(P7): Enabling and Managing the Ecosystem of Advocacy/Targets

 An abstract view of how Community-Based Organizations participate and drive delivery system reform, as an example of an advocacy ecosystem. See link below image for text
Text Description of Image

Although we tend to focus on the advocacy task at hand, our work to support the personal agency and full life of individuals with disabilities does not occur in isolation. As advocates, we are a part of a larger complex adaptive system (CAS) that includes support and funding systems, policy and legislative systems, and communities of people with Lived Experience from the many communities of people with disabilities. Our focus on the current task assumes the ongoing operation of the larger ecosystem as a context for all our advocacy work. We make use of affordances (agencies, laws, rules, funding, expertise, etc.) that act within the larger advocacy context as ongoing processes which we can influence to achieve valued outcomes.

In the larger processes of this ecosystem, all subsystems change and adjust over time through advocacy activities (and many other activities as well). Our goals as advocates are to:

•Build our relationships with other parts of the ecosystem in order to carry on advocacy and the other kinds of communication necessary to maintain these relationships.

•Evaluate and adapt our advocacy planning and actions based on a constant debriefing of the impact of our actions and an equally constant monitoring of the ongoing changes in the rest of the ecosystem, that both enable and disrupt our advocacy strategy.

•Facilitating a more effective advocacy/target ecosystem, in the sense that it becomes easier over time to advance valued outcomes.

•Introduce New Values and Novel Expectations into the interacting parts of the ecosystem. Successful introduction triggers a cycle called Autocatalytic Mutualism which drives changes in the ecosystem. Effective advocacy is always creative in this sense.

This part of the project will explore why we need to keep the entire advocacy ecosystem in mind while we work toward our valued outcomes. We are a part of this ecosystem and never stand outside of it, though our focus shifts as our work and the context of our work evolve.

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(P6): Organizing for Emergent Strategy

A simple food web with the Sun and mineral nutrients feeding autotrophs (i.e., plants) and heterotrophs including interacting Carnivores, Herbivores, and decomposers leading to the regeneration of the Mineral Nutrient pool.
A Simple, but Surprisingly Rich Diagram of a Food Web

Food web
Emergence
Emergence 3 Minute Video
The remarkable simplicity of complexity
UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

Once we develop our tactical advocacy skills through individual representation and traditional systems advocacy, we need to expand our vision and our skills to encompass a form of systems advocacy that supports the organizing of emergence as a way we implement our social justice agenda.

Emergence means (among other things) the creation of a network with a core of strong process links and a periphery of weak process links. This mutually reinforcing network of strong and weak ongoing process links is the way that emergence occurs. This network is the governing constraint that creates a possibility space in which emergence can grow.

Remember that strong linked processes drive the local system, and weak linked processes buffer the local system and prevent it from “burning out”.

World Building is another way to talk about such networks and organizing for emergence.  World building can be a very human tool for building a change ecosystem.  While the detail of building a change ecosystem is the subject of the next Part (7) of this work, I hope this slide will introduce you to the idea of world building, something which we all embrace as a standard part of our social and personal lives., mostly in media, the arts, and social culture. For example, many entertainment vehicles (like Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, the Matrix trilogy) have been extended as highly detailed, multi-media, social community driven worlds far beyond what we used to accept as the boundaries of entertainment and fan culture.

World building can create possibility spaces that allow the enabling and disruption of affordances. Such worlds can be used to engage in the task of creating a new future for PWD. Building a World for social justice is an expansion of the possibility space that PWD created when we embraced the civil rights advocacy paradigm. It represents the possibilities we have learned from the strengths and weaknesses of civil rights advocacy.

Today, we tend to use change narratives only linearly to illustrate a value or a policy failure of the system, not to formulate an entirely new way to go forward.

But, if we are to remake this world in a way that supports personal autonomy, social inclusion, and freedom of choice, we will have to simultaneously make our own lives much larger than they’ve been before.

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(P6): Creating From the Bottom Up

Ground View of Summer Forest with many plants and trees.

