Unanticipated Futures: Some Common Planning Fallacies

What is it?

There are four common planning fallacies:

The Hofstadter Law states that "[Things] always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law." 1

Economist Albert Hirschman's Hiding Hand Principle states that people are "apt to take on and plunge into new tasks because of the erroneously presumed absence of a challenge—because the task looks easier and more manageable than it will turn out to be." 2

The Kahneman & Tversky Planning Fallacy states that "[n]o matter how detailed, the business scenarios used in planning are generally inadequate" and tend to understate costs and overstate benefits. Additionally, they "also tend to exaggerate the degree of control we have over events, discounting the role of luck." 3

Parkinson's Law is the adage that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion". 4

Why

Planing fallacies suggest that projects will generally take longer and be harder than expected, even when the expectations are that they will take a long time.

Planning Fallacies are interesting because they play on a number of cognitive biases. These include:

  • A tendency to over-attribute success to factors outside of our control
  • An inability to adequately factor in "unknown unknowns" (or factors that we don't know about) when planning for the future.
  • A tendency to underestimate future challenges Empirically, there is both a good and bad side to planning fallacies. Underestimating the scope of a challenge can make you more likely to take it on and consequentially be more creative in solving it.

Writes Hirshman:

Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be. 5

However, empirical evidence suggests that this itself is a fallacy. More often than not, underestimating challenges leads to problems, not creativity. Research by Bent Flyvbjerg and Cass Sunstein suggest that in 78% of cases, projects are obstructed rather than helped by prior ignorance:

The idea of a Benevolent Hiding Hand is a special case and as an effort to capture reality, it is misleading or even a distraction. The Malevolent Hiding Hand is pervasive, and it is a case of the planning fallacy writ large—i.e., it applies not only to schedule, but also to costs and benefits in the widest sense—aggravated by the effects of ignorance, power, and motivated reasoning. The policy implications are equally clear. It is bad policy to justify plans and projects based on faith in the Benevolent Hiding Hand. In most cases initial costs and difficulties will not be overcome by later creativity and benefits; it is a dead-end at best, a scam at worst.

This is important because as Daniel Khaneman and Don Lavallo write,

Executives and entrepreneurs seem to be highly susceptible to these biases. Studies that compare the actual outcomes of capital investment projects, mergers and acquisitions, and market entries with managers’ original expectations for those ventures show a strong tendency toward overoptimism. An analysis of start-up ventures in a wide range of industries found, for example, that more than 80% failed to achieve their market-share target. The studies are backed up by observations of executives. Like other people, business leaders routinely exaggerate their personal abilities, particularly for ambiguous, hard-to-measure traits like managerial skill. Their self-confidence can lead them to assume that they’ll be able to avoid or easily overcome potential problems in executing a project. This misapprehension is further exaggerated by managers’ tendency to take personal credit for lucky breaks. 6

Furthermore, they note that: "the frequency of poor outcomes is an unavoidable result of companies taking rational risks in uncertain situations."

Case Studies

In negative case studies, Wikipedia notes a few very-public projects where cost and times have ballooned as per planing fallacies:

  • The Sydney Opera House was expected to be completed in 1963. A scaled-down version opened in 1973, a decade later. The original cost was estimated at $7 million, but its delayed completion led to a cost of $102 million.
  • The Eurofighter Typhoon defense project took six years longer than expected, with an overrun cost of 8 billion Euros.
  • The Boston Central Artery was completed seven years later than planned costing another $12 billion.
  • The Denver International Airport opened sixteen months later than scheduled with a total cost of $4.8 billion; over $2 billion more than expected. 7

With regards to positive case studies, Malcolm Gladwell retells Hirschman's story of the Karnaphuli Paper Mills in then-East Pakistan:

The mill was built to exploit the vast bamboo forests of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But not long after the mill came online the bamboo unexpectedly flowered and then died, a phenomenon now known to recur every fifty years or so. Dead bamboo was useless for pulping; it fell apart as it was floated down the river. Because of ignorance and bad planning, a new, multimillion-dollar industrial plant was suddenly without the raw material it needed to function.

