Strengthening Resilience against Technological Risks: the Importance and Benefits of Integrating Research and Practice

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Technological Risks

This emerging issue examines the importance and associated benefits of better integrating research and practice to increase resilience against technological risks. In the first section, it outlines some common characteristics of technological risks and their implications for our risk governance mechanisms, which are crucial tools of the concept of resilience. In the second section, the article investigates to what extent the integration of research and practice can improve our risk governance mechanisms and enhance resilience against technological risks.

Technological Risks and the Implications for our Risk Governance Mechanisms

There are some common characteristics pertaining to technological risks that have important implications for our risk governance mechanisms.

First, technological risks commonly entail low probability but potentially high impact events. The ‘high impact’ characteristic not only refers to the huge physical and psychological implications and the long-lasting effects on the environment and the economy, but also to the fact that extremely sophisticated capabilities may be required to carry out complex activities to prevent, mitigate as well as to respond to and recover from these events. Examples of these capabilities and activities may include the detection of hazardous substances, the adoption of state-of-the-art safety standards, isolation and decontamination or special medical treatment.

On the other hand, the ‘low probability’ characteristic implies that while fortunately these events rarely occur, this limits our capacity to elaborate accurate risk scenarios and to develop adequate preparedness capabilities. As discussed by the philosopher and statistician Taleb, we are not able to fully understand and prevent the highly improbable (or ‘black swan’) and we have the tendency to find simplistic explanations retrospectively. The combination of ‘low probability’ and ‘high impact’ characteristics can prove problematic in determining how best to allocate limited resources to the risk management process.

The second characteristic of technological risks is their potential to cause ‘transboundary emergencies’, i.e. events whose implications cross not only geographical but also policy sectors. Transboundary emergencies imply that multiple actors are involved, including policy and decision makers at the international, national or local level, incident commanders, first responders, health care providers, the media and the population. From a practical perspective, the integration of previously separated policy fields, such as for instance security, public health and civil protection, requires deep changes to our risk governance mechanisms, also in light of the need to coordinate and avoid duplication of efforts.

Third, technological risks are paradigmatic of the paradox upon which our society is based, as they determine its progress and fragility at the same time. Strictly linked with scientific and technological advances, these risks best represent what the sociologist Beck has described as ‘radicalised risks’ in the global risk society, i.e. a society where the social production of wealth is systematically accompanied by the social production of risks. Along similar lines, Perrow has defined potential accidents deriving from high-risk technologies as ‘normal’ in contemporary times. In other words, we produce the same risks that we then seek to control, which is a normal condition for the globalized and highly technological society we live in. On the other hand, however, the high levels of fragility produced by technological risks are changing the nature of our moral and legal obligations: there is an important role to play for ethical and legal norms when addressing the complex challenges posed by technological risks. The more aware we are of our vulnerabilities, the more we have to find solutions to mitigate them, especially if these are produced by ourselves. Our risk management mechanisms need to take into account different roles and responsibilities.

These three characteristics have thus important implications for our approaches to risk assessment and management. First, in order to address the ‘low probability and high impact’ characteristics, it is paramount that the governance of technological risks is based on sound scientific evidence underpinned by a robust decision methodology, in order to best allocate limited resources to potentially catastrophic events. A sound technological risk mechanism should then propose actions that are coherent in line with the potential severity of risk and that are easily implementable by all the actors involved, with (legal) responsibilities clearly defined. Finally, our risk governance should reflect not only scientific evidence but also a consensual view on the main gaps and needs as well as the priorities to be addressed, to avoid creating conflicts that could result in weak implementation.