The Medium is the Message –Marshall McLuhan
What Are the Benefits of the Bottom Up Approach?
Bottom up Thinking
Emergence: Complexity from the Bottom Up

One of the enduring problems in behavioral health systems reform and advocacy is to realize the vision of person-centered, and person-driven, living, within the machine/computer models of modern bureaucratic systems of service and supports delivery. The approaches to resolving the tension between these paths to realizing person centered and driven planning and living has drawn on two repeatedly used tactics:

•Iterative and incremental improvement in the macro-system while maintaining that current system’s underlying CAS logic
•Creation of novel frameworks in a micro-system from the bottom up with a view to advocating for them to be embraced by the macro-system.

These two approaches to change each have their own problems in their ability to move us effectively toward a scaled person centered and person driven planning and living reality. They also actively interfere with each other when advocates attempt to use the innovative micro-system to alter the logic of the macro-system. This can be seen in the endless arguments over the best method to advocate for change toward our valued outcomes.

The most obvious problem with building a model of supports consistent with social justice and trying to use it to leverage change in the macro-system is that the logic of the macro-system will largely, if not entirely, try to absorb the meaning of the social justice innovation and minimize its need to change. Yet, it always seems impractical to somehow replace the macro-system wholesale with a CAS that truly reflects valued social justice outcomes.

I would suggest that we look to the building of supports from the bottom up without any plan to integrate them into the macro-system of supports, specifically to avoid having the macro-system’s logic applied to these supports. In fact, I suggest that we build supports in a hundred different ways from the bottom up without integration of our innovations in the macro-system as the outcome. Further, I would suggest that our outcome be the creation of an advocacy and supports ecosystem that can compete in some arena with the current macro-system. The next Part of this series of posts will explore how we might approach such an outcome. But first we need to understand more concretely how emergence occurs in our potential advocacy ecosystem.

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All Important Problems Are Wicked

Easy Essays About Changing Systems

An interesting but impossible to describe artistic piece of many colors and too many strings to count

Where Do I Start?

Almost a half-century ago, a couple of researchers gave a name to something we all know is real, but have a hard time articulating. They said that science was good at solving what they called “tame” problems, but was inadequate to deal with what they called “wicked problems”.

The name, “Wicked Problems” stuck, because it was a fundamental insight into the difficulties of dealing with the appalling reach of real-world complex adaptive systems (CAS).

Right now, we are dealing with a pandemic, a surge in the explicit oppression of all marginal communities and resistance to that surge, ongoing and apparently unstoppable economic degradation, the potential for the worst hurricane season ever, a healthcare system that has shown its extraordinary brittleness at exactly the time we need it most, and looming long-term failures in the larger economy over the next decade. These are all individually wicked problems, and they are all interconnected.

A gumbo of wicked problems.

These are some of the characteristics of Wicked Problems (WPs):

  • There is no single way to describe the problem. Creating a description of the problem always leaves out very important parts of the WP. You can’t get outside a WP to see it in its entirety, so you can’t ever describe it in its entirety.
  • “Solutions” to WPs never solve them, though they can make them better or worse. To add insult to injury, if your solution is effective, your solution changes the nature of the Wicked Problem without necessarily making it any easier to solve.
  • No matter how we try to categorize a wicked problem, every WP is unique, and our characterization of the WP is inadequate.
  • Every solution to a WP is one-shot; there can be no trial and error approach to WPs. This doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from interacting with the WP. It just means that what we learn will have very little transferability to other apparently similar WPs.
  • We only gain any real understanding of a WP by trying out a solution. Before we come up with a solution, the WP is just a Big Mess. The solution will be inadequate for the problem. So, our understanding will also be  inadequate for the problem, even if this is the best we can do.

People with significant disabilities have a deep understanding of WPs that has developed from our lived experience of dealing with the real world. We have learned some lessons the hard way that can be of use to everyone as we try to improve the current litany of WPs we all face now:

  • Institutions, regardless of their purpose or intentions, are always dangerous places to live.
  • Commitment by medical professionals to customized care of people with disabilities is too often limited by how inconvenient our needs are to the medical practice or the professional staff’s daily routines.
  • For our community, supports that are common in the treatment of the nondisabled are treated as “special” for us and are the first kinds of supports dropped when a crisis like the current pandemic occurs.
  • Finally, the US healthcare system is approaching 20% of the economy.  But, the primary health system take-away from this pandemic is that the search for financial efficiencies and the economic protections that credentialing/licensing and scope of practice laws provide simply made a sizeable proportion of the health care labor force unavailable for responding to the pandemic.

We can certainly get better at managing WPs, but we will have to give up our simple notions of silver bullet solutions and get good at embracing these increasingly Wicked Problems on their own terms.

