Risk, uncertainty and sustainable innovation: Feedback sought on symposium blurb

by Andrew Maynard on November 21, 2010

Despite the risk of receiving absolutely no comments (please don’t let me down!), I thought I’d try something new and ask for some feedback on the background blurb for a meeting I’ve been working on.

The meeting is a symposium on Risk, Uncertainty and Sustainable Innovation being organized by the Risk Science center next September.  I’ve been struggling with the blurb for this meeting before it goes out – especially striking the balance between something that captures the imagination (and hopefully the attention) of potential speakers, sponsors and attendees, and something that has clarity and substance.

The text below is my latest draft.  What I would love to know – today ideally (knowing that you all are desperate for something to break the boredom of a Sunday afternoon) – is whether in your opinion this works, whether it is fluff without substance, whether it is the perfect insomnia cure, or whatever.

Please, please add your comments below – no matter how brief, or how qualified/unqualified you feel you are to say something.

Thank you!

Risk, Uncertainty and Sustainable Innovation

New perspectives on emerging challenges

As we strive to build a sustainable future, do we need to rethink the relationship between risk, uncertainty and innovation?  Today’s accelerating rate of technology innovation promises profound personal, social and economic advances. But in an ever-more complex, interconnected and resource-constrained world, sustainable innovation is jeopardized by emergent risks, together with increasing uncertainty over potential benefits and impacts.  And no-where is this more apparent than at the intersection between technology innovation and human health.  Drawing on thought-leaders from a wide range of backgrounds and expertise, this symposium provides a unique forum for exploring new ideas on integrative approaches to health risks, uncertainty and innovation, as we look to develop sustainable solutions to global challenges.

Background: As technologies become more sophisticated, pressures on global resources grow and society becomes ever-more interconnected, governments, businesses and citizens are facing increasingly complex challenges as they strive to build an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future. Over the past century, technology innovation has accelerated to the point where scientists and engineers have greater control over materials, organisms and systems – from the atomic scale to the planetary scale – that ever before.  This has facilitated a radical shift in global communication, leading to an interconnected society where the flow of information, ideas and influence transcends geographical, economic and social boundaries.  At the same time, a growing and increasingly plugged-in world population is placing unprecedented demands on ever-scarcer global resources.

The result is a world where innovation is both a driver of and a potential source of solutions to an increasing number of emerging global challenges.

If we are to adapt and thrive in this changing world, we urgently need to better-enable sustainable innovation – the sustainable development of relevant and responsive new understanding, processes and products that support long-term advances in the quality of human life and the environment.  Yet sustainable innovation is inextricably intertwined with risk – particularly the danger of causing harm to human health – and uncertainty over the consequences of our actions.

Technology innovation leads to emergent risks – the likelihood of causing harm in a manner that is not apparent, assessable or manageable based on current approaches to risk assessment and management.  The more complex and rapid the innovation, the greater the chances of perceived or actual risks emerging that require new and responsive approaches to minimizing their impact.  But as a clear understanding of risks and how to manage them will always lag behind innovation, technology innovation is also dogged by uncertainty – particularly over how a specific course of action may lead to harm, and how this can be avoided.

If innovation is to support sustainable solutions to 21st century challenges, new and integrative approaches to risk and uncertainty are required.  New insight is needed on the interplay between risk, uncertainty and sustainable innovation.  Methods of moving risk-based decision-making upstream in the innovation cycle need to be explored.  And greater understanding of is needed on enabling collaborative decisions within an increasingly interconnected society in the face of uncertainty.

These are the challenges explored in the 2011 Symposium on Risk, Uncertainty and Sustainable Innovation. Drawing on thought-leaders in industry, government, academia, the media and other sectors, the symposium will provide a unique opportunity to explore new ideas on sustainable innovation in the face of growing global challenges, emergent risks to human health, and increasing uncertainty over the potential benefits and consequences of technology innovation.

1 Ruth Seeley November 21, 2010 at 1:18 pm

I think it’s almost perfect. I would, however, be hard-pressed to explain what an ‘integrative approaches to health risks are’ (you know how alarmingly literal-minded I can be at times, and how fond I am of a using a concrete example so folks will ‘get it’). This copy seems perfect to me for potential speakers and SOME potential sponsors and audience members; if you can tweak the bit I struggled with I think you can expand to reach all the folks you want to reach.

