Snow Storm, Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth- JMW Turner 1842
In my other job as an architect I am always including contingencies. If I get a price from a builder just based on a set of knowns then the client will not be happy because they will allow for only that amount and then some unknown thing will crop up and it will end up costing extra. The trick is to predict where there will be unknowns and predict the approximate effect on the budget—it might be 5% of the value of the specified work, or more if the work is very risky.
There are also smaller contingencies contained within the specification. Allow £1,000 for deeper foundations, for example. This is over and above the overall contingency, and if things turn out better than expected the sums are not used, or only partially used, and the final price is lower than expected. Everyone is happy. We hope.
This idea of the different types of unknowns always reminds me of Donald Rumsfeld’s immortal words from his news briefing in February 2002, in the run up to the 2003 Iraq war, about the lack of evidence linking Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.
“As we know” he said, “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know”. Priceless.
Could the current pandemic be in the ‘unknown unknowns’ category perhaps? Well many would say absolutely not as we could have predicted it-- and many did—but still it came as a terrible shock for the vast majority of us. Maybe it was a ‘known unknown’, like my unexpected building problems, we knew that something unexpected was going to happen so we should have allowed for it. And this is such a lesson to us. My parent’s generation experienced World War II as an unexpected ‘known unknown’ in that it was hardly a surprise when it happened. My father joined up after Munich in 1938 with a bunch of his mates because they ‘knew’ something was going to happen, though precisely what they didn’t know. If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
This meaning of ‘contingent’ refers to chance, the accidental, the fortuitous, the unforeseeable – good and bad. But there is a slightly different sense of the word: something occurring only if certain circumstances arise; one thing happening being dependent upon some event, or events, as Harold Macmillan might have said about what knocks governments off course. “Events, dear boy, events”. And Covid has taught us all, including those in government - if we needed teaching - that life is ‘contingent’ in this very real sense.
One movie I love is Charlie Wilson’s War. It’s about Afghanistan in the 1980s and the USA pushing out the Russians by covertly arming the Mujahadeen. Towards the end the Philip Seymour Hoffman special agent character tells the Tom Hanks senator character the story of the boy and the Zen Master: “There's a little boy, and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse... and everybody in the village says, "how wonderful. The boy got a horse". And the Zen master says, "we'll see." Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, "How terrible." And the Zen master says, "We'll see." Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight... except the boy can't because his leg is all messed up. And everybody in the village says, "How wonderful…" And Tom Hanks interjects, nodding “..and the Zen master says "We'll see..”