(P6): Deceit

An artistic rendition of the Tower of Babel

All conflict involves deceit. In fact, all communication involves some level of deceit, whether purposeful or not. This is because all communication is necessarily limited. Truthful mutual understanding is only achieved through long-term authentic relationships.

Deceit is in no way an unalloyed good or evil since it can be both manipulation and self-defense at the same time. Deceit always makes management of an advocacy strategy more complex and less controllable. Deceit can be an impulsive act to help control some unexpected disturbance in the advocacy possibility space. Deceit seems safe, a way of increasing the security of the advocacy strategy. It isn’t. It can and does reduce your choices in the advocacy possibility space.

Deceit in advocacy initiatives is of three kinds and all three are always present (if not necessarily competently implemented) in every conflict:

  • Strategic deceit
  • Tactical/Operational deceit
  • Self-deceit

Strategic Deceit

Because a true strategy is a framework for managing future uncertainty and scarce resources, any statement of the strategy is automatically deceitful because the statement can’t frame the actual use to which the framework will be put. Of course, this applies to those who are part of the advocacy initiative as well, although communication and relationships are stronger within the initiative as opposed to the interaction between the advocacy effort and the target. This isn’t strategic deceit.

Strategic Deceit is a performance that provokes uncertainty in the target’s choices about the advocacy initiative. It is analogous to the operational notion of the Indirect Approach (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indirect_approach) that your actions should be ambiguous as far as their outcome is concerned.

A successful Strategic Deceit requires a deep understanding of how the target thinks, and how it values. This knowledge is not something especially prized by advocacy organizations that view advocacy as supporting only the appropriate implementation of rules and regulations, which, by their nature, aren’t about what the target’s actors think and value.

Tactical/Operational Deceit

There is a wide base of public information about this kind of deceit. There have been many books about military based operational and tactical deceit, and there is a kind of cottage industry in articles about the cleverness of such deceit. Because of the actual military actions that are subjected to deceitful preparation, the deceit comes as a surprise to the opponent. This surprise is a lot more difficult to pull off as part of an advocacy initiative, where the initiative may go on for months or years.

There is always a downside to discovered deceit. Once the deceit is discovered, the target will devote more energy to paying attention to you and they will feel more justified in extravagant deceit and trolling than they did before the discovery of your misinformation.

Tactical deceit can be useful for, say, a specific IEPC. There are also ways to cloud your purposes by careful orchestration of your messaging without lying about those purposes. For example, a method I have mentioned in other posts and slides is to initiate an advocacy action in several local areas without showing that you are creating several nuclei for the initiative. Local targets will respond to the local initiative without seeing the larger pattern, and their responses will be less effective as a result. This kind of short-term deceit is only constrained by your understanding of the target’s motivations and values, and your initiative’s creativity.

Self-Deceit

The most problematic form of deceit in advocacy initiatives is Self-Deceit. There are two reasons for this.

One is that humans have evolved to be more optimistic than pessimistic; see (https://grist.org/article/80-percent-of-humans-are-delusionally-optimistic-says-science/). Optimism produces hope and hope can generate action even when situations seem very dire. This is especially a useful bias when there is no obviously effective way to deal with some threat. But optimism is a bias. We use optimism to maintain advocacy energy, but the bias affects how we frame our actions, and how we execute them. So, we make mistakes because of our optimism.

Depressive Realism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depressive_realism) is the other side of the coin in self-deceit. Mild and moderately depressed individuals are better at predicting outcomes under uncertainty than people who are optimistic. It is difficult, though to see how running an advocacy initiative using depressive realism would work out well in an activist community.

The best way to manage this in my book is to allow optimism to generate energy while making use of the insights of depressive realism to manage tactical/operational decisions.

In general, I think that deceit makes effective advocacy more complex and difficult. But, if you must, use the framework of obfuscation rather than outright deceit.

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(P6): The Art of Conflict

Danger: Authorized Personnel Only; This area may have unexploded ordnance (UXO); Do not leave the road or disturbe the soil without 30 SW safety approval; If you detect unexploded ordnance, record the location, retreat from the area, and report to law enforcement at 606-3911

At its best, advocacy is a strategic art for managing the movement toward deeply valued human outcomes. This art always involves some level of conflict. After all, real change inevitably produces conflict. Conflict gives the energy to change efforts, not only for those who want change but also to those who resist change. It is this energy that helps define the possibility space for change and managing the possibility space for change makes your advocacy strategy real and productive.

