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The Predictable Surprises of 2015—And Beyond

Back in 2005, two business-school professors, Max H. Bazerman and Michael D. Watkins, published a thoughtful book, Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming, and How to Prevent Them. A decade later, we can look ahead to the Predictable Surprises of 2015—and beyond.

Bazerman & Watkins analyzed complicated events, but their basic thesis could be stated simply: Oftentimes, we have at least some warning about the disasters that strike. As the authors put it, a Predictable Surprise is “an event or set of events that take an individual or group by surprise, despite prior awareness of all of the information necessary to anticipate the events and their consequences.”

In the authors’ telling, two events of the year 2001, 9-11 and the Enron bankruptcy, count as Predictable Surprises. That is, prior to 9-11, there was plenty of evidence that terrorists were planning to strike in America, and prior to the Enron bankruptcy, there was plenty of evidence that commodities firms were both over-confident and over-leveraged. Therefore, the authors argue, authorities should have been better prepared to stave off these dangers.

To be sure, an analysis of past Predictable Surprises can turn into a game of 20-20 hindsight. And speculation about future Predictable Surprises can turn into a sort of parlor game.

Still, if the past has any heuristic value—that is, if we are to learn from our mistakes and avoid new calamities in the future—it’s worth examining events through the prism of Predictable Surprises.

So what are the Predictable Surprises of 2015? And beyond?

Here’s a short list of five:

First, more cyber-hacking. The disaster that overtook Sony Pictures Entertainment was a surprise—except, of course, that it was predictable. Since much of our world has moved to cyberspace, it shouldn’t be a surprise that warfare, of a kind, has moved there, too. And if even the mighty National Security Agency can’t protect itself from the depredations of a single hacker, it shouldn’t be much of a shock that a high-profile company, such as Sony, was going to get hacked in the worst way. So we are left with two unresolved mysteries: “Whodunnit?” and “Who’s next?”

Second, more missile attacks across international borders. In 2014, the Palestinian Hamas organization, operating from the Gaza Strip, fired more than 4000 rockets at Israel. And while the Israeli Iron Dome missile-defense system stopped most of those projectiles, it didn’t stop all of them. For Hamas, bent as it is on Israel’s annihilation, the fact that its rockets succeeded in killing eight Israelis and wounding 60 others is a source of inspiration. So we shouldn’t be surprised to see more such attacks by Hamas or some Palestinian splinter group in 2015.

Indeed, other malevolent actors, too, have likely noticed that the missile-defense systems of today are not foolproof. So beyond Hamas, who else will give murderous rocketry a try? Hezbollah? North Korea? Iran? It’s a safe bet that missile-defense will be further tested in 2015 by missile-offense.

Third, closer to home, a rising concern over crime and criminality. For some four decades, from the 1950s to the early 1990s, the crime rate in the US was rising. And so it was no surprise that, in response, “law and order” emerged as an important political issue. To put it bluntly, tough-on-crime candidates did better than soft-on-crime candidates.

Finally, in 1992, the crime rate peaked; over the last two decades, crime has decreased substantially. Not surprisingly, therefore, the issue of “law and order” has faded.

But now, crime and unrest seem to be on the upswing. Earlier in 2014, we felt an early tremor—the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the protests that followed. But more recently, the shooting deaths of four on-duty policemen in a week—the two in New York City that everyone knows about, and the deaths, too, of brave police officers in Florida and Arizona—is a reminder that it’s still a plenty dangerous world. And of course, the full impact of President Obama’s immigration amnesty program will begin to make itself felt next year.

So “law and order” is likely to be a major theme in 2015—and 2016. (And oh yes: If the right grows more concerned about crime, it’s likely that the left will grow more agitated about gun control.)

Fourth, the rise of infectious disease. The Ebola virus has killed nearly 7000 people in Africa, and many observers have feared that the epidemic could spread to the US. Happily, no Americans have died of the disease, though a few have been treated—at enormous cost. Indeed, the recent revelation that a Centers for Disease Control worker was exposed to Ebola is a reminder that the disease still poses a grave danger to the US.

Moreover, the combination of increased international mobility and decreased public-health vigilance makes it a near certainty that new plagues are coming. One new study projects that new “superbugs” will kill 10 million a year by 2050.

Fifth, the rise of non-infectious disease. If there’s ever been a non-surprising Predictable Surprise, it’s the coming epidemic of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). According to the Alzheimer’s Association, AD will afflict tens of millions of Americans in the decades to come, for a cumulative cost of $20 trillion by mid-century. And of course, dry statistics don’t tell the whole story: A recent piece in National Journal, “My Alzheimer’s Nightmare,” vividly illustrates the real-life pain of a single AD case.

Thus we see five Predictable Surprises for 2015 and beyond: More cyber-hacking, more missile offense, rising concern over crime and criminality, and the rise of both infectious and non-infectious disease.

We might ask ourselves: Is there anything we can do to forestall these grim tidings? The answer to that question is, almost certainly, “Yes.” They are, after all, Predictable Surprises—we know they are coming.

And so, if we can see these bad trends on the horizon, we can take preventive action. We can improve cyber-security and missile defense. We can get tough, once again, on crime, even as we seek out new ways to protect the police. And we can reinvigorate our efforts to cure disease.

Of course we can’t stop all the bad things that might happen. Yet if we use our resources—financial, intellectual, and ethical—we can stop some of them. And that’s a worthy exercise.

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