Monthly Archives: January 2013

Resilient Infrastructure – A Win,Win Response to Natural Disasters

Sunrise7 Creative Commons

Photo: Sunrise7

bert knot Creative Commons

Photo: bert knot 






Over the past month, Australia has experienced record breaking heat waves, bush fire disasters, rainfalls and flooding. Certain parts of the east coast have now had their 6th hundred year storm in ten years. Whatever the causes of this cycle of natural disasters, it is perfectly clear that severe weather will continue to have an extreme impact on national security, the economy and the safety of people around the world.

In Australia, as in many countries, government administration in the areas of emergency management, national security, health and the economy remain largely silo based. Disaster preparedness and recovery are seen as costs rather than investments. As a result, budgets are always under pressure and the traditional likelihood vs impact risk analysis approach is used to justify low levels of preparedness on the grounds of economic pragmatism.

In Japan, a country which also has a history of recurring cycles of natural disasters of wildly fluctuating magnitudes, attitudes are very different. Rather than treating each extreme event as a unique, once off, never to be repeated disaster, people accept the inevitability of natural disasters and act accordingly. As a result, preparedness is accepted as a core aspect of engineering and social planning.

Following the recent election in Japan, the government has announced an economic stimulus package which includes a significant investment in ‘nation toughening’ projects. These projects follow previous infrastructure investments which have not only raised the level of resilience but also facilitated economic growth and supply chain improvements.

In Australia and other countries, government investment and incentives for large scale private/public resilience and preparedness projects would deliver a win, win result. At a small scale, a national network of community ‘bushfire bunkers’ could stimulate regional development and offer protection for those whose evacuation routes have been closed. At a larger scale, flood management infrastructure can be developed which incorporates improvements to transport and irrigation systems.

After another month of ‘surprises’, it’s time to start expecting the unexpected and explore the opportunities for ‘nation toughening’ projects in your country.

Jumping out of the goldfish bowl – part 1


In yesterday’s post, I presented a goldfish bowl-half empty view of the prospects we face to internalise insights from cognitive science and develop new behaviours to better deal directly with our complex environment.

Now, I’d like to start considering more of a goldfish bowl-half full view and ideally, get some ideas on how we can escape the loop of forgetfulness (or denial).

To start, and in keeping with the historical references behind some of these ideas, let’s begin with Heinrich Hertz’s introduction to The Principles of Mechanics in 1899.

The most direct, and in a sense the most important, problem which our conscious knowledge of nature should enable us to solve is the anticipation of future events, so that we may arrange our present affairs in accordance with such anticipation. As a basis for the solution of this problem, we always make use of our knowledge of events which have already occurred, obtained by chance observation or by prearranged experiment…… When from our accumulated previous experience we have once succeeded in deducing images of the desire nature, we can then in short time develop by means of them, as by means of models, the consequences which in the external world of models, the consequences which in the external world only arise in a comparatively long time, or as the result of our own interposition. We are thus enabled to be in advance of the facts, and to decide as to present affairs in accordance with the insight so obtained….

The images which we may form of things are not determined without ambiguity by the requirement that the consequents of the images must be images of the consequents. Various images of the same objects are possible, and these images may differ in various respects. We should at once denote as inadmissible all images which implicitly contradict the laws of our thought. Hence we postulate in the first place that all our images shall be logically permissible – or, briefly, that they shall be permissible.

You hear in these words, some of the fundamentals of science, the principle of rational analysis and decision making behaviours and, by extension, the fundamentals of risk management.

What happens when nature is found to be contradictory to current knowledge? What happens when our knowledge of previous events does not prepare us for the future or leads to assume incorrectly that we are ‘in advance of the facts’?

Clearly, in some situations, the quality of our evidence may be poor and a lack of logical consistency might be proof of poor data and rightly ignored.

Scientific discovery often introduces new evidence which contradicts the ‘facts’. Over time, experimentation and consistency of evidence leads to new ‘facts’. The more counterintuitive, the harder it is to accept these new facts. In 1899 Hertz wrote about ‘mechanics’ – the ideas of that time are now taken for granted and we have moved on to grapple with quantum mechanics.

If we are to accept the growing body of consistent evidence regarding the psychology (and possibly the underlying physics) of our behaviour, we will need to find a way to apply Hertz’s framework to a world which we are beginning to realise remains largely unknown from the past and contradictory to our present common sense.

Instead of expecting tomorrow to be like yesterday, we will need to learn how to expect the unexpected.

