1912: A Saved Titanic (Collaborative Foresight)
In STEEPS categorization, this is a Scientific, Technological and Political progress counterfactual. See my blog post, Saving the Titanic (2012) for the original version.
The sinking of the RMS Titanic is a societal and human tragedy that has held our collective interest for over a century. In addition to shock at the massive loss of life, we generally look on it as a lesson in the dangers of hubris, and the limits of our dreams. But it was just as much lesson in the self-imposed limits of leadership, and the ways we often stop ourselves from generating foresight in stressful situations, as it was in the dangers of hubris, something we still don’t realize enough, even today.
From an evo devo perspective, as any future becomes increasingly predictable, the evolutionary choices for altering it must shrink and eventually disappear. At a certain point, there’s no choice left, only developmental certainty. A good example is the sinking of the Titanic after impact with the iceberg. As the positive solution space shrinks, solutions often get increasingly uncommon or “hard” — both hard to find and hard to implement. In such an environment, a great way to quickly find and execute positive solutions is crowdsourcing, using collective intelligence, empowering a cognitively- and skills-diverse crowd to help out, as social scientist Scott Page notes in his excellent book, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies, 2008. At the same time, finding positive solutions may increasingly require a leader unlearning existing habits, traditions, and protocols before they can even be seen and implemented, as futurist Jack Uldrich notes in Higher Unlearning, 2011.
This counterfactual helps us appreciate several foresight and leadership principles, including the benefits of crowdsourcing, and the necessity of questioning protocols and when necessary, unlearning them, and how these principles can become particularly important when under stress.
What could have been done by the ships leaders, after collision with the iceberg, to save more of the passengers of the Titanic, and perhaps even the ship itself?
The Titanic struck the edge of a very large iceberg at 11:40pm on April 15, 1912. The engines were stopped just prior to impact. After the impact, Captain Edward Smith summoned Thomas Andrews, the lead shipbuilder, to assess the damage. Around 12:10am, Andrews told the Captain that since five compartments had been breached, the ship must certainly sink in “an hour, or an hour and a half at most.” They also discussed the fact that there were only lifeboats for 1200 of the 2200 souls aboard. The Captain then sent the first wireless distress call, at 12:15am. PBS has a great new doc, Saving the Titanic, 2012, recounting story of the brave engineers, stokers, and firemen who worked to keep at least one of the boilers operational, for the lights and wireless, as long as possible. The ship sank at 2:20am, nearly three hours after impact, and over two hours after the leaders definitively knew the sinking was unavoidable.
Prior to the collision there were a number of small, common choices that could have prevented the tragedy. But after the impact, there were very few strategies left that might have saved the large majority of people on board. Captain Smith desperately needed some smart people looking hard for survival strategies around midnight on that fateful night. He needed ways to think beyond the box, to find any uncommon solutions. He needed a group of his best officers, crew, and passengers to work on that task.
Unfortunately, Smith did not even advise many of his officers of the drastic change in their situation. As the wikipedia post on the sinking says, “he appeared to have become paralyzed by indecision. He did not issue a general call for evacuation, failed to order his officers to load the lifeboats, did not adequately organize the crew, and withheld crucial information from his officers and crewmen.” He also kept all the passengers in the dark as long as possible, to “avoid panic.” But this mushroom management strategy would just delay and eventually heighten total panic, not avoid it. Those who’ve seen one of the films or read one of the books knows how poorly Smith’s general approach worked. The first lifeboat wasn’t lowered until 12:45pm, 30 minutes after they were ordered to be uncovered, and that boat and many others were launched vastly under their capacity of 65. A “woman and children first” evacuation policy was proposed by Second Officer Charles Lightoller, but Captain Smith did not supervise the loading process, and no one had responsibility to maximize or expedite it. Passengers getting into the boats weren’t told the ship was sinking.