2 Andrew Maynard November 21, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Thanks Ruth – thumbs up from you means a lot! The “integrative” bit is difficult – it’s the “in” phrase for joined-up thinking on risk (another bit of jargon I suspect), but I’m coming across more and more people who say “what the heck does that mean!”

3 Kevin Eddy November 21, 2010 at 1:52 pm

I fall into the “unqualified” camp certainly, but I liked it. You briefly mention industry and the involvement of industry is implied throughout I think, but you don’t mention profit as a driver of innovation or technology, or the impact of profit drivers on legislation or risk. Will the effects of profit motives on technology be a topic of this symposium?

4 Andrew Maynard November 21, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Great point – I think that this is something that we will draw out in the meeting, as corporations are unceasingly beginning to appreciate that long-term profitability depends on sustainable development and decisions. But I wonder whether I need to pull this out more in the blurb…

5 Gaythia November 21, 2010 at 1:56 pm

This sounds like it will be a very interesting and worthwhile symposium!

Might I suggest that this piece could use something regarding the risks and uncertainties of doing nothing? Or of extrapolating current trends in the “wrong” direction? After all, risk and uncertainty is not all tied to advances in technology. Certainly in terms of a sustainable future, trying to maintain the status quo might be one of the more risky and hazardous paths we could take.

On a structural level, isn’t there a split in expected expertise and perspectives between the potential speakers, sponsors and the attendees? Do you need separate statements as to why this different groups should want to participate and what they could be expected to get out of their participation? Or something in this statement as to how these groups would collaborate, deliberate or otherwise constructively interact?

As a minor quibble: I think of nowhere as one word, and this spell checker seems to agree. Also, this phrase needs work: “And greater understanding of is needed “. Maybe also the last part, “in the face of uncertainty” could be separated out. When proofreading, I nearly always advise short, direct sentences. By that criteria, your concluding sentence could be chopped into several sentences.

I agree with Ruth that it will be hard to reach all you might want to reach. I happen to have been working on a proposal for deliberations on a local water issue. Hard to do! In a world where people get led into narrow ideological boxes, (reject Obamacare!) it is difficult to figure out how to encourage truly collaborative discussion and decision-making processes.

6 Andrew Maynard November 21, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Thanks Gaythia – extremely helpful. The suggestion of being more explicit about what different groups might get out of this is particulary helpful – as is the reminder to avoid long-winded sentences.

Interesting – one of the points I made in a lecture this past week was that in understanding risk in terms of cause and effect, inaction is a cause just as much as action is!

7 Hilary Sutcliffe November 21, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Looking good, but still too many words and lists of words and words which block the flow and power of the sentence. Will send an email!! Sorry to be negative!

8 Andrew Maynard November 21, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Absolutely no need to apologize – this is about making the blurb better, not about making me feel good! The big challenge I have been grappling with is introducing substance and specificity that goes beyond the fluff – and I haven’t worked out how to do that without using lots of words (yet!).

9 Neil November 21, 2010 at 4:17 pm

As a few people seem to have picked up integration is a key word. The 20th century has mainly been one of a reductionist approach to science – I believe that advances in the 21st will predominantly be integrative in nature. This won’t simply be in terms of, for example, systems biology but a much more holistic view integrating anthropology, sociology and psychology along with the hard sciences. The impact of a scientific or technological advance is as much, if not more, influenced by the acceptance of that idea by societies rather than the pure technological potential of that advance. Unfortunately the technologically minded – scientists, engineers and geeks in general – are currently probably the worst placed individuals to be able to calculate the impact of an advance in society. Given that geeks are pre-disposed towards technology they frequently find it difficult to understand the true impact on the majority of society. Without joined up thinking covering science, technology, social acceptance, beliefs and social mores then calculating the impact of inovation on society and the true risks involved. While this could theoretically be done by puting a scientist, engineer and antropologies in a room and not letting them out till they reach a state of “joined up-ness” this sort of apprach has never been terribly effective in my experince. Throwing disparate researchers together doesn’t neccesarily lead to integrated thinking as individual frames of reference are frequently too far apart. What is really required is a generalist who knows enough about each field and their interactions to act as an “integration node” to gain a more accurate assessment of wide scale risk and potential. That’s my 2 cents worth and beliefs anyway!

10 Andrew Maynard November 21, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Actually, that’s great feedback Neil – thanks. You’ll be pleased to hear that well intentionally be mixing things up in the symposium, bringing scientists and engineers together with social scientists, policy experts, journalists and people fro. A whole host of other areas of expertise.

