Coronavirus: Collective sense-making and supply chains

Errol street, North Melbourne, evening, photographed by Dean Kyte.
Errol street, North Melbourne, evening.

You can download this free audio version of the article below here.

In my previous post on The Melbourne Flâneur, I discussed the crisis in schematic collective sensemaking which the Coronavirus situation has exposed.

I stated that the pollution of our collective sensemaking environment, the ‘cognitive commons’ of the Internet, through a generalized game-theoretic strategy of viral incivility online has created the conditions for a wholesale descent into species-wide psychosis.

The Coronavirus crisis has exposed the multi-polar schizophrenia of our collective schema for apprehending and making good sense of reality.  Our individual capacities to make good decisions and take effective actions with respect to the reality of our situation is impaired, and this cumulative impairment of individual capacities has synergistic ramifications for our species’ capacities to make good collective decisions and take good collective actions to arrest the virus.

Moreover, the Coronavirus has exposed the fragility of our entangled, globalized supply chains.

If you think that good schematic collective sensemaking is tangential rather than fundamental to the systemic problems which the Coronavirus has exposed, I invite you to look carefully at supply chains.

In a superindustrial world where the citizens of developed nations don’t hunt and gather for themselves, but are wholly dependent upon an international network of strangers to provide for them, nowhere is the capacity of groups of people to make good collective sense of a situation and take efficient and effective action towards it more critical—more essential, as our governments insist on calling it—to collective wellbeing than in supply chains.

Here in Australia, the Department of Defence’s former Director of Preparedness and Mobilisation, Cheryl Durrant, released a confidential report she had commissioned last year on the state of the nation’s supply chains.

Ms. Durrant invited seventeen engineers from Australia’s key industries to a private meeting here in Melbourne.  She wanted to understand how the national supply chain would fare in the event of three distinct crises—including a global pandemic.

On Day 0, the engineers determined, there would be public hoarding, such as we saw with toilet paper, soap and hand sanitiser, and businesses would engage in ‘shortage gaming’—inflating their upstream demands for supply.

By the end of Week 1, water treatment systems in Australia would start to fail and a mass decoupling of labour would begin throughout the workforce.  By the end of Week 2, the national supply chain would be under stress.

By the end of Month 1, food would begin to run out and logistics would be impacted by fuel shortages.

And by the end of Month 3, we would be living in the Mad Max world.

A national depression would have taken hold, and the population would have become ungovernable because the supply chain was completely broken: no continuous electricity; water and sanitisation snafu’d; cyber security and undersea communication cables seriously degraded.

If you’re interested in reading the ABC article, I put a link to it here.

Just three months of supply separate Australia from complete anarchy and civilizational collapse.  If you don’t regard this very material, existential problem in the maintenance of supply as fundamentally a problem in the more abstract realm of collective sensemaking, allow me to lay out the argument for you.

Much of what I’m going to say, with respect to the Coronavirus, is focused on the global charitable supply chain, which has some fundamental differences to the commercial supply chain.  But I think the argument I am going to make can equally be applied, mutatis mutandis, to the challenges which the global commercial supply chain is facing in this pandemic.

The two most significant differences which are relevant to this analysis, but which are equivalent in the circumstances we currently find ourselves, are the inherent instability of not-for-profit supply chains as compared to their for-profit counterparts, and the question of who the ultimate ‘customer’ of the not-for-profit supply chain actually is.

In the first instance, the commercial supply chain, though it obviously has to deal with perturbation and disruption, has to deal with far less of it in the course of ordinarily doing business than the charitable supply chain.  The latter must be agile and resilient enough to cope with perturbation and disruption as a matter of course:—its charge is to establish lines of supply precisely in circumstances where the normal commercial supply chain has broken down.

The commercial supply chain has some capacity for resilience incorporated in its design, but it’s basically intended to operate in circumstances of stability.  The charitable supply chain tends to be more agile than resilient, as it is typically deployed in circumstances of great instability, although in time-critical emergencies it must obviously demonstrate extraordinary temporary resilience to cope with perturbation.

Moreover, it’s typically charged with ameliorating the social and environmental externalities of the commercial supply chain, which, as a for-profit entity, is better resourced than its not-for-profit counterpart.  This lack of parity in resources means that the charitable supply chain needs to be leaner and more agile in the deployment of its resources, which tends to undermine its resilience.

Indeed, as Oloruntoba and Gray noticed in their 2006 research paper “Humanitarian aid: an agile supply chain?”, there is evidence of a frequent lack of planning in not-for-profit supply chains.  This is perhaps surprising because, as Tomasini and Van Wassenhove observed, the cost of supply chain logistics typically constitutes 80 per cent of an humanitarian organization’s overhead.

