Abstract

Over the course of the 20th century, uncertainty has been increasingly framed as ‘risk’, which can be quantified and essentially controlled. Whilst previously policymakers and organisations acknowledged uncertainties before making decisions, there has been an ongoing practice of airbrushing out the ‘here be dragons’, or future uncertainties, which is potentially the largest risk that today’s policy makers face.

Here be dragons’

In her article “Here be Dragons… exploring the ‘unknown’s unknown’”, Shirin Elahi argues that for any valid future preparation, this trend must be broken. In many cases it is not what we know about the future that matters, but what we do not know. We have been misleading our perception of future knowledge, by letting human psychology, institutional practice, and scientific convention create a culture of ‘ignorance towards ignorance’.

Although there are different types of ‘Here be Dragons’, what they all have in common is that they represent multiple interconnected and interdependent systems, involving different groups and interests.  The first type is often described as a “wicked problem”, a highly ambiguous dilemma that covers so many fields that it is essentially impossible to collectively define them. “Black Swans”, highly improbable and unexpected events which have a massive impact on the status quo are another type. A third version of ‘Here be Dragons’ is “Post Normal Science”, which are highly controversial and unpredictable scientific developments.

There are several major reasons why ‘Here be Dragons’ are widely ignored, namely:

Human Psychology and the desire for control: It lies in human nature to want to explain and plan for possible future events, yet our capacity to imagine such futures is limited by our experiences. All too often, ‘Here be Dragons’ are beyond our conception of reality and therefore deemed as so unlikely that they can simply be ignored. Scenarios are a crucial tool in bridging these psychological barriers and broadening our range of possibilities.

Institutional responses to uncertainty: The methods designed by institutions and policy makers are often designed to accurately capture one specific field, yet this focus is too narrow to appropriately recognise any ‘Here be Dragons’. In addition, institutions are often hampered by their requirements for public accountability and admitting uncertainty is then interpreted as a sign of weakness or instability. As a result, institutions and policy makers resort to a variety of tools to systematically ignore any ignorance or uncertainty.

Scientific convention in the face of uncertainty: The conventions of modern science have evolved into increasing rationalisation. Methods of abstraction and analysis have led to the dominant belief that everything can be rationalised and explained to the fullest degree. As a result, ‘Here be Dragons’ are perceived as non-existent and thus ignored. This can be countered by an increased use of “uncertainty analysis” to combat any false sense of certainty.

 

The illusion of knowledge was the greatest danger of all.

 

Scenarios as meta risk analyses

Foresight is intrinsic to human nature. We attempt to map the future in order to protect us from potential risks. However, when foresight attempts to predict the future, it will fail to acknowledge any ‘Here be Dragons’, by focusing on hindsight and historic models to predict a yesterday taking place tomorrow.

Scenario planning is an effective way to incorporate and minimise uncertainty in our analysis of the future. Scenarios work as a set, and thereby cover a broad variety of possible outcomes, while always acknowledging the inherently uncertain nature of the future. Their goal is to explore when and how trends might bend, and how tomorrow might differ from the past. They rather attempt to facilitate preparedness for all possible situations, even unlikely ‘Here be Dragons’.

 

Shirin Elahi

Shirin Elahi

The author

Started her professional career as an architect and now applies that practical understanding of the creative process to build scenarios for the future as a tool for strategic change.