Posted by: olymponomics | May 7, 2012

London 2012 and the law of unintended consequences

I have written before about the relevance of the law of unintended consequences, in the potential for interventions in complex systems to create unanticipated and often adverse outcomes. There are numerous possible applications in organisation of an event the scale of the London 2012 Olympics. One recent example is the planned closure during the Games of a significant number of courts responsible for processing serious criminal cases due to concerns over disruption of the London transport system. It is difficult to predict what the practical consequences of this might be, but the build-up of a backlog of cases has the potential to have quite benign effects on processing times or might alternatively aggravate existing stress on the criminal justice system and its ability to cope with unexpected shocks such as last year’s riots. Certainly the characteristics of ‘incomplete information’ and ‘immediate [short-term] interest’, which Robert Merton identified as being connected to unintended consequences, are relevant to planning in this environment. Decision-makers do not have perfect knowledge of the sorts of demands that will be made on the criminal justice system around the time of the Games (related or unrelated to the event). At the same time, their short-term interests are to avoid disruptions due to traffic for the Olympics (as part of the wider policy to reduce business traffic during the event).

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