You might imagine that charities would want to get such a figure down, since it absorbs most of the donations they receive and eats into the funds they have available to spend on their programs.  But as not-for-profit entities, their resources are already stretched pretty thin, and, as Arya and Mittendorf discovered in their 2016 paper “Donor Reliance on Accounting and its Consequences for the Charitable Distribution Channel”, even if it were possible for charities to hold the administrative costs associated with planning and rationalizing their supply chains steady, donors’ perception of the length of the supply chain still significantly influences their readiness to give.

And this leads me neatly to the second question:  Who is the ultimate ‘customer’ for goods and services delivered by the charitable supply chain?  The answer is not as obvious as might appear on the face of it.

In the for-profit sector, the answer is obvious: anyone giving us money in exchange for goods and services is our customer.

All the efforts of the commercial supply chain, therefore, are geared towards optimizing it for the most efficient and effective means of putting goods and services into the hands of customers because we are, ultimately, seeking the most efficient and effective means of taking cash out of their hands.

The implications for collective sensemaking should be obvious.  The schema of the commercial supply chain is oriented around the profit motive, and all the actors within the commercial supply chain, whether organizationally or as individuals, are on the same page about what every decision they make and every action they take is intended to accomplish.

Profit is a nice means of getting people to co-operate in a common endeavour.

In my previous post, I cited the research of Luís M. A. Bettencourt into the emergent properties of information aggregation with regards to the collective intelligence of non-expert groups.  As Bettencourt points out, we have some rather ubiquitous global collective intelligence networks that operate to connect supply chains both domestically and internationally.

They’re called markets.

But as Bettencourt points out, the efficacy of markets as collective intelligence networks is patchy at best.  Under conditions where the profit motive is not unchecked by means of the pricing mechanism, the group of non-experts who collectively constitute a market can accurately assess the relative value of goods and services.

But there are also legions of instances where markets, as collective sensemaking networks, get the value of things psychotically wrong—‘psychotic’ in the clinical sense.  Their schizophrenic perceptions and assessments of the relative value of things in the marketplace become completely divorced from reality.

This is what happens when ‘bubbles’ occur in markets.

According to Bettencourt, in situations of great entropic uncertainty such as the one we are currently facing, the individuals who constitute markets fall back on heuristics, cognitive biases towards loss aversion, and irrational behaviours such as ‘decision herding’.

‘… [T]he general structure of markets certainly has the potential for aggregating information efficiently,’ Bettencourt writes.  ‘The Achilles heel of markets resides, however, on the sources of correlation between traders.

‘… Thus any behavioral heuristic or external sign that destroys the independent decision making and actions of participants in a market can potentially destroy the efficiency of the market as a whole.  Because such endogenous and exogenous coordinating mechanisms are ubiquitous, it is important to recognize that markets may be (temporarily) wrong in pricing assets….’

Indeed, we currently have such a problem in our markets, a psychotic divorce between value demanded and actual value delivered which has had deleterious effects on the collective sensemaking network of the commercial supply chain.

But this collective inability to correctly perceive the relative value of things threatens to damage the charitable supply chain even more egregiously at a time when its capacity for the agile distribution of aid to people in need, and its capacity to demonstrate extraordinary temporary resilience in unstable conditions, are needed to meet the disruption and perturbation presented by the Coronavirus.

In my first post on the Coronavirus, I described our global financial system (citing economist Eric Weinstein) as a ‘global Ponzi scheme’, one in which value demanded has become radically decoupled from actual value delivered.

The price signal, which is the cornerstone of markets’ efficiency, has become hyper-inflated.

More specifically, the corollary of the price signal—good old-fashioned ‘profit’—has significantly distorted the signal which markets, as collectives of non-expert individuals, perceive as the relative value of goods and services provisioned through the commercial supply chain.

In the early days of the Coronavirus crisis, before the bug had really crept ashore, we saw in Australia a classic anecdotal example of how markets irrationally, psychotically react when entropic uncertainty suddenly rises to disturb the collective schema of supply.  It was a display of poor collective sensemaking which sent the price signal—and the profit motive—stratospherically spiralling.

When people got ‘caught short’ (pardon the pun) with respect to toilet paper, hoarding and profiteering sent the humble roll rolling like a bowling ball through the commercial supply chain, disrupting it significantly.  Due, I would contend, to the non-transparency of the commercial supply chain, the schematic perception of scarcity on the demand side of the equation was not allayed by protestations on the supply side that there was enough toilet paper to go round.