During the first hour, many wouldn’t get in the boats, preferring the apparent safety of the ship. Only eighteen of the twenty lifeboats were launched, over two hours. They ran out of time when they got to the last two collapsibles. Ultimately only 700 people were saved in the lifeboats, which had 1200 capacity. Even though Titanic’s crew manned them, only two of eighteen lifeboats went back to rescue survivors, pulling just nine people from floating wreckage. 1,502 people died. There have been countless safety improvements since, and six worse losses of life at sea in peacetime, but Titanic remains the most famous maritime disaster in history.
In addition to fully loading the lifeboats, which would have saved as many as 500 lives, a number of other good solutions for saving many more passengers have been proposed, in over a hundred years of hindsight. Experts and amateurs at sites like Encyclopedia Titanica, who know far more about seamanship, engineering, and Titanic history than I, might heatedly critique what follows. But I think at least three are particularly excellent strategies, even if it may have taken a few experts willing to think like amateurs to implement them, as we will discuss. Take a moment and see if you can think of any good solutions yourself, then look below the line.
Let me know if I’ve missed any, thanks.
1. Return to the Iceberg, and Tie Up to It. The iceberg that Titanic struck, perhaps this one found in the vicinity by the Minia shortly after the sinking, had dropped ice on the forward deck on impact. That’s how big it was. So the ship’s officers knew that they could get back to that particular iceberg in perhaps twenty to thirty minutes, and they could see and navigate to bergs for miles around them. There were also several other larger and smaller bergs (called “growlers”) within view as well. Folks could have been offloaded to any of those in the calm seas of that bitter cold night, while the ship still had power.
The captain knew and could have told everyone that the Carpathia was en route to rescue them, and was just hours away. They would have spent only the rest of that night on the bergs. Men could have volunteered to get on the bergs first, taking blankets to sit on, and using hammers, steel nails and ropes to make pitons to lash themselves to the slippery ice. Women and children could have gotten into the lifeboats at the end if they ran out of space on the bergs, a reversal of typical evacuation procedures. The berg Titanic hit was described as like the Rock of Gibraltar, with at least one flat top section. Hundreds of men might have been evacuated onto it.
One of the ship’s deck cranes could have been used to drop a landing party onto any of the bergs, even if they weren’t flat-topped. They had lots of steel cables, chains, winches, ropes, drills, chisels, sledge hammers, steel, and rope ladders on board. They could have used axes to hack holds and steel pitons to anchor men to the ice. They could have made modifications to at least one of the lander’s boots, nailing nails through them from the insides, or from their tops at the front, so their boots would bite the ice. The rest of the folks could be pulled onto the bergs and fastened by ropes, once the landing party had some pitons in the ice, even if there were no flat sections to be found. Notice how deep into the solution space we need to get. Our foresight team needs to know, ideally in advance of landing, just how slippery bergs are, about the boots used for ice climbing, and to have confidence in the ability of carpenters to make at least a few such boots for landing parties in very limited time.
Restarting the engines to navigate to any berg would have required the Captain to unlearn some of his many years of training. Titanic had the ability to move either slow forward or slow reverse for at least an hour after the collision, and probably a lot longer, but by one of the most reliable accounts the engines were stopped for good just after impact. The original iceberg would have been less than a mile behind them once they realized they were sinking, and there was at least one other large berg in view where they went down, and likely many smaller ones.
The most ingenious idea I’ve yet heard, and perhaps the only solution that might even have saved the ship, would have been to dock back up to the original berg, as in the graphic at left, a simulation of the initial impact, or to one of the other large bergs nearby. Remember, we know, and I’m sure the captain knew, that the original iceberg was so large it left ice on the top deck after impact, which kids kicked around for fun in one account, and in Cameron’s Titanic film.