The mill’s operators quickly found ways to bring in bamboo from villages throughout East Pakistan, building a new supply chain using the country’s many waterways. They started a research program to find faster-growing species of bamboo to replace the dead forests, and planted an experimental tract. They found other kinds of lumber that worked just as well. The result was that the plant was blessed with a far more diversified base of raw materials than had ever been imagined. If bad planning hadn’t led to the crisis at the Karnaphuli plant, the mill’s operators would never have been forced to be creative. And the plant would not have been nearly as valuable as it became. 8

Sources

1 - Douglas Hofstadter, Godel Escher Bach, 1971
2 - Hirshman, Albert (1967). The Hiding Hand Principle, 1967
3 - Hirshman, The Hiding Hand Principle, 1967
4 - Parkinson, Cyril Northcote (1955). "Parkinson's Law". The Economist. London.
5 - Flyvbjerg, Bent; Sunstein, Cass R. (2015). "The Principle of the Malevolent Hiding Hand; or, the Planning Fallacy Writ Large". Rochester, NY. SSRN 2654423 .
6 - Lavallo and Kahneman (2003). Delusions of Success.  Harvard Business Review.
7 - Wikipedia, Planning Fallacies
8 - Gladwell, Malcom (2013). The Gift of Doubt. The New Yorker. 

Ideas for 2017, 1: Defamiliarization

Ostranenie- The technique of presenting common things in an unfamiliar way in order to enhance perception of the familiar.

LintonArt, "About My Work", https://www.etsy.com/shop/LintonArt#about

Defamiliarization or ostranenie (остранение) is the artistic technique of presenting to audiences common things in an unfamiliar or strange way in order to enhance perception of the familiar. A central concept in 20th-century art and theory, ranging over movements including Dada, postmodernism, epic theatre, and science fiction, it is also used as a tactic by recent movements such as culture jamming.

"The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,' to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged." (Shklovsky 16)

Wikipedia, "Defamiliarization" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defamiliarization

Art can be completely obscure. Even I sometimes don’t understand it at all, as if it’s deliberately hard to understand. And yes, the other type is a sort of benign, soft art. The real issue for art at the moment is that not only has it not changed the world for better, it may partially be responsible for the counterreaction from Trump supporters. The elitist, obscure, rather smug art that we’ve had over the last five or six years is part of the sort of metropolitan stubbornness that Brexit reacted against in my country, and that the Trump voters reacted against in your country.

I’m not criticizing the actual art that many people produce. Some of it is very good, and beautiful, and moving. It’s just that the way in which it’s done, through self-expression, tends to actually have a much deeper effect on society than what the artist necessarily intended.

What I’m really questioning is whether the function of art is to change the world, or whether its function is really to express what is happening in the world in a really clear way. Ever since the 1960s there has been this idea that the function of art is to change the world, and it will do so by changing the way people think and see. Whereas I think, if you look at the history of art, really brilliant art steps back and shows to you clearly what really is going on in the world you live in, in a vivid, imaginative way.

Adam Curtis, ArtSpace Q&A, http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/qa/adam-curtis-hypernormalisation-interview-54468

Technology and Materials, 3

The first computers were people.1 They counted, calculated, and made sense of information. They used numbers, abacuses, tabulating machines, calculators, and eventually the machines that bear their name: computers.

With each iteration, the tool was able to support -- or supplant -- some of the rote tasks that people did. This freed people up for more abstract and complex tasks. Once those complex tasks could be standardized and turned into an algorithm,2 a new computer (ala Turing Machine) could be invented to perform those instructions. That process continues even today.

But what if the situation was in reverse? What if we started with computers, and tried to reverse engineer the people into them?

Well, that's what John Maeda did with two groups of his students at MIT.

In the first experiment,3 the group of students performed the processes of a computer. Each student mimicked the actions of an individual component, the "computer as a living machine". Students enacted the bus, the floppy disk, the power switch, mouse, screen, video manager, and so on. "The experience of seeing a living computer in action evoked the image of a beehive," Maeda writes.

In the second experiment,4 students were organized to 'draw without using their hands'. One group of student had to give entirely verbal commands to a second group of students that performed those commands:

A student sits down and asks the blue pen to draw from the right side to the center. Whoops, he meant the exact center. More carefully this time, he asks the green pen to drawn from the exact upper right-hand corner to the exact lower left-hand corner. Successive pens are asked to draw in relation to the intersection of line points, and exact offsets from the corners and edges. A variety of methods to speak to the paper are devised, the potentially most exciting is the suggestion to create a grid. Yet although the positioning of marks becomes significantly easier, the result is early computer-style house graphics.

In the first experiment, students end up recreating an organic and complex society (the beehive), which in turn mimics much of our corporate, government, and social structures: individuals performing tasks in a well-defined and limited roles, organized to do something much bigger than themselves, by outside powers.

In the second experiment, students demonstrated the core ambiguities inherent in communication, and in trying to eliminate those ambiguities, they ended up recreating the same process (and style) as by which computers work.

All of this to say: humans are computers still. To return to the central theme, ideas are technologies, and culture is a social algorithm. When asked to make our intent visible, we perform the same way that computers perform. Our thought processes are not so different.