In other words, the schema of information surrounding supply with respect to toilet paper was incomplete to consumers.  There was a sudden surge in entropic uncertainty concerning this issue, and the non-transparency of the commercial supply chain made it difficult for consumers to attenuate their uncertainty without relying upon trust.

And when, as we have seen in other posts in this series, trust is eroded by the profit motive, there is little incentive for non-experts outside the schema of knowledge pertaining to a given field to trust the protestations of experts within it.

Woolworths CEO Brad Banducci told the ABC’s 7:30 program on 18 March that there was no problem with the supply of toilet paper—provided the supermarket and its competitors didn’t have to suddenly provide for the equivalent of double the national population.

Mr. Banducci stated that the disruption to the supply chain was not due to problems on the supply side, but that it was ‘unequivocally true’ that disruption was due to a surge in demand on the customers’ side.

The price that people were willing to pay for toilet paper—(the value they suddenly attached to it)—chased profit—(the value that unscrupulous hoarders were capable of demanding for toilet paper)—up a dizzying spiral staircase that had no rational relationship with the item’s actual value.

This anecdote gives evidence of the schizophrenic behaviour that possesses markets on both the supply and demand side when collective sensemaking goes awry.  It points to the fundamental disjuncture between the price signal and the profit motive which has ramifications for the collective sensemaking capacity of supply chains both commercial and charitable.

When we understand that the commercial supply chain, as it exists in markets underwritten by the relationship between the price signal and profit motive, is not fundamentally there to most efficiently and effectively supply tangible goods and intangible services to customers, but to most efficiently and effectively separate customers from their cash, we begin to perceive what the problem is for collective sensemaking in the not-for-profit supply chain.

The ‘market environment’ and the assumptions of price and profit which are the pillars of this collective sensemaking network are not suitable metrics of efficiency and effectiveness to apply to the not-for-profit supply chain.

Nevertheless, as we live in a networked environment of markets, the apple of not-for-profit enterprise must somehow make itself comparable to the orange of for-profit enterprise which preponderates and predominates in this environment.

So when we ask who the ultimate customer is for the goods and services supplied by charity, we discover that the ‘customer’ is not the person to whom charitable goods and services are ultimately being delivered because, as Oloruntoba and Gray point out, this person ‘seldom enters into a commercial transaction and has little control over supplies.’

Instead, just as in the commercial supply chain, the ‘customer’ for charitable goods and services is the person who ponies up the dough—the donor.

It sounds obviously irrational.  Yet it isn’t the fault of poor logic, but of poor collective sensemaking.  The logic of markets being applied to an area of human exchange which is not a market transaction based on price and profit does not compute.

Moreover, when (as we have seen in the case of toilet paper profiteering) the price signal of markets is distorted by the profit motive for centralized gain in a zero-sum game-theoretic dynamic, the application of for-profit supply chain principles to the not-for-profit distribution of goods and services to people in crisis compounds the problem in sensemaking which begins at first principles with the invalid application of market logic to charity.

I stated earlier that one of the defining characteristics of the charitable supply chain is its instability.  It can and does break down at the delivery point.  It can equally break down at any point along the chain of provision due to the extraordinary perturbations it must seek to withstand.

But—perhaps counterintuitively—the place where the charitable supply chain is most unstable is not at its delivery point, but at the head of the supply chain—the gathering point of donations for distribution to people in need.

This instability is due to the uncertain nature of funding for entities who are operating on a not-for-profit basis in a for-profit market environment.

As economic agents in a market environment predicated on the profit motive, charities must play by the same rules as for-profit enterprises and compete for the cash of governments and private donors.

In other words, their supply chains also need to be optimized so as to most efficiently and effectively separate cash from the hands of their ‘customers’.

You can see how this creates a logical problem in collective sensemaking.

For while the chain of charitable supply ought actually to be focused on most efficiently and effectively distributing aid to people in need, the market’s assumption that the person who has the cash is the same person who has a problem that the spending of cash can solve leads the charitable supply chain to double back on itself and concentrate its supply efforts primarily on obtaining resources and only secondarily on distributing them.

Moreover, as Oloruntoba and Gray point out, in the market environment where rivalrous not-for-profit supply chains are forced to compete for cash, ‘donors [are] generally more sympathetic to emergencies than longer-term aid and development….’

In my second post on the Coronavirus, I hazarded an intuition as to why an urgent, visible crisis such as a global pandemic catalyzes collective action when a more exponentially urgent yet invisible crisis such as global climate change does not.

