where perhaps getting a little silly. Or perhaps I was.  No drama. This next lot of ideas will soon sort us all out.  Instead of intelligent machines, immortality and alien life how about a few mass extinctions, genetic terrorism or some good old-fashioned plagues?

Something, sometimes, strikes me as rather odd.  Namely that we somehow assume that life will go on, more or less as it has always done. But ‘always’ is actually a rather contemporary concept. We compare the present to the relatively recent past. This we do not take into account, for example, world wars one and two (around 70 million men, women and children killed) or the great flu pandemic of 1918-19 (somewhere in the region of 20-40 million dead). Going much further back we had the Black Death, which killed something like 30-60% of Europe’s population.

We’ve been lucky.  So, what other doomsday scenarios are there out there? Well it’s another long list. The problem is essentially two-fold. First more of us are living closer together in crowded cities and moving around in an interconnected world more easily thanks to various regulations and innovations in transport and infrastructure. We’ve even got our animals closer together – and closer to us some might argue – than previously. This means that when something nasty like a naturally occurring pathogen does break out it travels much faster – and has the potential to travel much faster and further between species too.  This goes some way to explain recent outbreaks of H5N1 virus, SARS, dengue and Ebola, all of which initially originated in Animals and were then spread by humans.

The second problem is technology. New technologies are emerging faster, many are quite powerful and many can be used in bad ways as well as good.  Genetics is a case in point. Genetics means that it is possible to create new and novel micro-organisms. Most of the time genetics will be for peaceful and products purposes. But there is no reason why some day someone (it’s Dr Evil again) won’t do something a little more sinister. As usual this has happened already in a sense. Smallpox and anthrax have been used as weapons before and more recently we’ve had the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system where the result of a few deranged minds.  So how about someone creating a new deadly micro-organism which, for instance, is only lethal to a specific race or ethnicity? Stealth and deniability all rolled into one.

Consequences? Apart from an outbreak of fear there would be an initial issue relating to the mass disposal of bodies. Many of the ideas we cherish – like saying good bye to loved ones or being able to visit their graves, might vanish. We would be back to plague pits, at least in the early days. There are also the economic effects.

Work done by Warwick McKibbin at the Lowry Institute in Sydney (quoted in Alok Jha’s book, The Doomsday Handbook) suggest that a mild repeat of the 1918 flu pandemic would kill almost 1.5 million people and would reduce economic output by b$330 billion (in 2006 prices).

A large repeat might kill 142 million and shrink output in some economies by as much as 50%.  Or maybe it’s more prosaic than that. Maybe the next plague is Type-2 Diabetes?  Maybe millions will die simply because they eat too much and don’t go outside and walk around enough. As for biotech disasters, the potential is serious mishaps is significant. What if poor synthetic biology regulation leads to people taking short-cuts, which leads to the creation of a new form of bug that can’t be got rid of using any known techniques? The bug might not be a problem on its own, but if it destroyed the world’s wheat, maize or rice crop the result could be mass starvation within particular regions.

Or maybe problems will occur from a combination of factors. What if global demands for meat creates issues surrounding the disposal of animal carcasses? This could cause a growth in feral dogs in some parts of the world that could lead to massive increases in rabies. Or what if a global economic boom meant more pool building swimming pools, but the boom is followed by bust and the homes are repossessed leading to stagnant water in swimming polls, which in combination with warmer weather caused by climate change leads to outbreaks of malaria?

BTW, worth pointing out the 2012 entry on the timeline for this, which reads: “A typical year for the common flu (3,000-5,000 killed in the USA). ” Context people, context.

What might we eventually see in space?

To boldy go…

Here’s a visual showing some of the things that might theoretically be possible in the distant future. Note that all the ideas listed here are possible from a laws of physics point of view, although the engineering challenges and costs associated with most of them are, shall we say, a bit ‘far out’.

The way this works is that the ideas that are closest (larger type) are nearer than the things far away (in smaller type). There’s some vague clustering of ideas too (for example, human habitation, propulsion, water and so on).

The ideas are as follows:

First woman on the moon

First human never to breathe Earth’s air

Mass emigration of climate refugees into space

More humans in space than on Earth

Use of lunar lava tubes for human habitation

Space cities with pseudo-gravity & circadian rhythm simulation

Discovery of AI-controlled data-farms on distant planet

Discovery of AI ‘lifeform’ in space

Verification of panspermia hypothesis

Proof that the Universe is a simulation

Genetic engineering of space colonists for increased resilience

Terra-forming exoplanets with bacteria

Use of Synthetic biology to detoxify space soil for agriculture

Space seeds specially bred for space soils

Human DNA storage vaults in space

Microbes found in meteorites

Liquid water found on distant planet

Asteroid mining for minerals & water

Refuelling of fusion-powered craft with water from comets

3-D printing of space food

First hamburger grown in space

 3D & 4-D printing of space cities in-situ

Self-reconfiguring modular robots for space-based construction

Peak space junk limits launch of satellites from Earth

Space junk removal using 2-D space dumpsters

Companies fined for space littering

1-gram laser sailing nano-craft

Interstellar pit stops & ‘shipyards’

Worm-hole travel to shorten space journeys

Nuclear blast propulsion

Beam-powered propulsion

Reactionless drive

Dark matter harvesting for propulsion purposes

Dark energy engines (warp-drive)

Dyson sphere around the Sun to harvest energy

Fostering collisions between dead stars to create energy

Propulsion systems allow for relocation of planets

Accidental destruction of an exoplanet

Rearrangement of constellations to send message to a future intelligence

Space mirrors to reduce global warming on Earth

Beaming space solar power to Earth using lasers

Fake moons (illumination satellites)

PDF for printing here.

This chart was created to boldly go where no infographic has gone before by Professor Roberto Trotta and Richard Watson at Imperial College London. Thanks to Lawrence (Wond Design), Maria (Imperial Tech Foresight) and Sergiu (ex Imperial, aerospace engineering). If NASA eventually read this, the answer is yes! Printable PDF is coming…