Any call for eliminating conflict is simultaneously a call for reduced energy in the advocacy possibility space. Judgement of the value of reducing conflict can be part of managing an advocacy strategy and involves assessing the impact of this on the valued outcomes that are the purpose of the advocacy. Eliminating conflict eliminates vast possibilities of change.

Advocacy conflict is never relentless or total. Part of managing an advocacy strategy is understanding the limits of conflict as an effective source of energy for change.

For example, it is common for advocates that meet substantial resistance to become angry and escalate the conflict, adding energy to the advocacy possibility space to overcome resistance. But adding energy by way of anger-driven action also increases the energy of the resistance to change and undermines the ability to strategically manage the outcomes sought.

Adding energy to a possibility space through anger doesn’t magically increase the likelihood of valued outcomes. However necessary some anger is to motivating an advocacy initiative, anger should never dictate the advocacy strategy.

Anger that motivates the initiation of advocacy is generally caused by the elimination of life possibilities for real human beings. Anger that arises from the ongoing dnamic of implementing advocacy is about frustrated advocates being blocked and has nothing to do with the valued outcomes that were the driving force for the initiation of advocacy.

Any meaningful advocacy strategy always presumes some boundary on the level and type of conflict. I have always thought of this boundary as a kind of, “Below this threshold, we negotiate collaboratively, beyond this threshold, we escalate the conflict.”, a kind of bounded agreement between parties as to how the possibility space of this advocacy engagement will be managed.

Negotiating collaboratively doesn’t mean that you agree with the target system. It means that you negotiate for your valued outcomes using an advocacy framework that both parties agree is valid (like some system of statutes and rules that already exists). You can be tricky and devious in the negotiation if you don’t move outside the framework.

As a general principle, the most “strategic” way to initiate an advocacy initiative is to introduce a novel insurgency into the target. Once introduced, the target must either ignore the intrusion or respond to it. If it is ignored, advocates can always escalate the insurgency. When the target responds, a possibility space will be created for advocacy actions that enable and destabilize relationships.

The only advocacy activities that can undermine this dynamic are those that trigger a failure of commitment or creativity, our two general advantages over target systems. Being stalled or having a specific advocacy initiative defeated is simply the reality of trying to change a target CAS. We can only defeat ourselves. No target can do that. 

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Meanwhile, There Are Other Turkeys Dropping from the Sky

Poster saying As God is My Witness,I thought Turkeys Could Fly-Arthur Carlson

Making Choices in An Ocean of Uncertainty (Part 2)

Any genuine surprise triggers the same response from us:

  • Deny that it is a surprise by continuing to do what you normally do.
  • Tweak what you normally do to see if that helps.
  • If you become desperate enough, do something new.
  • When something new actually helps (what helps, incidentally, will be as novel as the surprise), it will outcompete what you normally do.

You would think that we would learn to skip the early responses and get to creating and using a novel approach, but we don’t. For humans, that seems to be because we have a lot invested in what we normally do (a lot invested in our past), and actually trying to do something as novel as the unexpected surprise warrants, seems to mean we’ll somehow lose our investment.

We are only gradually absorbing the basic and long term impact of the contagion right now; and, we are significantly behind in absorbing that. Our pandemic-specific numbers are always out of date when we see them, and we are still making choices based on obsolete and inaccurate data.

This problem of always being too slow to respond in regard to the impact of the pandemic applies to everything else that has changed in the last five months, and all that hasn’t. Other turkeys are falling from the skies and, as demanding as the virus is in terms of our immediate choices, we need to find a space for those others that are on their way down or being pushed to the edge of the helicopter door almost ready to drop into the complex adaptive system that is our common wicked problem:

  • The Confluence of Disasters: Just because we have a pandemic doesn’t mean that we somehow get relief from other disasters. Even if our altered behavior and self-isolation reduce some of the impact in those other dangerous events, we still can expect tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, fires, and a host of more local and personal disasters. But, because of the pandemic, our ability to respond to these will be reduced and disorganized, much like our early responses to the pandemic.
  • Medical Ableism: Triage systems that explicitly see people with disabilities as disposable and less than human have publically surfaced recently and are being effectively countered through advocacy. But, all of us in the disability community know that this more obvious strain of ableist eugenics bubbles below the surface in many parts of our lives, nowhere more clearly than in medicine. There will be a great deal of implicit and occasionally explicit euthanasia of members of our community in the course of this pandemic because it seems obvious to the healthcare system and insurers that younger, or healthier, or less obviously disabled people deserve life more than we do.
  • The Financial Psychopathy of Our Social Lives: For the last half-century, there has been a deliberate global effort to convince us that the only important lever for every decision we make, from the most to the least important, is to ask how it affects our wealth, reputation, and power. After all, our worth as a human being is clearly no more than these social and financial indices of our status, right? So embedded is this framework in our ongoing social and cultural communication, that even when our decisions will result in the emotional destruction and death of those we claim to hold dear, we can’t stop ourselves from sacrificing them to gain some meaningless additional increment.
  • Political Incompetence: The reduction of everything human to wealth, power, and reputation, has the unavoidable consequence of making our political elites and our political system generally incapable of anything more than a short-term pursuit of “victory” in some current short-lived meme war, whatever might be surfacing at this particular moment. This deep lack of governing competence leads to a surprising common assumption under the surface differences in political ideologies.  We actually have a political culture that believes that any reality can be entirely changed by merely making an effective political argument, stated over and over again. This is the modern form of the belief in magic; the political meme as a superstitious chant to appease or defeat some always temporary ideological god or demon. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the governance approach of our political elites to the Covid-19 virus.
  • Social Reconfiguration: Don’t kid yourself. Our political, social, and financial elites will continue to organize and appropriate more wealth, power, and reputation for themselves. They are simply incapable of thinking about the world in any other way. Opportunities for the rest of us lie outside our explicit and implicit support for that compulsive and unending search of theirs.

We need to look to ourselves, not our elites, for our future.

In the next, and last, part of this series, I’ll try to see some current possibilities for our community that will help start the long and difficult process of “distancing” us from those who see us as worthless and treat us as disposable.

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(P6): Basic Organizing Framework

A large number of wooden branches mutually supporting one another in a stack like that supporting a native american tipi.

The community of people with disabilities has used a strategy of iterative change to build rights and services entitlement for many decades. It is becoming less productive to focus solely on this strategy over time. There are many reasons for this:

  • For the last half-century, cultural and political change has pushed an agenda of ignoring the needs of others to gratify personal needs. This effort has degraded the economy and almost eliminated the resilience of individuals and their families. Most of us have little to fall back on financially or socially. Our entitlements have become what we depend on, and when those are threatened politically or financially, we don’t have any place to turn.
  • COVID-19 has exposed the brittleness of our community’s support in the larger society. Many of us will be scrambling for the near term just to stay alive. Regardless of how successful we are in adapting to the current social, political, and economic losses we will all experience, we will be eventually faced with creating some new support system largely without the help of those social, political, and economic institutions upon which we have depended in the past.
  • At the same time, many members of our community depend on technologically sophisticated and very expensive supports to maintain life. This is a chronic issue which COVID-19 is demonstrating in large during the current crisis.  We don’t have the option of ignoring or distancing ourselves from that reality. We will have to struggle with only partial success to maintain that lifeline to which we have become accustomed. In the long term, we will have to produce other ways of support that are not as fragile. We will have to do that ourselves because the larger society will fail in a variety of unpredictable ways over the next decade.
  • We can no longer depend on the System to support us. At the same time, we can’t avoid the System. Our strategy must be a bifurcated one:
    • Resistance to the loss of our rights and the destruction of our ability to live through the preservation and improvement of the System to the extent that is possible.
    • Building a much more sophisticated mutual aid network for our community that does not depend on the System for its funding or development.

We must also give up on the long-term notion of creating supports which are then absorbed by the System. Anything absorbed by the System will be subjected to the logic of the System and will have the same brittleness that the current System has. We must find a way to maintain what we need without allowing the System to reduce its effectiveness and make us dependent on the System’s current political whims.

If this goal seems impossible to you, you can begin to see the extent to which we have become dependent on systems that we do not control, and which are not accountable to us. The logic of these systems of support will never be accountable to us no matter how much we tweak them. We must view them as tools, not as solutions, tools which we use as we see fit. We must reach a point where we are not forced to submit to them.

