Black Swan Thinking – An Introduction

Much of my work on Black Swan thinking in recent years has taken place in my role as Innovator In Residence under the auspices of the ShapingEDU Initiative at ASU. So as to make access to that work more readily accessible in a single location, here are links to some of the key sessions hosted by ShapingEDU:

More to come from Black Swan Lake…

The Deconstruction of Flying Swans

As a follow up to last week’s post, a question: why start with the trilogy of systems, agents, networks? Why not start more directly – by, say, identifying Black Swan nesting grounds? It’s an important question, so I’d like to address it prior to next week’s session.

Much as it would be nice to hope that workshops on likely sources for Black Swan events would set the stage for event readiness, the evidence unfortunately does not point in that direction. For instance, many people either participated in or reviewed the outcomes of the Event 201 Pandemic Exercise – but their presence does not appear to have had any great impact on subsequent COVID-related policies. Nor can I claim any great successes with this approach: prior to 2008 and 2015, I highlighted in my talks economic history and human migrations as crucial topics for K-20 education, but saw few instances of actual curricular adoption.

So, developing a new set of habits of mind may be a more indirect approach – but it may also be a more successful one. But then, why this trilogy? The answer has both a constructive aspect – the features of Black Swans that it illuminates – but also a deconstructive one: the misconceptions about Black Swans it dispels.

One if the most common misconceptions about Black Swans is that their unpredictability results from the singularity of triggering events. In this view, Black Swans cannot be predicted because they are the result of a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, never seen before, or to be seen again. This leads directly to a sense of helplessness and associated blamelessness: the fates are against us, and mere mortals are but the plaything of their whims. Nor only is this viewpoint incorrect and untrue – it is also dangerous and poisonous, leading to passivity and a surrender of agency.

Black Swans are generally not the result of unusual events – they are rather the outcome of couplings between distinct entities, encompassing component parts with varying degrees of autonomy, and interconnected in multiple ways. A simple (non Black Swan example) may be helpful here. The behavior of sandpiles as more sand is drizzled onto them has been extensively modeled and studied: small avalanches will be triggered at different points, with different frequencies based upon (among other factors) the stack height, dampness of sand grains, rate of sand addition, etc. Any given avalanche is a priori unpredictable, although it is not a Black Swan event (for instance, the statistical distribution of sand cascades is predictable in a way that Black Swan events are not), but start thinking about what might happen if multiple sandpiles started interacting with each other, and you’ll be closer to Black Swan insights.

Now, these insights wouldn’t be much use if they still left us in a passive position – but, as we’ll see, they can form the basis for planning and action that goes beyond mere reaction. How? Well, that’s the topic of the sessions – and of more blogs to come.

(with thanks to Knowles & Maxim for the inspiration for the calligraphic swan, and to JMS for the inspiration for the blog title)

The Black Swan Thinking Project: Harnessing the Future by Framing the Past

“One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of accidentally becoming your own father or mother. […] The major problem is quite simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveler’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Many of the events that shape the world of learning and academe are not slow, gradual changes. Rather, they belong to the category of Black Swans, events that:

  • cannot be predicted ahead of time;
  • have an extreme impact;
  • can be rationalized or understood retrospectively, but not prospectively.

The lack of predictability of Black Swans might lead someone to write them off as “just one of those things” that you “just have to bear” – and nothing could be more wrong or more destructive. It is possible to design institutions and plans for action that, without predicting the unpredictable, are either resilient in the face of Black Swans, or – even better – antifragile, a term coined by Nassim Taleb to describe entities that actively benefit from unexpected shocks.

Black Swan thinking and antifragile design require a toolkit that is very different from traditional planning approaches. In order to address this need, I will be leading a 6-month project, sponsored by the ShapingEDU group at ASU, to develop such a toolkit for K-20 institutions. It comprises three stages:

Stage 1: The End of Fairytales
  • A multisession course, focusing on entities at three key levels of analysis and planning – systems, agents, and networks – required to identify the nesting grounds of Black Swans, and develop habits of mind and sets of responses to the unknown.
Stage 2: Painting Antifragile Learning (Not) by Numbers
  • A design studio, reframing SAMR as a tool not just for identifying and implementing optimal uses of technology in teaching and learning, but also as a guiding scaffold underpinning learning experiences that do much more than just stand up to rapid change.
Stage 3: The Great Swan Game
  • A day-long scenario game, inviting teams from a diverse range of academic institutions to leverage and apply the knowledge gained in the first two stages. Their goal: to design organizations and learning frameworks that can thrive amid flocks of particularly ill-tempered Black Swans.

It’s an honor to have been selected by ASU and ShapingEDU as an Innovator In Residence and to develop this project. I welcome everyone to the virtual pond – kits for building your own pith helmet and binoculars will be provided.