The reason I put forth was that, when crises are collectively apprehensible by the sensorium of all the individuals in a group, and when individual impressions of clear and present danger can be compared via the vector of free speech, there is little doubt in the collective sensemaking environment as to what the problem is and what action needs to be taken to mitigate disaster.

When, on the other hand (as in the case of global climate change), a crisis is so vast—not only spatially, but temporally—that it cannot be immediately apprehended by the collective sensorium of individuals, doubt as to the reality of the looming catastrophe enters into the collective sensemaking environment, and the vector of free speech tends to obfuscate rather than enlighten the situation.

It does not matter that a putative crisis such as climate change is gathering momentum on an exponential several orders of magnitude greater than the Coronavirus.  Its spatial and temporal vastness puts such paradoxical breaks of inertia upon it that, even if the wave is bearing down on us at a rate of acceleration which makes the virus seem like a Model-T Ford by comparison, the wave is so huge that it is still beyond the limits of our individual senses to perceive.

It is not until it has narrowed to a point where the crest is right over our heads, when causes and effects can be linked by our senses, that, individually and as a collective, we will be able to perceive the clear and present threat of climate change and act to prevent it.

Until that point, global climate change is not an ‘urgent emergency’ for collective sensemaking as the global pandemic is, but a long-term crisis for which we have little sympathy and patience when it comes to funding charitable enterprises seeking to ameliorate it.

The sensual immediacy of a crisis focuses our perceptions of risk and implicitly co-ordinates our collective sensemaking response.  In my last post, I explained how the Ushahidi crisis-mapping platform acts to synchronize individual schemas into a collective schema which serves to slash entropic uncertainty around crises where the commercial supply chain has broken down and co-ordinate charitable response.

Our natural empathy is collectively activated when we see people in conditions of unmistakable crisis, and where charities might ordinarily find their funding tenuous in long-term projects of amelioration, they suddenly see a generous influx of resources from donors at the head of the supply chain.

But this creates a further problem in sensemaking.  I stated above that Arya and Mittendorf found that the bias which donors exhibit towards short-term emergencies as compared to long-term missions has significant repercussions for how charities organize their supply chains.

More specifically, in a climate of competition for donors’ dollars, a charity in the unenviable position of having a long-term mission is tempted to decentralize and externalize its supply chain—and thus lower its perceived overhead—disbursing funds to subsidiary charities to deliver key aspects of the mission.

Arya and Mittendorf state: ‘… [D]onor emphasis on reported program expenses puts charities in a bind—they must skimp on either administrative or fundraising infrastructure if they have any hope of generating funds from a skeptical public and this, in turn, facilitates a starvation cycle from which charities cannot fully recover….’

In 2015, Taticchi, Garengo, Nudrupati, Tonelli, and Pasqualino undertook a review of the literature on the relationship between networked Decision Support Tools (DSTs), Decision Support Systems (DSSs), and the Performance Measurements (PMs) generated by these interfaces in sustainable supply chains—that is, in supply chains seeking to balance the triple bottom line of economic, environmental, and social costs.

Although they focused on the commercial rather than the charitable supply chain, obviously the not-for-profit sector is at the forefront of trying to balance the economic, environmental and social impacts of its supply chain, and I think the findings of Taticchi et al. are relevant to the charitable sector.

Certainly, the collective sensemaking environment of the global charitable supply chain would benefit enormously from transparent tools and systems which supported efficient and effective decision-making by providing charities with PMs more in line with their social and environmental missions.

In the current non-transparent, market-based environment where charities are competing with each other for the cash of ‘sceptical donors’, as Arya and Mittendorf observe, the only PMs available to charities and donors alike are financial accounting metrics—and these are hardly transparent DSTs.

For organizations earnestly seeking to balance their triple bottom lines, accounting metrics are obviously not the best PMs for quantifying the efficiency and effectiveness of a charity’s initiatives with respect to its mission fulfilment.

The profit motive, which in the case of charities is translated into acquiring funds at the head of their supply chains, interferes with downstream delivery of the mission—which is primarily of a social and/or environmental, and only secondarily of an economic, nature.  The necessity to satisfy the economic bottom line of program spending for donors presents too great a temptation for charities to distort their efficiency and effectiveness with respect to this variable through ‘clever accounting’.

It is the non-transparent nature of accounting metrics and the up-front pressure of donors as the source of charitable supply chains which invidiously influences many charities to externalize and decentralize their supply chains so as to give the ‘customers’ to whom they are accountable the leanest impression of overhead as a proportion of total funds donated for program spending.