This dual strategy can be viewed as the integration of:

  • The System as a Tool not a Solution.
  • The development of scalable Mutual Aid networks completely independent of the System.

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Part 6: Organizing for Change

A word Cloud of many, many terms related to complex adaptive systems. The most prominent are CAS, advocacy, change, system, target, relationships, constraints, target

How do the lessons of Complex Adaptive Systems impact Activist Organizing?

We have internalized the notion that the change framework for a society is a machine or, these days, a computer program. This internalization begins at an early age and is a constant meme in our environment. Because we view our society in this way, our efforts to change that society are reduced to tactical and operational plans that would only produce reliable and consistent effects in machines or computer programs or problems that are short enough or small enough so that it doesn’t matter how we view them.

But our society and all the important systems of support and oppression that people with disabilities face every day are not machines or computer programs. They are Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), and if we persist in not embracing this reality, our change efforts will fade as the ripples of a small pebble dropped in the ocean, or they will produce consequences we never intended, including a worse version of what we tried to change.

There is no way around this reality. A constant din of simple silver bullet change plans will not save us.

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Pandemic As A Fractal Disaster

A clipart image of a woman running with her hair on fire, tormented by various demands that she can't respond to effectively. They include email, Re:Re:Re:, 90, 17,Hey! Nobody told me that, How was I supposed to know that, Who has it?, and a polycom talking nonsense.

Making Choices in an Ocean of Uncertainty (Part 1)

The pandemic resulting from the spread of a novel virus, Covid-19, has pointed out many of the failures of not thinking, planning, or acting with an awareness of large systems and how they dynamically change over time. These failures occur every day in every system of support for people with disabilities, and they occur throughout the larger global complex adaptive system (CAS) that is our world. But we don’t normally see the failures except as small drops of irony. That is, we don’t see the ocean of uncertainty that is the reality of living out our lives in a Complex, Adaptive, System.

I don’t believe that any event in my life (over 7 decades) has shoved our collective face into these realities the way this virus has.

And in less than 3 months.

Much of this “in your face” quality of the pandemic is due to our “connected” world if connected is the right descriptor for experiences that can’t be avoided except in a sensory deprivation chamber, in a deep valley, underground, in Antarctica, with a face mask.

Pandemics always end, but while they are going on, they act like slow motion volcano eruptions, raining down ash on the just and unjust, rich and poor, and every other distinction we make among ourselves about our personal and social worth. Social, financial, and political choices that are usually buried or disguised become obvious. In the disability community, devaluing and destructive choices and matters of life and death become far more obvious and less hidden behind the walls of institutions and programs.

Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate. This is the dilemma we face, but it should not stop us from doing what we can to prepare. We need to reach out to everyone with words that inform, but not inflame. We need to encourage everyone to prepare, but not panic.” — Michael O. Leavitt, 2007 From Telliamed Revisited

The dilemma that Leavitt describes is certainly a real one, but it is also a dilemma not just because of the impact of a pandemic, but also because those who have taken on the authority for telling us about an appropriate response have long-standing, deeply political, and financial reasons to pretend that they are in control of the pandemic and that their simple, mechanical (maybe these days data-driven), operational policies will win the day. Messaging to communities that have always believed that every problem can be solved through an operational plan, a bigger version of replacing a leaky faucet through a DIY video, makes it easier to massage away the cramps that result from economic, social, and political failure and those pesky long term consequences when they inevitably occur.

The “message is the massage”, as it were.

Pandemics have lots of explicit characteristics that make them difficult to manage using the mechanical, operational planning, and contingency planning that passes for prevention and safety these days:

  • The dynamic process of a pandemic emerges from the relationship between people. Each and every contact has the capacity to spread the virus, but there is also no guarantee that the contact will, and in the immediacy of the contact, no way to tell what happened. There is no way to calculate the probability that any single contact will result in the spread, except over group and population averages that are nowhere near granular enough to track the actual dynamics of the pandemic. Your “track” of a pandemic is always well behind the reality because bugs are faster than we are and have a much longer track record of undoing our best plans for safety than we do for stopping them. This means that the evolution of the pandemic is, among other things, Fractal (everywhere at every level) and inherently uncertain.
  • You can’t negotiate with a virus. You can’t intimidate a virus. A virus is like a tiny Terminator. That means that none of the standard political memes and longstanding manipulation techniques available for everyday use will actually permit social, political, and financial elites to manage pandemics the way they manage everything else of importance to them.
  • Our society ordinarily uses the concept of Risk Management to deal with failure and disaster. Because the dynamic of a pandemic is a CAS, its actual path of destruction will remain uncertain until the current pandemic is over. Real Uncertainty is very, very different from calculable risk. In an uncertain ocean of possibility, every published Risk is wrong and is being used for some additional purpose besides authentically managing the actual pandemic.
  • As Italy has discovered in Lombardy, being supremely confident of your individual and community’s economic strength, high health status,  and social superiority doesn’t stop the corpses from decomposing in their homes, or the stereotyped social worth calculus of global medicine from throwing whole communities under the train.
  • So, in the rollup to the pandemic maximum (number of people affected, the peak of the Bell-Shaped Curve), all the numbers you are being told daily are underestimates (obviously). But it seems to me that most of the time people make decisions about their behavior on the numbers with which they are presented. How many people have been diagnosed today, and should I go to the store and buy food, or drop my child off at daycare one more day, or get drunk at the bar with my friends one more time? Our decisions are almost never made using an actual appreciation of the potential impact. Instead, we are conditioned to make choices that don’t match reality by the very efforts to educate us about what and how we should choose.
  • Although this should be obvious, it isn’t the lethality of Covid-9 that is the greatest threat. Although this virus is somewhere around 20 times as lethal as the annual flu, it doesn’t come close to our ancestral pandemics.  The problem is that our healthcare system is designed around the industrial notion of Just-In-Time supply, treatment, and disposition. If everyone who got the virus had the mild version, we would be able to manage the number pretty much no matter how many there were. But 15-20% of those who become ill (some estimates are as high as 40% for risk of complications) need more than basic illness care. We are all in real trouble if that population shows up in the emergency room on the same day. If the critical care system collapses, it won’t just be people with Covid-19 complications who will die. People with other conditions that ordinarily would have gotten competent treatment aren’t going to get it.

This is why the strategy for managing the pandemic is to first contain, then mitigate the results, as in #flattenthecurve. The goal is to avoid completely overwhelming the healthcare system, under the motto, “Flatten the Curve”; it is not an attempt to prevent death, which can’t be done, but to spread it out so that system failure doesn’t dramatically increase the number who die.

#flatten the curve is a genuine strategy. It is a framework for making decisions about the two things we can never control:

  • The unpredictable future;
  • The eternal scarcity of resources.

#flattenthecurve creates a space of possibilities where we can build and implement operational plans that are consistent with this strategy. Many such plans are being rolled out now. Because the pandemic is fractal, the operational plans resulting from the strategy have to be fractal as well. At every level, there are things we can do to support the strategy. We don’t necessarily need to wait to be told what to do, as long as what we do in our own lives and with those about whom we care is driven by the constraints of the #flattenthecurve possibility space.

If we avoid the collapse of healthcare, we will not only minimize death in the short term, but we will create a timeframe for the longer term that allows for better choices.

Because, like all strategies, #flattenthecurve isn’t a complete answer to a pandemic (there is no complete answer to a novel pandemic).

If we minimize the total number of people who actually get the virus this time around, we leave open the possibility, in fact, the inevitability, of an annual/multi-year cycle of recurrence, much like the annual flu season. But we also will have time for a genuinely effective vaccine, drugs that interfere with the ability for the virus to enter lung cells and cause damage, improved access to (hopefully) more sophisticated and cheaper ventilator systems, and a much deeper experience of acute and long term clinical care for the fallout from the virus.

If everyone on the planet had gotten the virus in one bell-shaped curve, we might have 140 million dead, and be treating the long term effects for many years. And there would be no resources for the mitigation and management possibilities mentioned above.

A well-chosen strategy doesn’t eliminate the reason for its necessity. Rather, it enables you to manage the current and future states of the original trigger for the common good.

We have lost touch with the idea that we should think about the long term together, instead of simply maximizing our individual gratification in the short term. I hope this pandemic proves to be a tonic for our social foresight about our common threats.

Because, as bad as this virus will be, there are far worse novelties that could arise, and we don’t have any idea which one will surface next.

Working together to build real safety and flexible response must be the lesson we take from this evolving experience that we all share, and we need to use this experience to dramatically improve how we manage our uncertain future.