Footnotes:
1. The first calculators were people too.
2. Algorithms are really "sets of instructions for performing a task". So, the next time someone tries to sell you something based on complex and fancy algorithms, just remember that all they're saying is that they do stuff... literally.
3. "The Human-Powered Computer Experiment", John Maeda, Maeda and Media, pp.54-59. Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/user895875
4. "Experiment in the instruction of concepts in computer programming without using any actual computers", John Maeda, Maeda and Media, pp. 425-430.

Thought Leaders

I just read an article about Angela Merkel's hands.

Specifically, the semiotics and symbolism around Ms. Merkel's hands.

It wasn't written in a magazine; nor in an academic journal; nor on a blog. It was published by the Flamingo Group, a 'global insight and strategy' organization. They list their specialties as cultural intelligence, semiotics, digital forensics, and insights... something that wouldn't feel out of place in a philosophy classroom (or a William Gibson novel).

Today I've also read about new frontiers and technologies in emergence, browsed datasets charting relationships between app usage and consumer behavior, and watched a lecture about the legal and social quandaries of building apps with powerful psychological stimuli.

I found those on a corporate blog, via publicly available app data, and again on a corporate blog.

--

More and more, we're seeing corporate blogs and brand communications openly publishing and advertising the type of content that would have once been limited to universities, academic journals, and R&D labs at megalithic corporations (IBM, Bell). Philosophy, ethics, and the science are moving to the forefront of how a brand communicates with customers. That content outlives and outsells traditional advertising, and is a tremendous source of added value to the brand that publishes it.

Is this a sign of the irrelevance of academic publishing, or the sign of the importance of intelligent, ethical conversations between corporations and society?

Does this mark the shift of young, socially minded scientists choosing to work in business, instead of in research labs or academia?

Or perhaps a subtle subversion orchestrated by grad students with philosophy degrees being hired as communication and content strategists?

I think there is a seismic shift happening in how brands and companies communicate, and what values they bring to the table. (A new understanding of 'thought leadership'?) I personally no longer turn to academia when I need relevant, information. Nor do I turn to the products of the ivory tower when I need to understand the significance and subtlety around events and ideas.

Maybe I aught not to be surprised. My own work deals with using research, ethics, and philosophy to understand and create for the world. Regardless, I'm happy to continue seeing the crossover trend between philosophy and business.

Gibson x Nike. CC 2015, Roman Design Co.

Sontag x Leica. CC 2015, Roman Design Co.

McLuhan x Deisel. CC 2015, Roman Design Co.

Footnotes:
1. "The Evolution of Angela Merkel"
2. Another public example of choosing 'not to publish traditionally' is Jan Chipchase: design researcher and all-around-innovator. His rational: "A lot of rich qualitative user research loses its soul by the time it's been squeezed into conference and journal submission formats and - with the exception of published patents work involving concept generation - tends to remain confidential."
3. Potential Philosophy x Brand crossovers. CC 2015, Roman Design Co.

Political Innovations, 1

Political Innovations, 1: Government as API

I recently received an email from Estonia.

I'm neither Estonian, nor do I have any ties to Estonia. I am, however, interested in what they're doing with e-residency, and have been following the project as they roll it out.

Let me back up for a second. A few years ago, I learned about the Government Digital Services (GDS) team at Gov.UK. Head over heals, I fell for their approach to building government services. Their full design manifesto is here, but I found one item very relevant to every conversation about government and services. The question was, "What should today's government do [for its citizens]?" The answer was 'do less':

"Government should only do what only government can do."

The GDS focused on building and improving services around the things that only government can do, i.e., creating IDs, issuing licenses, collecting taxes, and supporting social programs. They made those services clear, helpful, and user-friendly. Talk about political innovation!

Fast forward a bit, and you have countries like Estonia beginning to push the boundaries of what "the role of a government" can be. Case and point: Estonia's e-residency program:

The Republic of Estonia is the first country to offer e-Residency — a transnational digital identity available to anyone in the world interested in administering a location-independent business online. e-Residency additionally enables secure and convenient digital services that facilitate credibility and trust online. [...] By offering e-Residents the same services, Estonia is proudly pioneering the idea of a country without borders. [1]

The program has been around since 2014 (see footnote 2 for talking points and accompanying presentation), but today's email introduced services being built on top of the e-residency platform:

New services for Estonia

I'm interested in this idea of Government as API. In the US, open government data is used to further democratic transparency and keep politicians (somewhat) accountable... but what if services built can work with government... not outside of it?

With government functioning more like a start-up, new programs can get rolled out, tested, voted on, funded, and incorporated as core government services. Citizens can directly participate in crafting geo- or culturally-specific programs and applications for their communities. Innovation in one community can be open-sourced and diffused quickly around the country. Special interest groups might no longer control policy-making, democratizing how government works.

