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By Dr Chris Needham-Bennett, Managing Director, Needhams 1834 and Visiting Professor, University College London

As humans we have a perhaps unique ability to imagine far into the future and hence appreciate risk. Often, we are very confident of a particular risk, other less so. Despite our degree of confidence and even the supporting data, it is worth recalling Hobbes’ (1651) description of the future, and hence risk, in ‘Leviathan’, being a ‘fiction of the mind’. However objective a risk might appear it is subjectively appreciated by all individuals and massaged and shaped by ones’ ‘biases and heuristics’ as noted by Kahneman, Tversky and Slovic and commented upon by several others.

Thankfully over time, sometimes centuries, we have become pretty proficient at what we might term the ‘big ticket items’ as Professor Gordon noted in ‘Structures or why things don’t fall down’ 1. Since the seventeenth century we have developed a lot of science to keep things standing. The same rapid progress can be seen in medicine, aviation, electronics, computing, meteorology and automobiles etc. and permitting myself a generalisation, things are generally safer and more reliable, in other words less risky. These same advances have allowed us to develop a sense at least of existential risk, such as asteroids, solar flares, pandemics, natural disasters and climate change; topics now being studied by several leading universities.

However, something appears to be going paradoxically wrong. It was perhaps first noted academically by Wildavsky who in 1979 remarked that, How extraordinary! The richest, longest lived, best protected, most resourceful civilisation with the highest degree of insight into its own technology, is on its way to becoming the most frightened.2

In 2018, almost half a century later, two notable authors reimagined Wildavsky’s claim. Based on the work of Professor Rosling3,  we appear very poor at statistical analysis of much of the data (and we are not talking about high level statistics) and our poor appreciation of the data leads us to a negativity which is arguably fostered by elements of the media thereby reinforcing the pessimistic outlook with the heuristic of ‘constant’ availability. In the same year, 2018 Professor Furedi4 proposed that we have developed a culture of fear which, (partially echoing Rosling et als views), conflates possibility with probability and is exemplified by the notion of ‘zero risk’ and a highly precautionary culture in which risk is invariably a negative factor. Both authors make excellent cases for their perspectives and offer several plausible explanations and to some extent remedies. Notwithstanding the excellence of both books, they perhaps avoid examining an inconvenient possibility.

The inconvenient possibility is that we have reached a position of such relative security from most risks that our predisposition to seek out risk drives us to delve too deeply, and we scrape the risk barrel for the last vestiges of threat. In doing so we risk distorting risk with the law of diminishing returns and devaluing the few real threats that still can affect us.

Let me offer some vignettes with some brief explanations. 

Historical legacies of custom and practice seem to imbalance risk perceptions; ‘new things’ are more risk managed. I can fill my car with an explosive, carcinogenic liquid at most out of town shopping centres, I can even leave my children in the car whilst I do it. I have had no training at all and as far as I know there is no course on how to do it. If, however I take adult students on a geography field trip and wish to dig a shallow soil trench I have to complete a full risk assessment and wear the now almost obligatory yellow Personal Protective Equipment.

Possibility and probability are being used interchangeably. Normal management risks, to do with the competence of managers, are increasingly been formally risk managed. A university risk register contained a strategic risk that, we might be unable to attract the right calibre of academic staff. Yes, it exists as a possibility, but as a probability, (given the status of the University in question), it was blindingly small. Call me old fashioned, but surely, we also have a competent HR Director and diligent recruitment process?

The final example concerns how we are increasingly incapable of balancing one risk against another. In 2016 Black Lives Matter/eco protestors erected a 6-foot tripod (the rough equivalent height of children’s playground climbing apparatus) on the apron at City Airport and sat on it bringing the airport to a standstill until police with suitable climbing harnesses could bring the protestor safely back to earth. Presumably the only risk considered was that of the protestors’ safety. No account seemed to be taken of the travelling public inconvenience, cost and mental stress. A person next to me missed an operation in Switzerland and another was going to funeral in Holland. Nor, with many airports working at capacity, was the danger of air traffic congestion caused by diversion to other airfields even noted in the press.

Perhaps more worryingly we are starting to develop a concern with ‘risk managing management’; but perhaps not without cause. One has only to turn to recent events such as the resignations of Dominic Rabb, Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Danker (CBI) to appreciate the damage that can be done to an organisation through some form of elementary mismanagement. It would even be possible to suggest that such events are more damaging than a localised fire or an IT outage as they consistently erode confidence in management and leadership let alone the managerial disruption and indirect costs caused or suffered.

In conclusion the safer we seem to have become the more luxury we have to wallow in minutiae and some highly spurious risk assessments are the result. Unless we maintain a strict focus on what might be termed ‘real risk’ the frivolous and vexatious risks which have begun to be far too prevalent, risks bringing the discipline into disrepute as being little more than a prophylactic measure. However, I sense that a shift to the inclusion of mismanagement or ‘mal-management’ (we will need to invent a new term for it) will soon feature on corporate risk registers, but I am intensely puzzled as to how probability as opposed to possibility will be applied to the problem.

Professor JE Gordon, Structures or why things don’t fall down. (1978) Penguin.
Wildavsky, A. (1979). Am Sci 67,32.
Rosling, H., Rönnlund, A. R., & Rosling, O. (2018)
Furedi, F. (2018). How fear works: Culture of fear in the twenty-first century. Bloomsbury Publishing.

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