Future risks: towards a common governance in light of uncertainty

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Positions of the Unknown (uncertainty) / Quadrature (DE). Credit: Design Society. Photo: Ars Electronica (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Elcano Blog

Positions of the Unknown (uncertainty) / Quadrature (DE). Credit: Design Society. Photo: Ars Electronica (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

In February 2002, the United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, when asked about the ack of evidence linking the Iraqi government with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist organizations, replied: “There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns (…). But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we do not know we do not know. And if one looks throughout the history (…), it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult one”.

Nearly twenty years later, this concept, whose backbone is uncertainty, is still to be found in our everyday lives. When making decisions, risks are also taken. According to the Future of Humanity Institute from Oxford University, a risk is defined on the basis of three criteria: its scope (the number of people it would affect), severity (how badly these people would be affected), and probability (how likely this risk is to occur). The problem arises when the very existence of a risk is what we are unaware of.

A large set of organisations constantly devotes their efforts to identify major global risks. One of the most well-known documents is Global Risks Report, published by the World Economic Forum. In its latest edition from 2019, there is much food for thought for us to digest. The top 10 List of Global Risks is made up of five environmental issues (the most important of which being extreme weather events, and failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation), two technology-related risks (data fraud or theft, and cyber-attacks), two societal challenges (large-scale involuntary migration, and water crises), and the last one, economic in nature (asset bubbles). However, while it is true that this contingency matrix has been thoroughly devised and parameterized –partly due to data availability and traceability–, forecasting of coming risks is downsized for the time being, and a low level of analysis, preparedness –and thoughtfulness– still remains as such.

Certain future risk scenarios are projected: decline of democracy by new forms of social control (for instance, biometric surveillance), which will cast doubt on the system’s worth and effectiveness; infringement of privacy because of quantum computing; greater dislocation of the traditional rural/urban habitat duality, with further social polarisation and electoral volatility; restraints on supply of food as geo-economic tool; fight for control over new Global Commons (outer space); echo chambers, which admit just the information we agree with, through Artificial Intelligence, at the expense of critical thinking; and disaffection with and estrangement from human rights in a backdrop of diverging beliefs.

Should we aim at foreseeing a future risk –but that little (or any) information is available–, the traditional analysis of current trends alone is not enough. Changes and risks, which are now unthinkable, are underway. Technological developments and social dynamics are quickly racing ahead, and society is not able to embrace every leap forward and to have a full picture of the situation. Thereupon, future risks projections, based on existing data and information, is necessary but uncompleted. Back in 1997, Niklas Luhmann remarked that a system which reproduces itself only produces self-referential outcomes: an autopoiesis which does not spark ideas-based innovation.

Common governance in light of uncertainty

If uncertainty is where the risk relies on, and speed is its catalyst, there is only one path forward by developing new methodologies. With regard to this, the sociologist Charles Perrow, in 1984, theorized on system failure. According to him, the main reason for this system vulnerability –our international order– is not the set of major risk-related phenomenon, but minor, unexpected malfunctions or breakdowns. As they do not receive a great attention, they are overlooked. Over time, these small failures create a “waterfall effect” which cracks pillars of the system subtly. In this respect, the key to sophisticated future risk forecasting does not reside in highly likely major events, but rather in high-impact small failures. This is important in our system, characterized by such a high complexity that we end up losing traceability capability of each of the tight coupling interconnections.

Building upon this, a question arises: is society willing to devote resources and give priority to a risk which is not yet visible or high-impact for now? The latest Eurobarometer on attitudes towards security, published in 2017, shows that only 56% of European Union’s citizens see cybercrime as a “very important” risk. While it is true that worries have mounted from 2015 –in which 42% out of the total were concerned about its severity–, this figure illustrates a yawning gap between population’s worrying and coming risks. A glaring indication of this is a preference for issues such as terrorism (which is “very important” for 76% of the population), vis-à-vis human-made environmental disasters, which receive attention from only 53% of surveyed people.

In this vein, there is a clear differential between risk perception and reality thereof. Population focuses on more imminent events –regardless on the degree of severity–, while future risks –many of them being existential for humankind– still remain a second-order issue.

However, if future risks are underestimated, people are not to blame. It is not their responsibility either. Rather, society will develop awareness of the importance of prior analysis of these future risks once this issue has brought enough attention and there is feasible information. Thus, the final responsibility lies in the hands of governments: they are required to create a governance framework with a long-term vision; to generate an ecosystem for risk analysis which genuinely involves real, material and effective collaboration (and not just co-operation) among public and private sector, NGOs and academia. For that purpose, society needs to turn into a participating partner, and not a mere recipient.

Paradoxically, time-saving technologies are making us believe that life is getting faster. If we want to address what is to come, it is therefore vital to promote a proactive, anticipation-based policy, rather than a reactive one; a policy which bridges the gap between risk perception and reality. In essence: a common governance in light of uncertainty.

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