An adequate risk governance mechanism serves as an important tool to implement the idea of resilience. A well-known concept in the area of social sciences - including in economics, environmental studies and organizational studies - resilience is now increasingly being used in the field of protection against calamitous events too. In this field, recently it was defined by Herwig and Simoncini as “the ability to be subject to an external stress agent, cope with the strain and react to it by absorbing it or by changing with a minimum disruption”. The concept of resilience against technological risks is, however, in need of more precise framing. For instance, if we look at another domain that is increasingly seen as highly relevant to this field, i.e. law, it would be important to understand what is required from a legal perspective to enhance resilience or how the instruments of law may support the search for resilience.

Better Integrating Research and Practice to Strengthen Resilience

With such characteristics of technological risks in mind, we may then want to investigate which tools are available to us to improve the governance of these risks and, therefore, to enhance resilience against rare but potentially catastrophic events.

One of the most important and promising tools we have is the ability to better link the potential of research with the on-the-field experience of practice. Integrating research and practice is an approach that originally emerged in the healthcare sector. It calls for "evidence about what works best for whom in order to inform decisions that lead to safe, efficient, effective, and affordable care". In this context, the collection and analysis of medical information (research) should inform medical treatment (practice) and, in turn, should be informed by research questions emerging from clinical practice. The Evidence-based Medicine (EBM) aims to improve the quality of research and of assistance by making the two communicate with each other in a more coherent, joined up manner. This is particularly crucial in a context of limited resources, rapid technological innovation and indispensable continuous learning.

There are positive aspects of integrating research and practice in other fields as well. In the area of resilience against technological risks, research can be understood as referring to investigations and analysis of data carried out by relevant scientific disciplines; while practice relates mainly to the application of knowledge in relevant activities pertaining to risk management and to emergency response and recovery. In this field, the research-and-practice integration cycle can improve the risk governance mechanisms since it is beneficial for the characteristics of technological risks as discussed above.

First, the improved integration of research and practice can create the conditions necessary for better sustainability, especially where limited resources are allocated according to the priorities that have been identified through practice. Practice-informed research gives us the opportunity to establish a continuous learning process where priorities and novelties are managed in the most effective way. For its part, research allows us to think about the un-imaginable, the ‘black swan’ scenarios, and to forecast the rare events in an early anticipatory way. This enables the mobilisation of resources for unusual events that a strict practice-based analysis might not have supported but that may have nevertheless catastrophic consequences that need to be considered in advance. Associate benefits can include the prevention of certain events, or at least the mitigation of their potentially cascading effects.

Second, if separated, research and practice would hardly be able to provide instruments for the collaboration between different policy areas, as required by ‘transboundary emergencies’. In the CBRN domain, for instance, one of the main gaps that emerges in practice is the lack of communication and information sharing among first responders, healthcare providers and law enforcement officials. This gap has been identified as a direct result of research having been conducted on this topic. Future practice would benefit from the integration of the outcomes of research carried out in different domains, such as crisis management, organisational studies, public health, as well as ethics and law.

Third, the integration of research and practice may support the adoption of consensual views on the definition of values and preferences, as well as the allocation of responsibilities in rapidly changing environments, such as the one related to the governance of technological risks. Practice is better placed to provide elements to identify gaps and needs, while research can provide systematic methodologies and frameworks to clarify the different roles of multiple actors and ensure an underpinning robust evidence base, with data where appropriate – something which can be noticeable by its absence in the development of some policies and related practice. Practitioners can then confirm that the methodologies and frameworks suggested by research are adequate to the specific situation so that the research-and-practice integration cycle is closed.

To conclude, it is evident that important mutual benefits are to be derived through better linking research with practice, not least in terms of ensuring that resilience related research is adequately informed by gaps and needs emerging from practice to maximise its utility and impact; while simultaneously ensuring that practice may benefit both from being scientifically sound and from the imaginary potential of research. A context characterised by limited resources, deep complexity and rapid innovation, like the one related to the governance of technological risks, is in need of finding methodological tools that support the research-and-practice integration cycle.

 

Silvia Venier is an Associate of GSDM, who specialises in technological risk, especially CBRN related risk, as well as disaster risk management.

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