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Avalanches Make Us All Innovators

By Peter J. Denning

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 63 No. 9, Pages 32-34

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The word "avalanche" brings up vivid images of destructive masses of snow suddenly sweeping down wintry mountain slopes, deadly cascades of ice and rock crushing everything beneath them. Avalanches are as unpredictable as they are destructive. No one can say with any certainty when or if an avalanche will occur or how severe it might be. The best mountain authorities can do is shut down a large area when they judge avalanche danger to be high.

Economists have adopted avalanche as a metaphor for disruptive changes that sweep through an economy. Economic avalanches can cause massive losses, wiping out professions, jobs, and wealth. Severe stock market crashes are avalanches. The housing bubble of 2007–2008 precipitated an avalanche that hurt many people badly. In the aftermath, a natural reaction is to point many fingers of blame for the calamity. This gives way to the more constructive reaction of trying to learn from what happened so as to be prepared if it happens again.


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