Seriously Unwelcome Surprises

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

Michael Schrage notes that the real value of a model or simulation stems from its power to generate useful surprise:

Louis Pasteur once remarked that “chance favors the prepared mind.” It holds equally true that chance favors the prepared prototype: models and simulations can and should be media to create and capture surprise and serendipity. Yet surprises are not always welcome.

Indeed, surprises are not always welcome:

Clark Abt of Abt Associates, a pioneer in applying simulation games to public policy, recalls running a simulation for the Agency for International Development (AID) involving sustainable economic development in a developing country. “The simulation was biased in favor of saving the forests, while still allowing for a growing population and increasing the standard of living,” Abt recalls. The overt goal was, in his words, “to learn how to save the environment in a politically responsible way while having healthy economic development.” But practically every run of every simulation led to the relatively rapid destruction of the econologically cherished but commercially irresistible forests. “By the end of the day, the forests were all gone,” Abt remembers. “The AID types were really pissed off.”

So what did AID do in the ugly face of this consistent and politically incorrect outcome?

I think you already know what they did:

The agency shut down the exercise.

Abt makes a few amusing points about models and simulations:

  • “You know you have something when the model has a life of its own.”
  • Abt compares models to women’s skirts: “They should be long enough to cover the subject but short enough to be interesting.”

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