An Ounce Of Prevention: The Overlooked, Essential Task Of Leadership

In a recent Forbes article, columnist Rob Asghar interviews me on leadership in the era of coronavirus:

Why do leaders, and their organizations, tend to be blind to future threats? Orlando says it has in part to do with a simple cognitive issue. “I spend a lot of time promoting financial literacy—basic understanding of important concepts like compound interest,” he says. “Human beings have a hard time getting their mind to accept that small growth rates lead to big numbers in a hurry. When the virus first appeared in the US, a lot of people said things like, ‘It’s only a thousand cases, what’s the big deal?;’ That was a basic lack of numeric literacy. They couldn’t project how fast 1,000 could grow to 100,000. It’s hard to comprehend, intuitively, especially if you’ve never seen it happen before.”

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Penn IUR Launches New Public Finance Website

For the past year, I have been helping the Penn Institute for Urban Research develop a new website to serve as a repository for news, analysis, and data regarding state and local public finance, with a particular focus on underfunded pension liabilities. I am happy to announce that the website is now available for the public to access at

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The Power of “What If?”

by Alex Nakahara

It is the motto of dreamers from children to artists to engineers.

“What if I move this block over here? Can I build my tower higher?”

“What if I try setting these variables constant? Can I see a pattern emerge?”

“What if we try to harness the power of the tides to generate electricity? What is the potential amount of power we could make?”

“What is the best way to implement high-speed rail systems, and what opportunities would that provide?”

True, “What if?” can be seen as a pointless exercise, leading one to daydreams, regret, and recrimination. But ignoring the “What if?” in life consigns us to our staid viewpoint and ignores more promising avenues. Someone who wonders, “What if the British had won the Revolutionary War?” ponders alternate history. But I prefer to think of alternate futures. Before us lie always many potential paths. Indeed, in multiverse theory, every time a decision or event happens that could have gone more than one way, the universe branches with one path for each possible outcome, leading to an infinity of parallel universes. Some of these worlds differ from ours in only small details, while in others the dinosaurs might never have become extinct. Being able to imagine these branches lets us see possible consequences of our actions as well as new areas to explore.

Americans are proud of blazing new paths, and rightfully so, for what speaks more to the vitality of a civilization than its ability to grow, improve, and progress? And what is more responsible for humanity’s exponential strides in the last few centuries than science and technology? I would go so far as to argue that continual improvement of technology is the most important issue facing us. Many of the most pressing problems today — climate change, clean energy, health care, and aging infrastructure, to name a few — need new ideas and technologies to be solved. But it is often in the face of great problems that humanity has found the greatest solutions. In the 1940’s alone, driven by World War II, aircraft progressed from flimsy biplanes to sleek jets and rockets, the first computer was invented (at my own University of Pennsylvania), and, for good or bad, the key to unlock nuclear energy was discovered. In the next century, we may see many devices from science fiction come to life, such as robots for our everyday needs, nuclear fusion, and hypersonic and space travel. But it is equally certain that a large number of inventions will be unpredictable revelations, fascinating in the new possibilities they unlock. All these inventions will be driven by a simple question: “What if?”