By Robert Hickson 16/03/2020


Futures folk like animal metaphors for uncertainties. “Black swans” is a favourite one, and currently doing the rounds with opinions about COVID-19. The term “black swan”, popularised by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book of the similar name, refers to unanticipated events with big impacts.

However, COVID-19 and other epi- or pandemics aren’t black swans. They are anticipated, at least by public health professionals. What’s not known is when and where they’ll emerge, and the impacts they will have.

Michelle Wucker suggested the term “Gray Rhino” several years ago to refer to highly likely, high impact events. While we disregard the warnings, the event or issue continues to lumber toward us like a rhino. Wucker distinguished her gray rhino from “the elephant in the room” by the former charging, not just standing quietly waiting to be noticed.

She’s called the coronavirus outbreak a gray rhino,  but that’s not completely right either. Some countries have reacted slowly and been ill prepared, but many others didn’t ignore the emergence and spread, have been well prepared, and acted quickly.

There’s a common framework for categorising risks that is also used by foresight practitioners and strategists. It was popularised by Donald Rumsfeld but was widely used before him.

The elements are:

  • Known knowns – things we know we know. The sun will set tonight and come up again tomorrow.

  • Known unknowns – things we know we don’t know. Like the chance of adverse weather events, flight cancellations, what alien life could look like, and new diseases will emerge.

  • Unknown unknowns – things that we don’t know we don’t know.

The fourth category is less well known:

  • Unknown knowns

    This has been defined variously. For example, as things that we don’t realise that we know. Such as having the answers to weird questions in quizzes.

    Some management types define it, wrongly in my opinion, as things others know that you don’t.

    Postnormal Times categorise unknown knowns as “things we think we know and understand but which turn out to be more complex and uncertain than we expect.”

Animal metaphors help to distinguish these.

The black swan is the metaphor for “Unkown unknowns.” The gray rhino is a surrogate for “Known knowns”. The elephant in the room has been coloured black and used by The Institute for Collapsonomics (yes, really there is a virtual institute called this) to signify “Known unknowns.” Both the rhino and the elephant are frequently labelled “black swans” by those who should have been expecting them

Postnormal Times selected “black jellyfish” to represent “Unknown knowns.” This is because unusually warm waters and changing acidity have caused jellyfish populations to rapidly increase, and led to blocked water inlets of power stations. So, what we think we understand can be more complex, with small changes leading to big impacts. Like COVID-19.

An animal metaphor for each (un)certainty. Images sourced from Unsplash – Geran de Klerk (Rhino), James Hammond (Elephant), Uriel Soberanes (Jellyfish), and Dorothe Wouters (Swan).

The black jellyfish is the only one in this menagerie that explicitly covers complexity. As such, I think the “Unknown knowns” category is the most important, and overlooked. Foresight is supposed to challenge assumptions, but it takes time to unpack complex systems and the assumptions we have made about them. Often the focus is drawn to black swans and elephants in the room.

But foresight isn’t just about identifying “black creatures”, it’s about preparing for the changes or challenges they represent, and making sure that you don’t neglect to maintain the cages that will constrain your menagerie.