They could have lashed up to the impact berg using their steel cables, ropes, and perhaps even one of the ship’s side (bower) anchors (they had two), if they could have been pulled out for that use (engineers would know). Once lashed to one berg, they could have even steered the ship to a second berg, if they felt they needed the additional bouyancy, and lashed up to it as well. They could have strung out cables, chains, and ropes from the side of the ship down by its waterline, and hacked a small channel for them around the berg, securing these lashes to the berg with pitons. Such efforts might have provided enough buoyancy to keep the ship from sinking. If they’d tied up at the prow early enough, they’d have little weight to support, and the aft chambers might not have filled with water. Even if the ship was fully waterlogged, a big enough berg or two might have kept a bit of it above the surface. Anyone want to do a simulation?
The science that would have helped someone discover the iceberg solution would be the knowledge that large quantities of ice make for a very large buoyancy force. In 1860, a Russian-American barge, the Kad’yak, carying 356 tons of ice to San Francisco, hit a rock off Alaska (Russian-owned at the time), and it filled with water, but didn’t sink for three days, until the ice melted. That’s how much bouyancy force ice provides. It would also have helped to know that both steel cables and even rope, if applied in reasonable quantities and anchored with pitons, would have sufficient tensile strength to hold the ship fast to the berg. If one of the engineers knew the Kad’yak history, or had a scientific mindset, they might have recommended this strategy to an officer. Even if they decided not lash strongly to the berg by the time they got to it, many passengers could have been evacuated to the berg as the ship slowly went down, by lashing lightly to it. In other words, a strategy of lashing to the berg, combined with the use of the pumps, would have bought them more evacuation time, allowed them to evacuate more passengers to the berg, and might even kept the Titanic afloat. What would they have had to lose?
Picture yourself as the brilliant shipbuilder, Thomas Andrews, the moment after he told Captain Smith that the Titanic would go down “with mathematical certainty”, as testified in later hearings, because seawater would eventually run over the tops of the unsealed aft compartments as her nose kept sinking. Now imagine someone telling him about the Kad’yak, or him looking at an ice cube floating in a drink, and seeing the possibility to lash her nose to a berg, while evacuating passengers to the berg at the same time. Watch this brief and beautiful scene with Andrews and Smith from James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), then imagine what could have happened next.
Unfortunately, unless a smart crowd were charged with the task of finding solutions, iceberg strategies of any kind were unlikely to be discovered, because of standard protocols, quickly executed by Captain Smith after the initial impact. These protocols would have been implemented very likely without any discussion or consideration of what he was losing by following them, even though he knew the environment in which he applied them had drastically changed, and so reflection and foresight might have been greatly valuable before he applied them.
One protocol would have been not move the ship after damage, for fear it would increase the rate of flooding. Another protocol they apparently engaged in would have been to empty the hot boilers of their coal so they would not explode when cold seawater hit them. Certainly some of the engines should have been kept running, to keep their critical freedom of movement as long as possible. Tradition, the way we think things must be done, is usually wise, but in uncommon situations, tradition and protocol can become our greatest limitations.
2. Navigate to the Californian. Lookout Frederick Fleet saw a ship, the SS Californian, a small outline sitting next to a field of ice just five to ten miles away from Titanic, only ten minutes after she struck the iceberg. Fourth officer Joseph Boxhall then tried to signal this ship with Morse lamp and distress flares, and the Californian’s night crew, seeing the flares, almost understood the message, but not quite. The Californian was on the horizon the whole time, stopped for the night because of all those nasty bergs floating about, and they could have reached her, or at least gotten very close, if they had moved toward her, either forward or backward, at five to seven knots. At that slow speed they could have also launched lifeboats on the way there, once they started to really nose down.
Most obviously, Titanic’s crew could have made a bonfire on one of the roofs of the top deck, and done a visual S.O.S. in front of it, once they saw their white distress rockets weren’t being responded to. They could have used the ship’s horn to blow S.O.S., which would have carried in the calm night air for miles. They could have used their guns to make noise. Once they were around a mile away from the Californian, if they’d steamed toward it, they could have even reached the Californian with their bullets. At any point over the next two hours the Californian might have taken notice, heard the distress call on the wireless, and brought its lifeboats into action. Again, for this to work, thinking beyond the protocols against restarting the engines would have had to have been done.
