Risk is an idea about what might happen in the future (good or bad) and yet, especially in policy and initiatives around contentious issues, risk all too often figures simply as a ‘bad.’ While there are many examples where this is true, it is also the case that risk is a double-edged sword – ill-considered risk avoidance can increase harm by eliminating opportunities and creating a society bereft of resilience, self-efficacy and innovative drive. Consequently, it is ever more essential to make reasoned decisions about the nature of risks and their control and this requires clarity on objectives and attention to unintended consequences.
There is confusion and obfuscation over the aim of public risk interventions: is it to direct people towards changing particular behaviours, or to provide tools that equip people to make better decisions for themselves? Other problems persist, such as continued muddle over risk and hazard in policymaking, failure to take account of both the absolute and relative dimensions of risk, and the offsetting of risks against benefits, plus other trade-offs including the unintended consequences of risk control measures.
Awareness of and discourse on risk has proliferated beyond recognition but substantial deficiencies in understanding of risk and risk decision making remain. The stakes are high: if we can better master risk and uncertainty, we will better allocate our finite resources to pursue our goals, we will be more resilient in the face of imperfect knowledge, and better placed to benefit from a period of change and innovation.
In the 21st century, we face an era of pervasive change and disruption. We are surrounded by uncertain futures and issues for decision without full knowledge. Science gives us tools with which to foresee and manage these challenges, but too often the tools of science are poorly deployed, misinterpreted or not deployed at all.
We need to learn to better distinguish the dangerous from the frightening, to make more explicit the different ways in which as groups and individuals we perceive issues as of high principle, or of common economic and social good in which we weigh each of the pros and cons in any decision, and in which we trade off our present goals against longer-term and society-wide impacts.
In 2018 a new collaborative initiative was launched by Atomium-EISD to encourage ways risk can be intelligently understood and managed. This collaboration seeks to foster greater public risk literacy, from its stronger forms of developing better statistical understanding to more basic abilities to recognize characteristics of both bad and good risk communication and research. The aim is to make an actionable impact on risk conversations in society, among thought-leaders and between decision-makers and to improve the quality of debate and decision making around risk issues. The ultimate aim is to free up societal resources which can then be used for the greater good of the public.