The ‘appearance’ of efficiency in the non-transparent, decentralized, charitable supply chain merely externalizes redundant inefficiencies to other charities, who must in turn demonstrate to their donors the efficiency of their program spending by offsetting these compounding redundancies to supply chain partners downstream of them.

As Arya and Mittendorf discovered, the problem for collective sensemaking in long-term charitable interventions is that, in a non-transparent supply chain environment where ‘perceived efficiency’ as a PM is a function of accounting metrics, charities externalize and decentralize their supply chains in order to cut their individual administrative burdens so as to appear to achieve a greater parity between the donations they receive in a given period and the program spending they disburse from donations received.

A better PM, according to Arya and Mittendorf, would be to assess the ratio between donations received in a given period and how impactful were the interventions on the mission which the donations enabled in that timeframe.

But by employing the DSTs of accounting metrics to focus on the efficiency and effectiveness of program spending rather than on the efficiency and effectiveness of mission impact, everyone in the collective sensemaking ecology of the decentralized charitable supply chain is prone to deception due to the displacement and deferral of the externalities introduced by the financial incentive to deceive donors.

A fair amount of social signalling—of what I would call ‘fiscal virtue signalling’, in fact—acts in tandem with the profit motive to distort accounting and corrupt efficiency for organizations whose missions extend over long time horizons.  And as a charitable organization matures and its revenue stream stabilizes, according to Arya and Mittendorf, the necessity for this social signalling of ‘perceived efficiency’ decreases, as it is less beholden to its donors’ perceptions of its ‘fiscal virtue’ in order to facilitate its supply chain.

The more urgent a charity’s mission is, the more condensed and centralized is its supply chain—not because a short, internalized supply chain translates donors’ cash into aid to recipients quicker, but simply because the charity is less concerned with maintaining an ‘appearance of efficiency’ over the long term.

You might be wondering why all this collective sensemaking jive bothers me with respect to the capacity of charitable supply chains to respond efficiently and effectively to the Coronavirus.  Well, here’s the kicker.

In the case of the Coronavirus, short-term, high-impact interventions are undoubtedly required in time-sensitive hot-spots.  We have seen precisely this necessity manifest in countries like Italy.

But on the whole, despite the ‘high visibility’ of the medical crisis, the incontrovertibility of that crisis as it struck all our senses and activated a global sensemaking response, Coronavirus is not a short-term emergency.

As lockdowns lift across the world, people slowly begin to apprehend that the Coronavirus is a long-term crisis whose entangled effects, like those of global climate change, will be very slow in becoming visible.  The crest of entangled economic, political, and geopolitical effects which this cause catalyzed is now rearing over our collective heads.

We can begin to see it.

And if the collective sensemaking environment which surrounds our supply chains—both commercial and charitable—showed signs of irrational disruption and schizophrenic perturbation at the beginning of this crisis, when supply was actually pretty stable, if global chains of supply are disrupted long-term, our capacity to maintain the civilization of our societies is frankly doubtful.

Moreover, in this climate of high entropic uncertainty where the for-profit supply chain, optimized towards efficiency in conditions of stability, is more distinctly fragile than its not-for-profit counterpart, it is likely that we are going to need to rely on long-term charitable interventions in the provision of goods and services to people across the world for a long time going forward.

The unique capacities for agility and extraordinary temporary resilience in the charitable supply chain need to be strengthened.

But a donor-centric supply chain approach in a non-transparent, market-based environment will neither ultimately satisfy donors, as the ‘perceived customers’ of the charitable supply chain, nor the actual customers—the recipients of aid themselves.

Both will be negatively impacted by false perceptions of efficiency (which will have ramifications for collective sensemaking assessments of actual efficiency in combating and curing the virus) and the externalized, compounding redundancies which poor networked sensemaking introduces into a non-transparent supply chain.

While there are obvious benefits for charities focused on urgent missions to have lean, centralized, internalized supply chains, the crucial necessity for all charitable supply chains, whether centralized or decentralized, is transparency.

To build the networked trust necessary to carry out their missions, organizations with long time horizons who require stable funding at the head of their supply chains need to be universally transparent, both to their donors and to their partners, via DSTs and DSSs focused on PMs which are relevant to their missions.

Long-term missions will necessitate large overheads associated with project planning and management.  Rather than using accounting metrics as PMs, a DSS/DST environment which is universally transparent both to donors and to partners in the decentralized supply chain would allow everybody to see the actual ratio between an organization’s administration and its program spending, and the ratio between its donations and its contribution to mission impact.