3. Build Rafts, and even Boats. During the lifeboat evacuation, the crew and hundreds of male passengers could have been directed to find and tie as much floatable material together as possible, to make rafts. This is a truly crowdsourceable solution. In addition to all sorts of wood furniture, the ship had large numbers of wood barrels, oil and food drums, and wood boxes that could have been emptied and lashed with rope, wire, and cable to make rafts. Anyone who’s made a raft knows how quickly you can get flotation if you have a large number of wooden objects to pile together, as Titanic had. Every mattress on every bed could have been dragged to the decks, and lashed together.
If the ship was not moving, rafts could have been lashed together in the water with rope, wire, and cable, and life vests, by a crew using one of or more of the deck cranes, to make a large floating island. You don’t want a lifejacket on you in the North Atlantic, at 28 °F (−2 °C), because you’ll die with full contact within 20 minutes, unless your lucky and drunk, like Charles Joughin, the baker who treaded water for at least an hour before being pulled onto the overturned Collapsible B lifeboat. You want your lifejacket under you, between you and the water, as part of your raft. There was even a Mythbusters in Oct 2012 where Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, in picture left, show that if James Cameron’s Rose character had put her lifejacket under her plank, it would have supported Jack as well.
It would have taken a bit more unconventional thinking at that point to realize that the women going into the lifeboats didn’t need the vests they were wearing. The men needed them, for rafts. Even if the ship had been moving toward either the iceberg or the Californian, the raft strategy could still have been done, in parallel with one of the two above. In that case the rafts could have been built on the top deck, and launched as the Titanic slowly sank, bow first. Foresighted leaders could have sent the crowd out to grab everything floatable, and bring it to the top deck, and sent the engineers to bring up all the canvas and twine.
They also could have built boats of various types. There was plenty of wood that could have been liberated from the walls, furniture, and tables around the ship, and brought to a deck for assembly of rafts and boats. They could have sent folks off to rip wood off the ship itself, using firemen’s axes, crowbars and hammers. A carpenter could have even pulled up some of the pine and teak decking, using a hammer and chisel to remove the plugs and a wrench to remove the bolts. They could have tried several plugs quickly to find the easiest boards to get off the floor. The engineers would have had at least a couple of handsaws on board to cut planks to size, plenty of nails and screws, and various glues and pitch-like compounds for sealing. Food barrels could have been used as one-person boats. The canvas covers over each of the lifeboats could have been tied around any of the larger crates, or even just nailed to the legs of rectangular dinner tables, turned upside down, to make a few small boats. Any of these could have been lowered into the water once made, along with a few people and a bailing can.
The most audacious boat-building solution I’ve heard so far involves one or more smokestack boats. Each of the Titanic’s four smokestacks was made of sheet metal, held upright by steel rigging wires. The fourth smokestack was a dummy, and we know there was a ladder to the top inside of it. At least that stack and the third as well could have been quickly grappled down, cutting the rigging on one side and winching on the other side. The bottom third of the two ends could have been framed in with few deck planks, cut to the right size by hand and screwed into the sheet metal. Two lifeboat canvas covers could have then been screwed onto the framed wood sides on each end, and to the metal edges. They had sticky, fast-curing materials on board to plug up holes, including pitch and Litosilo, a kind of cement that cures in under two hours. It wouldn’t matter if the ends leaked a bit. As long as they could bail, they’d stay afloat. The captain knew, and so everyone on the boats could have known, that they only had to stay afloat in the calm night water for two hours, before rescue ships would arrive.
After building them they could have lowered these over the side with a few people with bailing cans inside them, to keep them upright. They could have then loaded perhaps one to two hundred people into each smokestack boat once in the water, depending on how high and strong they’d built the wood and canvas sides. The occupants would have needed to sit on their lifejackets as the steel would have been deathly cold. Perhaps they would have only had time to make one such boat, letting it float off the top deck as the ship sank, front first. But if they started early, perhaps they could have made four, saving up to eight hundred people with this single strategy. I’d love to see a simulation of this, with a group of craftsmen or engineers making one or more of these ingenious boats.