That's pretty cool.

Footnotes:
1. About Estonia's e-Residency
2. Estonia's talking points and presentation deck
3. The GDS Design Principles

Technology and Materials, 2

I think that a big idea underlying Maeda's work in Maeda and Media is the relationship between the creation of a tool and the use of the tool to create something else. That's still important and worth thinking about:

Much rhetoric and a lot of money are spent on realizing the classroom of the future. Surely, they say, there is a computer for both the lecturer and individual students, and it could not be built without having a high speed network that ties the classroom together, and in turn connects it to the world. Although my research team and I develop technologies to aid the education of artists and designers, we keep a backup perspective of what to do in the event of a power blackout or dropped network. This way of thinking might seem obvious at once, in which case you understand that we are all at the mercy of systems that have nothing to do with our abilities to think, create, and relate, and everything to do with a new mischievous god of the earth who stands next to fire, earth, and water - technology.

So while there are first-order tools such as brushes, scaffolds, hammers... things that we can easily make or reinvent from unrefined materials, there are also second-order tools such as books, the home, and the computer, which much more greatly enable us, but can't be created directly from scratch.

To extend that thought further, there is a third order of tools... operating systems that underpin our ability to make stuff. Instructions, ideas, systems we live within, infrastructure, culture, history, philosophy, design, et al... tools so big as to be nearly-invisible, constantly empowering us and also informing what we can and cannot do.

In The Matrix Reloaded, there's an exchange that happens between Neo and one of the Councilperson regarding the infrastructure that powers Zion:

Neo: But we control these machines; they don't control us.
Councilor Harmann: Of course not. How could they? The idea is pure nonsense. But... it does make one wonder... just... what is control?
Neo: If we wanted, we could shut these machines down.
Councilor Harmann: [Of] course. That's it. You hit it. That's control, isn't it? If we wanted we could smash them to bits. Although, if we did, we'd have to consider what would happen to our lights, our heat, our air...
Neo: So we need machines and they need us, is that your point, Councilor?

The infrastructure is too big and too slow to be changed on demand; what the people of Zion can and cannot do is determined by what the infrastructure was built to tolerate. In a sense, the 'machines run us' as much as 'we run the machines'.

Our history, cultures, and ideas work in a similar way. We build cultures around ourselves, and wield knowledge like a sword. Yet the same thing that empowers us also blinds us, biases us, and informs the limits within which we act.

So to revisit (and answer) the question at the end of the first part, yes: "ideas" are a technology, "ideas" are materials. But how is it useful to think about ideas, culture, infrastructure, et al, as tools?

Technology and Materials, 1

I recently finished reading Maeda and Media (2000) by John Maeda. It's an interesting retrospective of the work Maeda -- former director of the MIT Media Lab, former President of RISD, and now venture capitalist -- did in exploring the possibilities of and pioneering generative, programmatic, and digital art.

Of course, having been made in the early days of computers and GUIs, it all looks terribly dated: pixels and primary colors stretched across basic shapes, and geometric line art being programmed into existence. It's from an age where the idea of pixels, their LED components, and drawing programs were still cutting-edge.

Yet there might also be a reason to re-explore some of the conceptual challenges of early computer-created work. Those early pixels don't try to imitate existing art forms (because they can't). Just the opposite: Maeda's work suggests that programmatic experiments such as John Conway's Game of Life can be a completely new -- and previously impossible -- forms of art... a form that requires a completely different set of tools: not the Adobe Creative Suite or Sketchup, but the underlying algorithm or the code.

It forced me to grapple with a number of questions -- isn't Maeda describing a nearly Dadist form of art, to create a set of instructions and let the scenario play out? How can programming and generative art be informed by that sort of structured playfulness and unexpected performance? And what does it look like when that sort of generative art intersects with the non-digital world?

Is a set of instructions a tool or a material, in some sense? Is an idea a technology?

Some Rules for Thinking Out Loud

What you'll find here is a notebook, full of drafts, incomplete ideas, and speculations. I think those are important to record, and they can offer a lot of value. But I don't want to bore anyone; so, here are the rules I'm laying out for myself:

  1. Each post should be 500 words or less.
    (Anything longer should be a multi-part series, or is in need of some good editing.)

  2. Keep things simple; don't over complicate.

  3. If I'm being critical, I must offer positive alternatives.

  4. If I'm reacting positively, I must expand on that with speculation or extrapolation... an exercise of the imagination. Why is it positive and/or awesome? What possibilities can we imagine?

  5. Try to post once a week.

Hopefully, this will keep things going quick.

Signing off,

Roman