The universal transparency of such a networked collective sensemaking environment for global charity would build the conditions of trust necessary to demonstrate to donors that the outcomes of supply chain choices, whether extensive and decentralized or condensed and internalized, are the most efficient and effective choices in translating their cash into aid without resorting to non-transparent accounting practices which necessarily damage a charity’s trust with its donors, if exposed.

Moreover, if donors rather than aid recipients are to be regarded as the primary ‘customers’ for charitable supply chains, the people to whom charities are accountable for the provision of their goods and services, linking supply chain processes to effective, efficient outcomes through highly visible analytics in a universally transparent DSS/DST environment builds the trust necessary to maintain the supply of funds for long-term projects whose gains are incremental and difficult to gauge with the naked eye.

And by this logic, the schizophrenic schema of the global charitable supply chain would be able to right itself.  In a decision-making, action-taking environment which was universally transparent to both donors and workers in the charity sector, freed from the invidious necessity of having to conform to the logic of markets, the supply chain relationship between donors and the recipients of their aid would itself become transparent.

I think that, if donors saw how efficiently and effectively their donations were getting to the people who needed them, rather than perceiving themselves as the people to whom charities are accountable for their spending, donors would regard themselves as accountable to the eventual recipients of their aid.

This is because the transparency of the decision-making, action-taking environment enables that ‘high visibility’ between cause and effect we need to feel our natural empathy activated in order to give.  No matter how extended and decentralized the supply chain, if it had transparently demonstrated its optimal efficiency and effectiveness in translating cash to aid, donors, I think, would be placated by being able to see the linkages between the cause of their giving and the human effect on mission impact at the other end of the supply chain.

When we can directly gauge the impact of our giving, when we can see that it’s getting to the people who need it in a timely and efficient manner, our natural desire to give and to ameliorate the suffering of our fellow human beings will be more quickly engaged and our generosity amplified.

I’ve said that universal transparency of information is key to the collective sensemaking environment of supply chains, but it’s not the only non-negotiable in this equation.

Merely exchanging large quantities of universally transparent data is not sufficient to engender conditions of trust between supply chain partners.

Indeed, in the theoretic model proposed by Akkermans, Bogerd, and van Doremalen in their journal article “Travail, transparency and trust: A case study of computer-supported collaborative supply chain planning in high-tech electronics” (2004), the value of trust presupposes transparency.

According to Akkermans, Bogerd, and van Doremalen, mutual understanding of partners’ internal processes needs to be built over time through what they call travail—‘the struggling on the long and winding path towards transparency….’  This holistic understanding of one supply chain partner and its processes by another cannot be immediately gleaned simply by access to their data.  Thus, universal transparency of processes is generated through the travail of collective sensemaking, which engenders the necessary trust to reveal more and trust more.

In the model proposed by Akkermans, Bogerd, and van Doremalen, trust is the lynchpin of the algedonic loop created between interlinking supply chain partners who are each external environments to one another.  It is at the level of trust that the feedback loop generated by their interactions can either bifurcate towards increased openness of communication—and thus greater informational transparency—or increased gaming, which leads to poorer quality decision-making for the supply chain overall because the additive value of greater informational transparency is bypassed.

A theoretical model mapping the interaction between travail, transparency and trust in supply chains (as cited in Akkermans, Bogerd, & van Doremalen, 2004, p. 448).
A theoretical model mapping the interaction between travail, transparency and trust in supply chains (as cited in Akkermans, Bogerd, & van Doremalen, 2004, p. 448).

In collective sensemaking, it’s easy to imagine trust and transparency as ‘chicken-and-egg’ values: to build trust, you need conditions of transparency, but without of conditions of trust, there is no incentive to be transparent.

For supply chain partners, both commercial and charitable, who have to operate under the competitive logic of markets to secure resources, this dilemma would seem to be a Gordian knot.  Someone’s got to break through the impasse by being both transparent and trusting—and trustworthy.  That, to me, seems to be the sword which solves the dilemma.

It’s taking a risk, a leap of faith, to pre-emptively demonstrate trustworthiness, expecting one’s partners to follow one’s lead, but trustworthiness is the mechanism of transparency.  As Akkermans, Bogerd, and van Doremalen discovered in their survey of the literature, behaviours of transparency between supply chain partners—including a history of open communication and co-operative behaviours between organizations—engender the conditions for a ‘virtuous cycle’ of escalating trust and commitment to the universally transparent supply chain.

