An Unusual Winter: Boston’s trouble with Emergence

A man drags a shovel up Beacon Hill during a severe winter snow storm in Boston
Photo courtesy of

This has been an interesting winter for Boston. Yes, lots of other places have had just as bad–or even worse–conditions and I don’t want to minimize that. But Boston has unique problems.

Shouldn’t they have been prepared?

I mean–winter’s happen every year. And every year, Boston has to deal with snow. What’s the big deal? Homeland Security Watch has this to say,

“Boston is a city that can handle a snowstorm.  Indeed, it can handle any single blizzard.  What is causing problems is the quick succession of substantial snow storms in the past month, along with sub-freezing temperatures preventing melting, that has slowly choked the transportation arteries of this densely built city.  This is leading to an unfortunate set of cascading outcomes that normally would not be a concern during normal winter weather.”

From the outside, it looks like Boston is simply incompetent, when the truth is that this is not a normal problem. It is what Harvard professors Dutch Leonard and Arn Howitt refer to as an “emergent crisis.” Emergent crises are especially hard to recognize and treat for 3 reasons.

  1. They look like normal problems. Boston has had snow before. This is a normal problem and has a normal response: plowing.
  2. Since they look like normal problems, the experts sent to deal with it, tend to get tunnel vision. Leonard & Howitt state, “Often, experts (and, perhaps even more so, teams of experts) are not adept at recognizing that their approach is not working. Often, they ignore “disconfirming evidence” (i.e., the flow of data tending to show that what they are doing is not working) and “escalate commitment” to their existing approach. The person or team working on the situation may not only believe that they are about to succeed (with just a little more effort and time) but also feel pressure not to lose face if they fail to handle the assigned situation.”
  3. Finally, emergent crises are especially difficult to treat because they have all of the qualities of a non-standard emergency (…”the difficulty of recognizing novelty, the challenge of creativity and improvisation of new approaches and designs under stress…”), with already deployed teams not trained in this kind of emergency. It can be hard to convince organizations already working on the problem to shift gears.

In a broader sense, emergent crises are a good example of how hard it is for responders to recognize data from noise. As I wrote here, one of the main jobs of cities, organizations, individuals, etc is to process information from the environment. More often than not, the information is meaningless (you don’t care that your shirt is touching your shoulder), but sometimes it matters (if your shirt is caught in a corn husker, suddenly you care it’s on you). But knowing what is important and what isn’t is extremely difficult since we generally don’t have the big picture or know the future (by the way, that’s why teams are so useful–each person holds a different part of the picture. Working together makes it easier to do stuff right.).

So what do we do?

Well… nothing. The human condition is such that we will always struggle a little bit to recognize new problems. But I think there’s a Communications theory that can help a little. It’s called Groupthink– you may have heard of this already. Essentially, when groups value consensus, they tend to ignore data which opposes or contravenes  their decisions and plans. Group Think could be complicating the emergent crisis/data-noise problem. But there is a solution: diversity. When groups value contrary opinions, they avoid tunnel vision and are much more successful at recognizing emergent problems.

Further reading


Letter to the Editor RE Climate Change

I was asked to write an open letter to the Editor of a newspaper describing why we should care about climate change. This is it:

Dear Editor,
Climate change makes our job harder.

As a nation, we can at least agree on peace. We want peace in the world because peace brings prosperity to both them and us. Peace lets governments provide for their people. It lets people return to work, return to building, return to innovation. Peace allows markets to be established, drugs to quell outbreaks, girls to receive education, and urbanization to become sustainable. Peace sets off a set of synergistic processes which total to more stabilization and less vulnerability. As citizens of the world, our job should be peace.

But notice just one of the effects of climate change: volatile weather patterns. FEMA, NOAA, and scientists from around the world all agree that climate change is making disastrous storms more frequent and more intense. Coastal cities and islands used to hurricanes, for instance, have developed building codes and other measures to cope with yearly hurricanes, but hurricanes that are getting worse more frequently are taking a toll on the infrastructure. Fictitious Island barely has time to repair its hospital and governmental buildings before another disastrous hurricane hits. The expense and continual disruption keeps the government from tackling other important developmental issues–like food security, controlled urbanization, or a faltering economy. It’s people gradually sink into a poverty hole. The unexpected flooding washes away their crops so they turn to their forests. Disappearing forests let flood waters and storm surges run farther inland ruining even more farm land.Their fishing stock disappears, the coral bleaches, peasants migrate to urban centers to seek out better health care or job opportunities. Uncontrolled urbanization means that building codes go unenforced. When the next hurricane hits, you have a Haiti-style disaster on your hands.

And I do mean your hands, Reader, because it is up to you and me to supply the volunteer doctors, the water, the search and rescue teams, the engineering expertise, etc. It’s up to us logically because a destabilized government is bad for peace and bad for our bottom line. It’s up to us emotionally because we can’t stand to see children cry.

Climate change makes everything harder. We, as an affluent country are not immune, though we are less vulnerable–for now. It is the responsibility of those who are strong to protect those who are weak. And climate change is making everyone much weaker.