How to expect the unexpected


History is littered with examples of when well intended action has resulted in unexpected outcomes.

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in Superfreakononics write about the General Hospital in Vienna, where in the 1840s, women in labour where more than three times as likely to die in hospital than at home with a midwife.

It turned out that the doctors – who were trying to save their patients – were actually transferring germs to them because they were examining them without first washing their hands.

A simple fix – washing their hands – put an end to the deaths.

Politicians are forever coming up with programmes to incentivise changes in behaviour.

Often, however, things don’t go the way they expect.

For example, subsidies for wind power around the world have, quite literally, led to a windfall for landowners who have large tracts of property in windy areas.

People who are probably already relatively wealthy have been offered guaranteed subsidies for many years to site turbines on their land.

People who don’t have access to land or utility connections face relatively higher costs.

And the poorest, who have no way of reducing their costs or investing in their own generation systems face the prospect of increased bills to pay for the subsidies for the wealthy.

This happens again and again in different situations.

Levitt and Dubner put forward examples where laws aimed at preventing discrimination result in increasing it, or laws aimed at reducing waste result in more illegal waste dumping.

And, when it comes to things like tax codes, there are entire industries devoted to figuring out and working within loopholes.

So, how can we improve the way in which we plan actions and deal with outcomes?

The systems around us are complex and any intervention is likely to work through feedback loops rather than a simple cause and effect approach.

In addition to the intended result, we need to think about what we will do if the outcome results in a windfall, a detriment or a perverse result.

In essence, we need to make sure we model more than just one scenario.

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