At one of the press conferences on corona held by the Dutch Prime Minister Rutte, I heard him say we must now “decide for 100 % with only 50 % of the information.” He has repeated that oneliner many times since then. There is indeed still so much unknown about the coronavirus or about which measures are working and which ones aren’t. But this also applies to all manner of other things, doesn’t it? Perhaps we should acknowledge complexity as the new normal? Even within our own lives. That calls for a new virtue for our national character: a degree of humility.
Unprecedented and unfair crisis
Corona allows us to experience at first hand how vulnerable our society as a whole is. People get sick and die. All over the world. Healthcare is overstretched and we have lost many of our freedoms in a single stroke. We are not allowed to visit our grandparents, our mothers and fathers, we have to work from home and we have to keep our distance from each other. So, no arm around someone’s shoulder to comfort them. The corona measures affect us all. However, some people are more affected by the virus and the measures than others. Such as homeless people, those with psychiatric illnesses or learning disabilities, the elderly, and workers who have flex contracts. Corona is a huge crisis that involves making far-reaching decisions while not all of the information is readily available, as Rutte rightly points out.
Complexity as a starting point for a new policy?
To date, there seems to be a lot of understanding for Rutte’s position. After all, a lot is unclear at the moment. But what does Rutte actually mean when he says ‘100 % of the information’? Is he referring to the lack of information concerning the effects of the new measures? Or does he mean a lack of clarity about the virus itself? Or both?
I would contend that in our complex society we very often have to deal with decisions based on less than 100% of available information. This applies to both the (social) issue at hand that should be addressed and the effects of any associated measures. Social issues are invariably complex by definition, given that many variables play a role. Moreover, the effects of a policy often depend on people’s compliance with stipulated measures. Yet it is precisely human behavior that is difficult to predict in advance. It is often only with the benefit of hindsight that it can be determined whether the aims have been reached.
It is therefore high time for us to accept that the lack of ‘100 % of the information’ is very often the case. Not only does it apply to the corona crisis but also to other major and minor decisions.
Complexity as a starting point for our own actions?
Complexity and the lack of ‘100 % of the information’ of course not only applies to situations that policymakers have to deal with, but also to all kinds of situations in our own everyday lives. We often give our own opinion, about anything and everything, without ever having ‘100 percent of the information.’ Perhaps that might not always be necessary. However, being well-informed on some level before we make up our minds, and gauging each other’s opinions on that basis, does make coexistence a little more pleasant.
Back to the corona crisis for a moment, it sometimes seems as if we have hundreds of thousands of virologists all around us, who are unimpeded by any proper knowledge, who all have an opinion on the virus and the effects of the measures and subsequently take each other to task. So, perhaps we could learn a few lessons from this crisis when it comes to our own future actions?
A new virtue?
As a first step, it helps if we recognize that lots of things, even everyday things, are quite complex and that you don’t have all the relevant information at your disposal in many situations. This realization helps tremendously but does not directly lead to other behavior. There is more to it than that.
I’m all for adding a new virtue to our Dutch national character, namely a degree of humility. Just ask our Southern neighbors. There they can tell you that this is really not a core quality of Dutch people; we are known there as folk who’ve got a big mouth – always first in line and cock of the roost.
We all know examples of people around us who this applies to. People who would be better off lowering their tone for a change. We hear them holding forth at family gatherings and we see them pass by on social media. Examples galore.
But could this possibly apply to yourself as well? If I take a good look at myself, I would dare answer that question with a full-on yes for 100% even though I might only have 50% of the information … Making the world a better place starts with yourself.
About this column
In a weekly column, alternately written by Hans Helsloot, Eveline van Zeeland, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels, Mary Fiers, Peter de Kock, Tessie Hartjes and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous IO columns in this series.