What's Shaping the Exponential Era? Example: CORONA Virus (CoV-19)

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

For most of us it is almost always easier to see change more clearly in retrospect. However the outcomes of the exponential growth of events, and the exponential adoption rates of technologies, requires us to find those ramifications early enough to mitigate the ones that are threats and capitalize on the ones that are opportunities. As is often the case, the difference between an opportunity and a threat is the time horizon in which we see it. Being in an exponential era means we have to see and act faster.

Exponential is a term we use for growth that exhibits rapid change, essentially volume at velocity. Events like the spreading of fires[1], floods[2], and bacterial growth[3]are just a few of the many events that exhibit exponential change. In technology the growth of semiconductor capabilities has been exponential and become a catalyst for the era. We were fortunate to have two tremendously insightful innovators make observations early enough for us to act and they pointed directly to the potential impact of exponential growth in technologies: ‘Moore’s Law’(Gordon Moore) and subsequently its ramification in telecommunications, ‘Metcalf’s Law’ (Bob Metcalf); [Moore’s Law=transistors double in density every 18-24 months; Metcalf’s Law= the effect of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (n2)]. These real-life outcomes have served as recognizable patterns characterizing the exponential era and allowing us to develop strategies and plans capable of being executed at speed and scale.

The current viral event happening at velocity and volume can be seen in the following chart, courtesy of Ourworldindata.org. It visualizes what has the world worried--exponential growth in the number of COVID-19 cases swamping the world’s ability to respond and causing the cratering of economic growth worldwide.

The exponential adoption of mobile and internet technologies has created a new global ecosystem of Synchronous Communication (SynCom™) allowing us to gain unprecedented access to data, which we are quickly aggregating and analyzing, providing us with an opportunity to act soon enough and potentially change the outcome. In the case of CoV-19 it is the greatly hoped for, ‘flattening’ of the exponential curve that is relying on humanity’s ability to comprehend and respond to volume at velocity.

Unfortunately, in an exponential era, most of humanity doesn’t ‘get exponential’. The challenge is not the data, nor our ability to interpret and display it, but in our inability to understand ‘exponential’ change as humans. Our minds simply don’t recognize non-linear change and instead try to make the exponential linear.

The slowness of the start of exponential change is often buried in ‘inklings’ which are in stark contrast to the dramatic effect of accelerating ‘volume at velocity’ at the end of the curve. The mind’s challenge is adjusting the difference in the time horizon in which you can see both start and finish, though in most cases you have to have the imagination to see the end state for it to register fully in the brain. It feels like the beginning is forever slow and the end state is frighteningly fast.

For most people, the challenge of seeing and adapting to the long slow start reconciled with the imagining of a fast and furious end state, is more than just a little illusive. fMRI studies have shown us that our minds refuse to give the future much more thought than we would give to a passing stranger[4]. And the MRI imaging research unfortunately supports what we’ve known for many years; we truly do have an ‘exponential growth bias’[5]and we struggle, regardless of how much we ‘know’[6], to fully understand exponential growth processes.

What then can change our mindset and motivate us to recognize exponential change if we aren’t predisposed to seeing and planning for it? Taiwan offers a great example of learning how to change a country’s mindset based on experience from a not too distant past. “Taiwan’s government learned from its 2003 SARS experience and established a public health response mechanism for enabling rapid actions for the next crisis.”[7] They learned about exponential the hard way and deliberately developed a strategy and solution set that is working for them today. Will CoV-19 be the wakeup call that shifts our collective mindset and enables us to recognize that we are in exponential era?

The corona virus (COVID-19) is a menacing and pressing example of our exponential era, where entire ecosystems are changing at velocities and volumes never before experienced. We know some things about the exponential era, technologies and events are moving faster than we are able to see and we can’t use existing planning methodologies to anticipate and manage change that is characterized by exponentials. The coronavirus is just one, albeit nasty, example of exponential. We will explore more in future articles.

About Us: Our purpose at Intercepting Horizons is to develop new methods and tools that enable the creation of effective strategies for anticipating and managing the technological, societal, economic and environmental changes we are experiencing in the Exponential Era. Our goal is to replace processes that simply won't work when dealing with volume at velocity.


[1] Hantson Stijn, Pueyo Salvador, Chuvieco Emilio (2016) Global fire size distribution: from power law to log-normal. International Journal of Wildland Fire 25, 403-412. [2] Malamud, Bruce & Turcotte, Donald. (2006). The applicability of power-law frequency statistics to floods. Journal of Hydrology. 322. 168-180. 10.1016/j.jhydrol.2005.02.032. [3] Paula, A.J., Hwang, G. & Koo, H. Dynamics of bacterial population growth in biofilms resemble spatial and structural aspects of urbanization. Nat Commun 11, 1354 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-15165-4 [4] Kim Martineau | MIT Quest for Intelligence June 14, 2019 [5] Stango, Victor, and Jonathan Zinman (2009) – “Exponential growth bias and household finance.” The Journal of Finance 64.6 (2009): 2807-2849. [6] Wagenaar and Sagaria (1975). Wagenaar, W.A., Sagaria, S.D. Misperception of exponential growth. Perception & Psychophysics 18, 416–422 (1975) https://doi.org/10.3758/BF0320411 [7] C. Jason Wang, MD, PhD, Stanford University, Published Online: March 3, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.3151

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