Below is a realtime simulation of the titanic’s sinking, built by the folks at Titanic Honor and Glory in 2016. Put it on the background, if you want a two hour and 40 minute screensaver. They are currently looking for funding to make this into a mystery-and-adventure computer game. I’m sure that would be a lot of fun, but I’d rather see a Titanic game in which we play the Captain or one of the Officers, right after the iceberg strike, and try save as many people as possible, with as high an approval rating from the survivors at the end as possible. The game could be in realtime, and we’d be continually offered a set of leadership or action choices. It would be two hours and 40 minutes of factfinding, decisionmaking, action, and feedback.
Like other games, this one could be played multiple times, and we’d learn to save more lives each time. Players might begin to get the attitude of fictional Star Trek Commander James Kirk who famously reprogrammed the Kobayashi Maru cadet-training simulation, because it was designed to always end in loss of life and he said (in Star Trek II) “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.” Many of us could all do with more of this kind of thinking when faced with catastrophe, and more faith in our ability to work with others to generate better foresight for ourselves, our organizations, and our societies .With only the hindsight of having previously watched Cameron’s Titanic before they played this leadership and foresight-training game, I bet few of today’s youth would do as poorly as Captain Smith did in history. Most youth today are are too collaboration-oriented to be so autocratic and passive. Both leadership and collaboration attitudes have improved significantly in the last hundred years in this regard.
Could a motivated crowd have led us to any or all of these solutions, and others we haven’t yet found? I think so. It is heartbreaking to learn that not a single hand-made raft was found when the Carpathia arrived roughly two hours later. That is because the third class passengers were kept down below until the lifeboats were launched, and very few of the passengers knew the ship was sinking until the very end. The leadership strategy of keeping the masses ignorant always has a terrible cost to positive foresight and action, and it’s rarely as obvious as it is in this particular tragedy.
People are usually very effective at quickly coming up with solutions in tight time deadlines, if you trust them with the full news of the situation, however grim. When I googled “Titanic return to the iceberg” after writing this, I found that high school students came up with some version of both the raft and iceberg solutions, when challenged in a contest. That’s the power of the crowd. Recall NASA’s clever engineers improvising solutions to bring back Apollo 13 in 1970, or Sept 11, 2001, when just a few of United Airlines 93’s brave passengers, using their wits and their cellphones, identified and stopped the terrorists who had taken over their plane.
Certainly there are situations where the crowd doesn’t have the right mindset or training to handle collective power. Mob panic is real, and leaders may need to deny information for brief periods. But panic can also be managed, and justifications for not crowdsourcing solutions get rarer and briefer every year. Learning more conditions in which it makes sense to find and trust the crowd, and quickly build collective intelligence, is one of our greatest opportunities as managers. Here’s a KMPG and Manchester School of Business 2012 report on using the crowd, tamely defined here as bringing doctors and patients closer together in social networks, as a way to accelerate innovation in eHealth program deployment. This is is how it starts, but we can do so much more.
Whether we are talking about political, defense, economic, environmental, or social problems, educated people usually deserve to know how bad the situation is, as quickly as possible, and to be empowered to come up with realistic, incremental, bottom-up solutions. To build their own rafts. For that to happen we need a lot more social transparency. We also need to help people become good raft builders. Think of the self-reliance ethic found in several cultures, such as Utah’s Mormons. We get the latter with better education and personal accountability, where irresponsible actions have consequences that are negative enough to influence behavior, while remaining noncatastrophic.
We all need to empower our crowds to come up with brilliant bottom-up solutions as often as possible. We can do this with our staff, our personal contacts, our customers, and the public. With proper education and guidance, cognitively diverse groups will usually find good solutions much faster than we will.
