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The Hidden Beauty of Japan's Black Swan

A Black Swan event is a metaphor used to explain a disproportionate, hard to predict event that is beyond the realm of normal expectation in history, science, finance and technology.  Coined by epistemologist Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable", perhaps there is no more apt metaphor to describe the macabre ballet of destruction that has engulfed Japan.

It has been a little over one week since a massive 9.0 earthquake struck Northern Japan and a devastating tsunami pummeled its coastal cities.  The number of lives lost continues to grow and millions have been left hungry, cold, without electricity and homeless. The Nikkei has plummeted.  The explosions and release of radioactive caesium-137 and iodine-131 from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant pose a very real public health threat to those in surrounding areas and potentially to the entire country. This nuclear disaster is now considered by most to be the second worst in history. As Prime Minister Naoto Kan remarked, this is his nation’s worst crisis since World War II.

This catastrophe represents not only a turning point for Japan, but one for all nations that forces them to reexamine their energy policies and societal attitudes. Notwithstanding the Obama administration’s push forward with issuing construction permits for new nuclear plants, many countries including Germany are making significant policy shifts away from nuclear energy and looking to solar and wind installations as a  safer and reliable alternative. Perhaps the tragedy in Japan and the unfortunate implications from this catastrophe will work to shift public sentiment around the world and force a global move towards a clean and safe energy future.

It is also important to note, given the seemingly apocalyptic chain of events and tremendous losses, that the bonds of Japanese culture have appeared to remain intact. There has been no looting, no crime, no mass stampedes or finger-pointing. Order and compassion prevail. Civility and honor have neither been swept away by a 30-foot wave or shaken by the earthquakes, aftershocks and threat of nuclear meltdown. I hope that this too is an outcome of this Black Swan event—a hidden lesson in humanity for people of all cultures and nations. It is worth acknowledging the Japanese resilience and dignity in these circumstances.

Synergizing this uniquely Japanese attitude towards society with its leadership in sustainable development and design will surely produce something transformative. Based on the trend-setting work by prominent Japanese designers and architects including Tadao Ando, Hitoshe Abe and Toyo Ito, the rebuilding effort will likely reflect innovative thinking and sensitivity to the environment—something that will be paramount in the rebuilding effort. The hope and most probable prediction is that places like Sendai and Natori will be rebuilt stronger and better. The Japanese people will demonstrate to the world their command of design, architecture, transportation and urban planning in a way that balances the needs of people and nature with technology and society.  While New Orleans remains largely dilapidated and Haiti ravished by its catastrophe, these Japanese cities will become models for sustainable living and shining lights for the rest of the world to follow.

Along these lines, there is little doubt in my mind that we will see the emergence of sustainable cities and towns on par with, or exceeding, that which is part of  Masdar City, the jewel of sustainable development in the United Arab Emirates.  I even venture to hope that along with solar and wind power, we will see the use of wave energy embraced as a reliable source of energy, generating power for schools, homes and businesses that were once destroyed by that very same force of nature.

Judah Schiller is co-founder and CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S, a San Francisco based consulting firm focused on activating companies for good.

Read more coverage of the Japan earthquake.