The travail of building transparency and trust through the mutual demonstrations of trustworthy behaviour helps to create conditions of what is called ‘coherence’ in the collective sensemaking space.

Coherence is when we’re all on the same page.  We have the same understanding of the situation because we all have access to universally transparent information.  We trust the information, and we trust each other to act in good faith.  But coherence of sensemaking can’t be achieved except by the earnest travail of building trust and transparency.

The first task for travail in the collective sensemaking environment surrounding supply chains is for partners to define a common goal which is external to their enterprises’ individual process-based goals.  This common external goal must be established in order to create the preliminary conditions for coherence, both within organizations and among the member organizations of the supply chain.

Obviously, defining such a common external goal comes more easily to charitable supply chains than to commercial ones.  The not-for-profit supply chain existing largely to ameliorate the externalities of the for-profit supply chain, charities with a common purpose more quickly and easily apprehend an external problem to be collectively solved.

But regardless of their orientation towards profit, it is the transparency and trust demanded by the initial travail of defining the common external goal of the supply chain which activates partners’ transparency and trust towards each other.

In their case study of a commercial supply chain, Akkermans, Bogerd, and van Doremalen noticed that ‘while the project team was struggling with describing and defining their joint business and supply chain, the level of trust increased.’

There’s a high degree of transparency—of intimacy, even—required in the collective sensemaking environment as supply chain partners achieve preliminary coherence in defining the common external goal via the vector of free speech.

And so, as I conclude this series of dispatches on the Coronavirus, I circle back to my initial concerns.

The Coronavirus is a long-term existential risk of infinite impact proportions.  Understanding it and acting in accord with the merciless reality of it demands global coherence in sensemaking, and the technology by which we communicate our thoughts to one another is the vector of free speech.

Our collective sensemaking environment, what I’ve called the cognitive commons of the Internet, is broken.  If we can’t get that network right—and pronto—our capacity to make good decisions and take good actions with regards to the distribution of common resources to ameliorate the pandemic is extremely limited.  It’s a problem for commercial supply chains.  It’s an even greater problem of charitable ones, who will be asked to do more with less.

If supply breaks down due to bad collective sensemaking, we come to the edge of the existential precipice I brought to your attention in my first post on the Coronavirus.

I’m going to leave it there—for the time being.

Since mid-March, I’ve written over 27,000 words on the subject of the Coronavirus—enough for a small book.

I want to thank everyone who has read and listened to these posts, who has liked and commented on them, and who has shared them with others.

My intention has simply been to contribute in as responsible a way as I can to collective sensemaking via the vector of free speech.  I’m heartened—and I’m humbled—by the number of people who have said to me, in comments attached to these posts, in telephone conversations, in emails and texts, that they have found my analysis and commentary on events helpful in interpreting and making sense of the Coronavirus situation.

I’m still monitoring this situation, but having finally got down—in all its grisly logic—the horrific image of catastrophe I saw in one instant when the reality of this situation finally hit home, I am, as you can imagine, rather exhausted by the effort of synthesizing a lot of research into the arguments I’ve advanced in these posts.

I’m still the monitoring the situation, but I’m interested in the economic, political, and geopolitical consequences of this crisis going forward.  That long-term story, as I’ve intimated above, is yet to be written.

If the masks completely slip from the faces of governments and other big actors going forward, such that their behaviour demands commentary and analysis via free speech, I’ll take up my pen again and try to offer you what value I can in that regard.

And as regards the egregiously crazy behaviour we’re seeing not just from governments and other big actors, but from individuals right across the board, I’d like to leave you with the thought I’ve tried to impress upon you throughout these posts.

As a problem for collective sensemaking, the Coronavirus is fundamentally a problem for the freedom of speech, and thus the freedom of thought.

But freedom of speech is not the right to say whatever you like.  It’s the responsibility to use human language—the tools of human thought—to think for yourself about this crisis.

With that, I sign off.  An audio version of this article is available for free download and redistribution under a Creative Commons licence from my Bandcamp profile, as are the other articles in this series.  If these thoughts are helpful to you, and if you think they will be helpful to others in building our collective sensemaking capacity, you are more than welcome to freely download and share them with others.