Henry Chesbrough, one of the pioneers of open innovation, has long advocated this. Think of Innocentive, and their growing community of technical problem solvers. Think of incentive prizes. Consider all the people on the web who self-identify as creative thinkers and problem solvers. How soon will LinkedIn or another dominant social network harness all the innovators and creative types into a general online platform that surfaces problems that need solving, and incentivizes competitions for the best solutions, with part of the payment being the growing reputation of the solver?
Spigit and Bright Idea are two new cloud-based innovation management platforms that use pairwise comparison ranking as a way to generate a better distribution of preferences among a set of competing ideas. Most of the other innovation and ideation platforms use simple voting, a crude algorithm that quickly becomes a popularity contest where early winners emerge, and later and potentially better ideas are rarely seen or evaluated. All of these tools are in their infancy, with little machine learning, collaborative filtering, or semantic analysis involved. Yet a few of them have crossed the chasm, as an early majority of cities and companies are now purchasing them, using them, and finding them valuable. Prediction markets are another collective foresight platform that we can expect to continue to grow in popularity in coming years. There are a few companies making those as well, but beyond clever betting sites like InTrade (now defunct), we don’t find that many being used in organizations at present.
One of the more astonishing facts related to the Titanic is that the disaster was eerily predicted in fiction, fourteen years before it actually happened. The fictional version of the sinking is so similar in several details that some have mistakenly presumed some kind of psychic phenomena must have been involved. Not so. It was just good foresight. In 1898 Morgan Robertson, a novelist with extensive previous naval experience wrote a novella, Futility, in which the largest ocean liner ever built, then billed as “unsinkable,” sinks in the North Atlantic, in April, 400 miles off Newfoundland, after striking an iceberg on the starboard side, all just as the Titanic did in 1912. The fictional ship also had less than half of the lifeboats that it needed, most of the passengers died, and the size and features of the ship were near-identical in several other respects. The name of this ship? The Titan. This all seems a bit spooky, until you realize that if you are going to build the biggest ship ever, Titan/Titanic was likely the best name in the cultural lexicon at the time. Everyone with sea knowledge knew the risks of icebergs, and where the iceberg lanes were. Anyone who was safety minded knew the lifeboat laws were horribly inadequate, and that such disasters had occurred many times before. Icebergs will do the most damage on just one of two sides, in a 50/50 choice of side, versus a head on collision into the reinforced prow. April and May are the two months when icebergs are most plentiful, another 50/50 choice. None of this detracts from the brilliance of Robertson’s predictive scenario. So Morgan Robertson got there first, and gave us a warning of a likely future disaster that wasn’t heeded. Ironically, in Robertson’s version, the hero climbs onto the iceberg to survive the sinking. It really is a tragedy that no such foresight emerged when the Titanic shut down its engines, and kept them off, rather than trying to head toward either a berg or the Californian.
In the future, the better our prediction markets get, the better we’ll be at getting our best foresight to the people who need to see it, and challenging them to use it to improve their situations. To explore that idea a bit further, futurists Venessa Miemis, Alvis Brigis and I just published an article, Open Foresight, in the Journal of Futures Studies, Sep 2012, 17(1): 91-98, where we argue that the best foresight projects in coming years will be based on open access, network-based, crowdsourced approaches. Using a cognitively diverse crowd will quickly generate a distribution of possible futures, and with good iteration and comparison algorithms, the best can rapidly filter to the top. I’m reasonably hopeful that the best of these innovation management platforms today will turn into the best of the open foresight platforms of tomorrow.
But as we’ve already said, there’s another component to serious innovation that is equally necessary, particularly for our older and less flexible managers and leaders, involving unlearning maladaptive habits. Including more youth in leadership positions, and as reverse mentors to experienced leaders, is one good way to avoid the trap of tradition and protocol. Let’s hope we get other good unlearning strategies going forward as well.
Let’s say it again: Foresight matters!