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Weak signals are products of imagination, of insight. There was, until recently, little evidence that a green revolution may transform politics within a decade, creating a rallying cry for millions excluded by major political parties. The narrative is at best contested, ambiguous. Or that there are competing narratives, each searching for support. The Green New Deal was a weak signal, yet has gained momentum in the US and in Europe in only two years.
Similarly, evidence that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) may be weakening, with the potential to transform the climate of Western Europe, is at an early stage. It is outside mainstream media and public areas of interest. In contrast, the ‘flight shaming’ narrative has gained momentum in only a few months, since it first emerged. It has generated widespread attention, presenting airline leaders with what one called ‘an existential threat’. Airlines face a potential cut in demand and at the same time, have few substantive ‘clean’ options.
Or take inventions, the other primary source of weak signals. Novel methods to capture carbon are emerging. None has so far scaled. Yet there are signs of growing momentum. Or the idea that photosynthesis can be ‘boosted’, making it more efficient. Both may transform prospects for slowing climate change.
We look for and actively monitor these early signs, scanning large-scale sources of data, media, patents and academic output for early stage narratives that may go viral. We use state-of-the-art artificial intelligence to identify, track and interpret emerging narratives. We look for surprises, new language and the dynamics of networks of influence. Weak signals cannot be ranked by impact, or uncertainty, or measured against vulnerability criteria. Yet they are key to understanding ‘emergence’ in complex, open, adaptive systems, to crystallising ‘imagined futures’ and the narratives that express them, however far-fetched they might appear at first.
Above all, most so-called ‘Black Swan’ events are preceded by weak signals. In our view, there should be few surprises. Perfect storms, systemic failures and systemic innovation all cast shadows before. Sometimes they hide in plain sight, obscured by cultural worldviews, shared blindspots, unthinkable, unimaginable. In other cases, specialist domain knowledge is key to hearing signals through the noise.