In 2013 we will solve the problem of extreme forgetfulness – again

In 2012 there seemed to be a lot of new content related to understanding human behaviour. From bottom up via neuroscience & biopsychology, top down via social science, social psychology and behavioural economics and middle out via cognitive psychology.

At least it seemed like a lot to me, probably because I was actively looking to feed my own hunger for knowledge in this area.

A look at Google Trends however shows that 2012 was just an average year for ‘behavioural psychology’ headlines compared to the heyday peaks from 2004 – 2006. Closer inspection indicated that this specific phrase is only trending in the UK, Australia, Canada and India. Ahhh – I thought – although American by birth, these days I speak an Australian variation of the Queen’s English and therefore looked for ‘behavioural psychology’ trends.

If you look at the trend for the US spelling, ‘behavioral psychology’, you see that 2012 was a pretty good year for the search term. Maybe the US is just catching up with the rest of the English speaking world, or maybe the rest of the English speaking world has started to use the US spelling for publications. Or maybe something else.

For what it’s worth, if you look at ‘cognitive psychology’ – a search phrase which avoids the spelling issue, the graph looks more like the English result for ‘behavioural psychology’ while ‘social psychology’ searches have been on a definite downward slope since 2005.

While I pursue my Google led education, trend analysis of search terms helps me to visualise the long tail of the usage of concepts which might have been new to me, but obviously have been evolving for some time.

So how do these results relate to forgetfulness? Well, trend and citation analysis can help highlight the mind boggling amount of content that is related to these behavioural concepts which are often described by present day authors and journalists as new and groundbreaking. While the old saying that a wizened guru expert has forgotten more than you’ll ever know about a subject might not be true, it seems quite likely that our collective consciousness has forgotten almost all of the things ever written about behavioural psychology.

Recently, I saw a number of twitter and blog discussions putting forward the view that Nassim Taleb’s new Antifrigility book is old news, repackaged by an attention grabbing popular author with a strong (well, arrogant) personality. Various references were sited to academics, economists and business commentators over years gone by who had posited similar or perhaps more profound ideas but with a less flashy style – from Ackoff to Argyris, Schien to Schon, Snowden to Stacey, Plato to Popper and on.

The pattern of debate sounded very familiar to me – it’s the same one you can find in other contexts related to the study of soft systems in general and human behaviour theory in particular.

This year I enjoyed consuming content by authors such as Duncan Watts, Daniel Kahneman, and Nassim Taleb, I have also followed meme trails back to earlier work done in the early 20th century to the present and can see that each generation carries notable contributors to the field however many of the contributions involve similar concepts perhaps with a different emphasis or nuanced definition (or maybe even just a different spelling).

It certainly doesn’t help when some of the high profile research in the area is found to be fraudulent. None the less, even when there are genuine scientific advances in the study of human behaviour, these advances don’t seem to have much impact on how we behave. We are still blindly assuming cause and effect where there is none and we continue to assume that our decisions reflect choices of control over the environment.

If you follow the behavioural science long tail back up stream you find that successive generations get similar insights from their experience, write it up to fleeting effect and interest, and then it becomes forgotten, certainly by the mainstream and, in many cases, within the social science community itself.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really matter if someone published a good proof highlighting consistently poor decision making behaviour under rigorous experimental conditions in 1920 or 1940 or 1960 or 1980. If the insight isn’t accepted into the mainstream, it doesn’t contribute to the evolution of knowledge. If the material didn’t catch on when it was published, it’s probably not going to catch on now.

It’s almost a moot point whether the ideas of Nassim Taleb are original if they were never incorporated into ‘common knowledge’. To some degree, in behaviour science, credit must be given not just to the idea but also to the effective communication and adoption of that idea. Without effective communication, we won’t internalise the insight and improve our behaviour and evolve the practice and the theory. Therein lies the great opportunity for those in the business of popularising behavioural practices – you can be successful for the packaging even if your science is weak or your insights were described and published thousands of times before.

I predict that in 2013 the long tail of behavioural science will continue, possibly even with some upwards kinks with new discoveries coming from neurobiology. I’m also confident that we will once again find more proof that we over simplify the world and over elevate our individual roles within it. Once again, we will find this intriguing, and continue the long commentary as observers rather than participants. By the end of the year, we will have traversed the the circumference of the goldfish bowl, and all will be new again.

I hope you enjoy this year’s swim around the bowl.