Failure of Imagination: Can We Do Better?
Some of the most iconic events of the 20th century and of recent years have been profound “failures of imagination”. Whether accidents, natural disasters or failures of intelligence, the heap of highly destructive yet unforeseen incidents that might have been predicted and prevented continues to grow every few years.
NASA has certainly had its share of these. Apollo 1, the Challenger and Columbia are tragic examples of the failure of human understanding. In 1967, a fire aboard the Apollo 1 during prelaunch testing resulted in the deaths of all three astronauts. A subsequent enquiry identified numerous design and construction flaws which were known about by some individuals, but not addressed before the fatal accident occurred. In spite of attempts to learn and adjust, the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle disasters ensued, in 1986 and 2003 respectively, killing all crew members aboard.
Of course not all accidents are space-related and not all failures of imagination are accidents. Two spectacular failures of intelligence – Pearl Harbor and the events of 9/11 – need no description or explanation. The Fukushima disaster in 2011, which resulted in the closure of Japan’s 48 nuclear reactors, is a more recent example of a collective failure. In a country that is plagued by tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanoes, could this cataclysmic disaster not have been predicted or at least mitigated?
All these events have something in common: they represent our failure, as human beings, to understand the implications of data, of evidence or of patterns. Or, our failure to collect the right information and present it properly.
At home, here in Kuwait, we have been fortunate to avoid such major catastrophes. However, our nation has not been without its tragic chapters. The events that led to the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the Gulf War and the deaths of at least 1000 Kuwaiti citizens are a textbook example of the failure of imagination. Reports available prior to August 1990 all confirmed a military presence along the Kuwait border, yet officials failed to envision a full-scale invasion. Rather, they believed Iraqi forces would encroach only a few miles and then stop, which prompted our leaders to downgrade Kuwait’s military readiness.
In our still-vivid but more distant memories, we recall the devastating impacts of the Souk al-Manakh stock market bubble which grew rapidly out of all proportion and then collapsed in the blink of an eye. The craze began with the oil-driven economic boom of the late 1970s, when an unofficial stock market began investing in unregulated non-Kuwaiti Gulf companies. In a tidal wave of excitement, optimism and greed, citizens wrote nearly 30,000 post-dated cheques worth billions of dinars, assuming that default was impossible.
While non-Kuwaitis questioned the unprecedented and extreme growth of the Souk al-Manakh stock market and predicted a crash, no government intervention came about and the whole sorry mess came to an abrupt and dramatic end in 1982. Investors and traders alike mistakenly believed the government would step in financially if the stock market faltered. Although the government eventually provided some compensation to small investors and took action against those found responsible, the shattering loss to the nation and its citizenry resonates even today.
Let us ask ourselves: could an independent think tank and research institute have prevented or mitigated these failures of imagination? Could it have sounded the alarm bells from within? Even if there is no clear and present danger to Kuwait at this moment, our history suggests that greater attention should be paid to the identification of problems and corrective action before disaster strikes.
Failures of imagination, and the extensive harm they cause, happen when:
- data is lacking or erroneous
- misguided beliefs are formulated based on misleading or inadequate information
- organizational culture or structure stand in the way of constructive action
- known dangers are ignored
- flawed decision-making processes exist
- proper communications fail
- poor judgment is brought to bear on matters of importance
- decisive action is not taken in the face of indisputable evidence
There is ample evidence, the world over, that independent research bodies can have a positive impact by helping to identify institutional failures, developing what-if scenarios and applying lessons learned from past experiences. Without political bias or other agenda, research institutes and think tanks are uniquely able to collect and analyze data, information and intelligence and to produce impartial, evidence-based advice and research for use by law makers and government decision makers.
Kuwait became the 111th member state of the United Nations in May 1963 and now there are nearly 200 members. Clearly our nation has been at the vanguard of diplomacy, strategic thinking, and scholarship, so how can it be that we have had no independent think tanks or research institutes until now? Our closest ally, Iran, possesses at least 5 which are well-renowned across the globe, as do several other notable members of the Arab League including Egypt, Lebanon, and the UAE.
In short, think tanks make a vital contribution to good governance across the globe. These organizations have an unmatched ability to present clear and concise information that permits decision makers and law makers to take appropriate action when the risk of disaster is severe. With the recent establishment of our think tank, the RAI Institute, we look forward to a new beginning for Kuwait.Some of the most iconic events of the 20th century and of recent years have been profound “failures of imagination”. Whether accidents, natural disasters or failures of intelligence, the heap of highly destructive yet unforeseen incidents that might have been predicted and prevented continues to grow every few years.