Coronavirus: a black swan event or just another canary in the coal mine?

For all the big data modeling, prediction markets, and analyst forecasts, virtually no one saw the rapid global emergence of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. Spreading faster than the virus is fear itself, as different countries deploy different prevention tactics, and information remains incomplete. Investors decry plummeting markets as uncertainty grows, organizations are shifting operations to thwart more outbreak, while others argue fears are overblown. But, we can all agree on one thing: COVID-19 is already disrupting the world. 

Coronavirus: the latest black swan event

A “black swan” is an unpredictable event that has a major impact and carries severe consequences. Low probability, high impact. Black swan events are characterized by their extreme rarity, and consequent “non-computability,” as well as post-event rationale with the benefit of hindsight. 

Although we could argue the nature of globalization, transportation networks, variable global health systems, and human history all offer plenty of reason to suspect pandemics, such an externality was absent from the forecasts of economists, politicians, and technologists even just a few months ago. 

Modern history laments a few commonly cited black swans, such as the Fukushima Nuclear Meltdown, 9/11, and the fall of the Soviet Union. Among other impacts, black swan events catalyze profound shifts in geopolitics and technology.  

What does a black swan event like the coronavirus mean for technology?  

Much has been discussed already about the implications of coronavirus on technology. My colleague, Jeremiah Owyang articulates more than a dozen technology implications and opportunities COVID-19 introduces. Others are questioning if the pressures placed on our current resources and processes won’t catalyze already burgeoning industries like Ed-Tech or Robotics, or accelerate AI adoption altogether. 

UVD Robots promises 99.9% bacteria killed in a 10 minute infection prevention inspection (Source: UVD Robots)

Beyond this event’s impact on any specific technology lies a deeper parallel with tech’s role in society. 

Coronavirus: another canary in the coal mine of the problems facing business and society today 

Coronavirus is a caricature of problems that defy traditional national or geographic boundaries, and which require unprecedented multi-lateral collaboration. These types of problems cast a spotlight on systems and structures which are increasingly obsolete in the hyper-digital, hyper-globalized age. They expose how traditional governance structures create a single point of failure, limit information and measurement, and hamstring action. And they are problems that involve unprecedented interconnectivity between digital and physical realms. 

Coronavirus shares these attributes with other familiar problems…

  • Climate change
  • AI regulation
  • Cybersecurity & physical safety
  • Data protection & privacy
  • Misinformation 
  • Future of war
  • Future of work 
  • Interoperability 
  • And more

Each of these areas require ecosystem solutions, far transcending any single country, corporation, or individual. Each has a growing list of scandalous incidents (sometimes coined ‘canaries in the coal mine’) exacerbated by inaction and the glacial pace of institutional change, and for which multi-lateral solutions are lacking. 

Like technology, the coronavirus challenges our traditional models for governance

How do we make the informed, responsible decisions that preserve prosperity, human health, and human dignity in an age of exponential information and machine intelligence? How do we make decisions reactively, how do we coordinate resources and allocation, in the face of a crisis? And, how do we make decisions proactively––as nation states, as businesses, as individuals, and as a species? 

How might we characterize traditional models vs. new models?

  • Unilateral vs. Multi-lateral
  • Centralized vs. Distributed
  • Hierarchical vs. Shared
  • Rule-based vs. Principles-based
  • Deterministic vs. Probabilistic
  • (s)Low information vs. High Information
  • What are we missing, we invite your inputs!

We may still be too deep in the proverbial trees of COVID-19 to see the forest, or understand the broader role the virus –biological and fear– will play on near- and long-term economics. Already we see the outbreak only underscores the need for new governance structures: global governance, national governance, industrial governance, and even personal governance.