Wicked Risks for the World


Whether it be Trump, Brexit, or for example now in France the Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests) protestors, one thing becomes clear: Political surprises seem to happen more and more often and they have fatal consequences. The roots of all this political-social passage are long. There have been many decades of truly exceptional developments that have two significant dimensions above all others.

So what are they? On the one hand, the ecological crisis has become more active, and to the extent that it is understood, there are still an astonishing low number of real top-down actions. Consider for example IPCC's last autumn’s 1.5 ℃ report and also the weather anomalies registered around the world by the US Federal Organization for Weather and Marine Research (NOAA) that show that there is an unprecedented change at hand. On the other hand, we have the socio-political phenomena mentioned at the beginning which appear in the form of populist nationalism and cause situations that would not have been imagined to be at the heart of the developed world. It is just as if some kind of Demiurge would be moving the pieces on a chess board, laughing at people's surprise when something unexpected happens. 

In either case, we can clearly understand by means of research data, why, for example, global temperature growth is so rapid and systematic. The last five years have been the warmest period of the whole of modern measurement and can be clearly combined with the increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The rise of populist nationalism is based on a trend that has been underway for decades, with the slowdown of industry, progress of globalization and the policy where industry fading, globalization and the policies advancing competition have together produced large areas beyond urban centers, where the experience of people, - with good grounds, is that of being left behind development.

In fact, since the 1980s, very rich people have become even richer much faster than before, while for the rest of the population, development has been modest and often moving backwards. Thomas Piketty's calculations have shown this clearly. The events we now see in the political field are therefore the result of long-term social deprivation. Nevertheless, it is extremely difficult to anticipate the consequences, as we are dealing with complex, systemic phenomenon that does not necessarily follow an unambiguous causal logic.

 Our investigation in the WISE project - funded by Academy of Finland - is precisely to understand more deeply the heavyweight socio-ecological changes for society. How and why do they occur, what are their driving forces and how should we treat them?

The explaining of the world seems to be becoming increasingly complicated, even though the possibilities analysis are due to the better quality of data at our disposal. Our project at the Finland Futures Research Center is at this stage trying to understand how unexpectedness and surprise are affecting our society in new ways and what would follow from it. What conditions do we have to understand to contemplate the nature of the wicked problems?

 In the following I will present some preliminary findings that have emerged from our project, drawn from interviews and other research material. We have interviewed primarily experts whose task is to understand social and ecological changes and their implications.

First, working as an expert in today's world is a really demanding task. To the extent that the experts may see themselves as victims of their own expertise. Paradoxically, their expertise may mislead them. This is especially true when the risk horizon is new and contains components that are not familiar. Thus, learning can be significantly slowed down for two reasons: a) expert knowledge itself prevents the integration of new information, and b) the complexity and ambiguity of the situation slows down learning and comprehension of the whole and further drawing conclusions. 

We can take the example of the British Brexit developments: political experts and professionals, in this case politicians in the British Parliament, because of the recent Brexit debate in Parliament, do not know how they are a) as a nation in this situation, b) what kind of agreement they want the EU to: and c) what kind of future they really want for Britain. So, the total confusion. As such, it may be that for Europe, the British leaving is ultimately a great relief, since they have often acted as brakes to integration. The EU will therefore probably work better after the British divorce. But, with Brexit, the British seems to have come up with a brand-new kind of chaos and new risk horizons.

Secondly, from our material it has emerged that not only people, but also institutions are victims of the past. There are simply no procedures for new events, not to mention the law, and therefore there is no script for these situations. Furthermore, if we look at the socio-political system, the challenge that especially populist nationalism has brought us is that the world/politics/society does not work as expected. Our ability to read signs/futures is decisively weakening in the Trump world. Normal policy laws do not work in an environment where the constellation of influential phenomena differs too much from what it is used to.

So, it seems that the decision-makers or ordinary citizens are not accustomed to working in a situation where there is no script. And this opens the gates to a world where a new order of opportunistic ideology comes up. And insidiously, it invites everyone to join. Also, for example US Republicans riding ruthlessly with Trump, because they are still (for a moment) benefitting. 

Thirdly, we are experiencing situations where no one really knows what to do, but everyone knows a lot about what should not be done. So, there is a lack of direction, view and also then the sense of control. That is the ‘new non-perspectiveness’ that sociologist Ulrich Beck already spoke about in an attempt to understand the many dimensions of the Risk Society.

The current situation in the EU is well illustrated by the lack of public opinion. Of the EU Heads of State, only French President Macron seems to have significant say on the future of the EU. For others, the future seems to mean mostly elementary resilience, the ability to cope in some way with the present. It is striking that Trump also has no ideology, not really any good idea for the future. There are only opportunistic possibilities for a deal, so there is no script, as said before.

Fourthly, it seems that new technologies make risks much more ‘emergent’ than before. Now, it is not so much a risk according to the traditional definition (the size of the damage x the probability), but rather the risk is determined by the unknown/fear. It is in this respect that the new vastness of technology risks is dizzying.

Think about the development of artificial intelligence. At the moment, we are at the forefront of American market/company-driven development, at the heart of it is getting the lazy consumer to maximize the potential ease for new shopping. And more players will come: for example, the largest US retail chain, Walmart, is currently developing a massive AI application designed to capture and increase the company's 300 million weekly customer flow.

In China, AI is used for a completely different purpose: through WeChat, in 30 seconds, you will know that you have just crossed the traffic lights when the red lights are on. If this happens again, and you do not collect plus-points in your social earnings account (this is not a joke, every Chinese person really has a social earnings account), suddenly getting a travel permit or getting a job gets harder.

 Summa summarum: new technology exposes you to risks that materialize with their use (although the purpose is just to enjoy them through a comfortable life) and can escalate into completely new types of risks. The new wars will be conducted with code. The possibility of wicked problems increases.

It is therefore at least reasonable that we develop more and more capabilities towards the future, that provide the tools and capacity to face the risks that are difficult to predict. It is this issue that our research project aims to shed more light in which we need a lot of new insight to pave our way towards brighter future.