Deep Uncertainty and Life After Covid-19: What to Expect?

by Christian Fjäder

It is fair to say that even if the Covid-19 pandemic did not take us all by surprise, it caught us unprepared. Whether examining the reactions by the governments, businesses or individuals, it is clear that the state of preparedness failed us in all levels. Some observers have claimed this state of affairs is our reality now is due to the pandemic being a ”black swan”- an event that is unpredictable and catastrophic in nature. The originator of the “black swans” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb – has not been amused of this labelling of Covid-19 pandemic as a “black swan”, indeed he has seemed quite irritated of such misuse of the term (The Pandemic Isn’t a Black Swan but a Portent of a More Fragile Global System). In fact, Taleb points out that a respiratory pandemic was entirely predictable and that experts had warned of such event numerous times and hence, there is absolutely no credit in labelling Covid-19 as a “black swan”. Indeed, experts had warned policymakers and communities about the possibility of a respiratory pathogen causing a pandemic, and the group of pathogens the SARS-CoV-2 virus belongs to (the “Corona viruses”) was one of the principal candidates for such a pandemic. For instance, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board 2019 report A World at Risk warned about the eventuality of an influenza pandemic involving a high-impact respiratory pathogen and warned that the level of global preparedness against such eventuality was inadequate. Whilst countries had compiled pandemic preparedness plans in the aftermath of the H1N1 ”swine flu” pandemic, these we not adequately updated and proved inadequate as the Covid-19 pandemic unravelled.

This still begs the question – if the Covid-19 pandemic was not a “black swan” – why were we caught so unprepared to a threat that we should have seen coming? Even if it truly was beyond our collective capabilities to predict the exact timing and evolution of the threat, we should have been better prepared against a new respiratory pandemic. How do we ensure that we can be better prepared not only against what the future evolution of the Covid-19 pandemic throws at us, but also the next global crisis (which is not necessarily a pandemic)? Whilst Covid-19 was not a “black swan”, it would seem to fulfil the criteria for a “wicked problem”. The concept of “wicked problems” was first introduced by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in their 1973 article “Dilemmas in general theory of planning” in Policy Science 4(2). “Wicked problems” by definition are problems that have no clear parameter and, as such are not easily definable. This means that there is no clear endpoint to the problem that can be the focal point of the analysis. Furthermore, because of the lack of parameters of such problems the causal chains are also extremely hard to establish. Hence, the setting of a focus to the analysis and to formulate hypotheses and assumptions are also hard. Perhaps even more challenging characteristics of the “wicked problems” is that, due to their undefinable nature, attempts to solve the problem may merely change the problem instead of solving it. Perhaps this is starting to sound familiar and a recurring theme in 2020?

The underlining problem behind our tendency to be taken by surprise and being caught unprepared, however, is that the world we are living in is arguably becoming more complex, dynamic and uncertain, which means that it is increasingly difficult to anticipate significant changes in the strategic environment in order to prepare against their negative impact in time. In executive education and business literature this dilemma has been reflected in the concepts of TUNA (turbulent, uncertain, novel, ambiguous), VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and BANI (brittle, anxious, non-linear, and incomprehensible).

What is then “deep uncertainty”, and how does it relate to the Covid-19 pandemic and the emerging “new normal” in the long-run. This is the subject of the coming series of blog writings in which I will examine:

  • What is “uncertainty” and how it differs from risk?
  • What is “deep uncertainty” and how it relates to “black swans” and “wicked problems”
  • How can we reduce “deep uncertainty” and improve our preparedness against its impact?
  • How can we improve our understanding of the future strategic risks post-Covid-19 and make sense of the “deep uncertainty”?
  • Life and strategic risk after Covid-19: What can scenario planning and sensemaking tell us about the future of strategic risk?
  • A post-mortem of a global crisis – what should we have learned from this crisis?

Stay tuned, and stay safe!