  1. brilliant dean.
    the points you have made in these posts stand as practical principles from which to build or rebuild a resilient social model. the timing of which is not really up to us…ie the frustrating reality is yes that the problem will compound itself further before we see some concrete action viz real causes…but things have to fall apart sometimes for new things to emerge, and in such times it is always best to retreat to the historic norm – village life, close to nature and primary production.
    lately i have been conceptualising the situation a little differently…let me fully explain:
    i started with the familiar mindset of ‘unknown quantity’ like everyone. so it was a case of prioritising parents’ health and safety, restricting my own exposure for them…basically wait til we see how bad it is.
    then i went through the phase of seeing that the virus was not what it seemed. the contradictory pronouncements of organisations and actors (eg WHO and Fauci) reinforced the sense that we were being duped somehow. subsequently it has been revealed that coronavirus is not a respiratory infection at all and that it is an inflammatory auto-immune condition. one moreover that can be successfully treated with conventional medicines like quinine and supplements like zinc, selenium, vit c and vit d… also we now know that trump’s infamous ‘inject detergent’ meme is actually correct. chlorine dioxide, intravenously administered, is 100% successful. the current epidemic of people with low vit d is not just because we don’t go out in the sun enough. some vaccines contain a chemical which — with vit d production. vit d production is essential to immune function. if one were a conspiracy theorist one would say that so much of the harm being visited here looks deliberate, and therefore avoidable.., otherwise it is incompetency to the point of comedy, and i don’t buy that at all. too many doctors have come out in frustration and anger. there is something else going on…and when you really see this and accept it…well its like walking into a horror movie….ie it aint good,,,it creates a lot of fear and uncertainty.
    so that’s why i had to keep thinking and digging….if fear is control then conspiracy thinking elevates fear and control, ie it is counterproductive. but it is a steppin stone! one that cant be avoided.
    what we have really discovered is something we have always known until recently – there ain’t no free lunches. incarnation is a most definitely a ‘caveat emptor’ situation…nature is things feeding on each other and we are part of nature….we used to be vulnerable to attack,,,we used to be preyed upon by larger animals,,,but maybe we are still preyed upon,,maybe we have always been, maybe it’s actually a necessary part of the deal…evolutions kicker: sit still and you are food. we must always be progressing, growing…vital…if not, we are susceptible…to infection…and influence…survival of the fittest, but fittest here has a spiritual component! ,,,,spirit-energy-matter – the stepdown transformer. spirit is the highest vibration, the most subtle and powerful of energies, it is the source.
    before the malaise of the modern era, spirituality in christendom was oft viewed in the context of the spiritual ‘soldier’ – ie discipline, dedication, loyalty, total commitment.. the holy war is fought in our minds, by discerning what is real and what is not…what is me and what is not.
    if we can entertain the notion that irrational and destructive actions are not just the result of human incompetence or greed or anything,,,but are rather the result of an illness, a ‘malignant egophrenia’, called the ‘wetiko’ virus by the cree indians, in short a disease which caused the sufferer to be caught in a hall of mirrors, trapped, disconnected from source and most definitely manipulable…and that this manipulation was done by parasitic entities which have no choice…that in order to exist must feed on us, on our fear and suffering….bosch, lynch, castaneda, gnostic christianity,,,the vampire myth itself, archetypally…’they live’ by john carpenter too..’.invasion of the body snatchers’….we are back in the old world, the real world, a world with dark forces that are real and nevertheless serve a positive purpose in the whole.
    their advantage lies only in our ignorance of them.
    that is the kicker.


    1. Thanks, Gav. Yours has been one of the most consistent voices of encouragement throughout the last few months, and I really appreciate your engagement with these articles. Thank you so much.

      I can’t take all the credit for these ideas, however.

      If it were not for our mutual friend Paul Forest and the work I did for him co-writing the Cluster white paper, I would not have gone down this path. When the Coronavirus finally struck me full-force as an inescapable world-historical event, I remembered with existential dread the research Paul and I did on infinite impact risks in the course of writing that paper, and I knew I had a duty to communicate what I had learned on that subject to others.

      I acknowledged Paul in the first post, but it’s probably a good opportunity to give a shout-out to him again. For people who are interested in developing a universally transparent, decentralized collective intelligence architecture, I invite you to read the white paper I co-wrote with Paul on his project, Cluster. Here’s a link to it:

      Click to access Cluster.pdf

      That said, I don’t agree with Paul on everything, and in these posts I’ve attempted to put forward my own take on the concepts set forth in that paper. Where Paul and I mostly disagree, I think, is in the areas of our habitual focus: as a brilliant mathematician, he’s a technologist, whereas, as a writer, I am a student of psychology and history, and therefore focused on people. In these articles I’ve tried to set forth a more human-centric, rather than technology-centric, view of what a practical, resilient social model based on networked collective intelligence might look like as a system for managing existential risk.

      Liked by 1 person

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