The full text contributions by Dr. Gerald Stokes’ to the Maeil Business Newspaper (매일경제) in English (text below) and Korean (link below). (link to the article in Korean)

English Version


By Gerald Stokes, DTS Chair

Gerry Stokes, DTS Chair

I have become increasingly aware of how much of society depends on expectations. We have expectations about how the world works and how other people should behave. These expectations allow civilization to exist. Some expectations are obvious. We expect the sun to come up each day. We expect other vehicles to stop when they have a red light, unless of course it is a delivery scooter, which we expect never to stop until it gets to its destination. While the power of expectations is very great, it is clear if we do not manage them appropriately, the risks to ourselves, our businesses and institutions can be quite large. This risk is particularly important as we embark on new technologies like AI and participate in the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Expectations are part of life. We grow up learning the expectations of our parents and develop expectations of them as well. As we grow older these expectations of individual people grow into expectations of our institutions. We have expectations of schools, universities and businesses as well as the police and fire departments.
Within a business, expectations allow smooth operations. On the most fundamental level, companies are expected to provide a safe and appropriately equipped workplace. Employees are expected to work effectively and they, in turn, expect fair compensation for the value they deliver. Businesses have expectations of their suppliers and their customers. Industry builds complex supply chains that they expect to work. We expect government regulation to be stable and supportive. With globalization, we develop similar expectations of other governments as well. Over the past several decades, under the mantle of “corporate social responsibility,” society now also expects certain behaviors on the part of companies as they operate. Every business leader knows what happens when any of the above expectations are not met.

The sciences are great creators of expectations. When we drop a ball, we expect it to fall to the ground. The existence of technology creates even more expectations. When we turn on an electric switch, we expect a light to come on or a fan to run. Expectations build upon each other. We expect the train to arrive and leave on time. We plan to get to a meeting on time because we expect the train to be on time. And of course, we are expected to be at the meeting on time. Our expectations of technology are so high that we plan based on our expectations. We expect that the technology will work.

Not only do we have expectations of technology, but our technology is built based on a broad range of expectations. One of the most interesting is how the expectations we have of weather and climate pervade not only society but are embodied in physical infrastructure of civilization. The built infrastructure’s relationship to climate is like our wardrobe, we buy our clothes broadly, so we have warm clothes for the winter and something cooler for the summer.

Our buildings, our roads, our farms, dams and airports similarly built based on an expectation of the climate of a region – climate being our expectation of the weather and its variability. These expectations are codified for engineers in building codes and manuals that are the guides for construction and operations. These guides are based on observations of past weather that are amalgamated into specific expectations of not only average conditions faced by a structure but also the extremes it might experience. How hot? How cold? How much rain? How much wind? A building is a manufactured answer to these questions and is expected to have the right answers for 20, 30, 50 years or more.

However, the climate is changing. Both average conditions and more importantly, extremes are in flux. Our infrastructure, a monument to our expectations of the climate, is therefore at risk. When we think about climate change, there is a tendency to think in terms of global disasters like the collapse of ice sheets and global sea-level rise. There is, however, a very practical local problem. Many things can happen. Heavier than expected rains can overwhelm stormwater drainage. In a heat wave, higher demand for natural gas to generate electricity for air conditioning can exceed the capacity of gas pipelines. Our buildings are built in places based on our experience of the past, what happens when the 100-year flood happens every 10 years?

The problem then becomes how do we anticipate the challenges of the future: floods, high winds, wildfires, which may occur in greater than anticipated magnitude and impact? Anticipation and preparation need to replace expectation based on the past. We know that this problem is not restricted to climate changes. The Fukushima reactors were built on an expectation of magnitude and nature of an earthquake they might face, based on their engineers’ understanding of history. They were wrong.

We are beginning to understand the risk of historically based expectations. The climate changes we are now seeing are marked by small disasters - small on the scale of the globe, but very large in terms of the lives that they touch. The devastation of parts of the Bahamas due to hurricane Dorian was catastrophic. The entire infrastructure of the affected areas was not built to withstand a storm of that magnitude – it was unexpected. Korea is the home to a United Nations Office of Disaster Risk Reduction, which is focused on enhancing resilience to climate change specifically, but other disasters as well. This is a critical international enterprise. A key to enhancing resilience for ourselves, our companies, and our society is to understand what expectations we have that might make us vulnerable.

Finally, I will note that a new technology is emerging that is frequently based on expectations shaped by the past. This is big data. Big data can be a potent tool for business and government; however, many analyses dig into the past for their insights, expecting the past to help predict or shape the future. If we are not careful, these analyses can make us a prisoner of the past. The lesson for a changing world is that when we expect the future to reflect the past, we are at risk. It may be a manageable risk for big data – probably more so than for climate change - but a risk, nonetheless.