How do others see risk?

July 26, 2017

Surely one aspect of a good conference is one which opens up new questions and perspectives on a topic – and by this definition “Sharing an Uncertain World – Lessons in Managing Risk” in mid-July was a good one (https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/uncertainworld17).

Under Chatham House rules – so no attributions in what follows (which I’ll correct as and when the presentations are published).

Examples of interesting questions and perspectives were:

  • The discussion of how organisations are motivated to downplay the risks of hazards which they feel they can’t afford to mitigate.  The topic was raised as follows “The appetite to accept risks is inextricably linked to the willingness to invest resources in their mitigation”.  But a pithy version arose in subsequent conversation “We can’t afford to handle it, we can’t ignore it, so maybe we should just downplay its importance”.

 

  • If there is a dominant model for the underlying phenomenon or mechanism by which risk arises, then beware the dangers of discarding data that doesn’t fit the model.  Easily done with the best of (scientific) intentions – but could hide the fact that the model is wrong or incomplete, together with one’s grasp of the risk itself.  Which suggests that adaptability in your assessment of risk may be the most important attribute in the face of uncertainty.

 

  • This was developed further with a question about the dangers of consensus opinions about data, models or issues.  If reaching consensus requires excluding (or quelling) the outliers then how best to manage the risk of accidentally excluding valuable insights or the weak signals that hint at different causal mechanisms?

 

  • Compelling evidence of why and how the megatrends (climate change, urbanisation, globalisation and the digital revolution) interact to increase risk levels as people and wealth become more geographically concentrated in riskier places, and increasingly interlinked via systems of ever-faster dynamics.

 

  • The interesting phenomenon whereby those who manage risk well have increasing difficulty communicating the reality of remaining (or even of increasing) risk to an increasingly complacent audience.  This was supported by Simon Day’s work suggesting that fatality rates from tsunamis are an order of magnitude greater among communities that don’t see many compared with those communities for which they are a recognised reality.  (reported earlier as http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2007AGUFMOS23B..04D )

 

  • Nice idea of the metaphor of risk as a commodity – created by some, bought by others and absorbed by yet others.  Where is value created, destroyed and realised?

 

  • An excellent exploration of the intrinsic difference of ensemble modelling which shows up the sensitivity to parameters but tells you nothing about uncertainty.  To explore uncertainty you need to compare multiple models based on different presumptions.  Then you can go on to usefully explore risk thresholds and appetite for risk without getting confused by modelling issues.

 

  • Widespread agreement about the difficulties that humans have in coping with large or small numbers and the continuing search for visualization tools to help communication.  But one intriguing communication idea was to check whether you can summarise the core of your message into 140 characters (there goes any nuance!)

 

  • Risk appetite – and two interesting questions
    • You’re always facing risk – either accepting it, avoiding it or mitigating it.  Here’s a key question.  Are you doing that from knowledge or ignorance?
    • And does your risk appetite increase the more you engage with a specific risk because your knowledge enables you to recognise and mitigate the risk – or because you become desensitized?

 

  • Exploration of compound processes – because a disaster is never a single event.

 

 

  • No particular insights shared, but a widespread recognition of the difficulties of combining quantitative information (of possibly spurious precision) with qualitative information into a framework to allow decision making.  (Again, something faced by IPCC) And, of course, the narrative later to explain and sell the decision.  With the open question of the alignment of the narrative with the reality of the decision.  Represented by whose reality?

 

Smith's geological map of UK

Held in the Royal Geographical Society, we were also treated to the story of the world’s first national geological map by William Smith (https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/Library-and-Information-Services/Exhibitions/William-Strata-Smith) – a story of politics, passions and professional competitiveness as much as of cartography.  But striking to see how much Smith influenced all subsequent geological mapping conventions.

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