11 hilary Sutcliffe November 22, 2010 at 3:24 am

That’s a very good point Neil. This is what we are wrestling with too. But what will do it? In the UK we are doing lots of public dialogue, trying to involve the small number of ngos who have an interest and having lots of meetings of different stakeholders, but this may or may not add up to much. Interested to know if you have further practical ideas.

12 Neil November 22, 2010 at 9:49 am

This is a subject I could write a very long (and probably to many people very dull!) thesis on. In the interest of not derailing this page do you want to DM me on twitter (@edn1970) and I’ll contact you from there?

13 deevybee November 21, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Content of meeting sounds excellent, but I thought blurb too long and jargony.
I liked para 5 (starting Technology Innovation) best and thought you could put this up-front instead of current intro para. Seems more direct and straightforward, and a bad idea to start with a long subordinate clause.
I didn’t like ‘thought-leaders’ and I’d get rid of some of the adjectives and abstract phrases that make it sound rather waffly.
Do you really need ‘over the past century’ (and typo in that sentence; than-> that)
Does the shift need to be ‘radical’
“Urgently need” -> need
“Unique opportunity” -> opportunity
“Methods of moving risk-based decision-making upstream in the innovation cycle need to be explored.” -> “Innovators need to consider risk earlier in development of products” (or whatever – just better to have an active and less abstract sentence).
Overall, it would be worth running the text through the exercises suggested by Joseph Williams in his book “Style: Towards Clarity and Grace”. It’s a masterly book that I go back to repeatedly; it allows you to see when the language is getting ponderous.
Sorry to be so picky, but this is just immediate impression of one who doesn’t know about the field, but thinks the current blurb makes a potentially interesting conference look rather dull.

14 Andrew Maynard November 21, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Thanks – not need to apologize for being picky as this is exactly what I was hoping for. Must dig Williams’ book out.

15 gail November 22, 2010 at 9:30 am

I am a total novice in this area, although I have been a member of the Foresight Institute for years and kept up a little with nanotechnology and other technology advancements. I have only one problem with risks and that is “What kind of organization stands behind the risk?” Today, so many companies have become corrupt and I just can’t find my way to trusting what they say. GMOs may be a good alternative but as long as Monsanto and other like companies offer the product I will resist it mightily. It is not a good risk.

I think it would be great if your conference can include this kind of exploration. What causes the risk? Many different factors… one of which is too many corrupt global corporation.

16 Andrew Maynard November 24, 2010 at 7:45 am

Thanks Gail. This is an enormous issue, and one that cannot be ignored or papered over. I suspect the way forward is to acknowledge the reality of the “profit motive”, but to find ways of developing equitable and sustainable solutions to issues within this framework. Laudable philosophies that bullishly go against the grain of human nature never seem to be particularly sustainable.

17 Dirk November 22, 2010 at 6:51 pm

Hello Professor Andrew Maynard,

I`am a student of mechatronics in germany. I will`ve to give a speech in our english-lesson about the topic “Innovations for the developing world”, that`s the reason, why I got also to this e-site.
I think, that the most chalenge for nanotechnologie is to insure, that also the particled dust of these constructed materials has it`s difficulties to break-through the biological cell wall and that enough research is done to that.
Confrontated with my topic, I learned that any single developing country has its very different chalenges.
Only with exact tailored solutions, sustainability can be reached there. That`s the reason, why those countries remain incessantly in their own speed of development, because we are not listening, we want to to earn some money.
Things which I think have much capability to better are at first, the low-tec-innovations like the “AquaPro Holland Groasis Waterboxx” or the “Rolling Water Container” both would be useful to replant any dessert from out the mangrove woods of the coast. Insofar, there is not to much Bisphenol-A used in the plastic (for me, that`s the nano-aspect).
A good thing to listen what is needed, is the local traditional knowledge, because from up there, an innovation can easilier be communicated to the inhabitants (not consumers, cause the cause is not to earn money but to produce sustainability). Therfor, to get these Information a UN-project has been started which is called “Traditional Knowledge World Bank”. see here – http://www.tkwb.org/web/?page_id=4&language=it.
Whereupon we have to be aware of the fact, that the UN, also does things like forcing the mass-swinflue-vaccancies (early this year) or the Carbon-oxid manifestationes, while we know, that also the sun-activity and the worlds`cycling position in our galaxie (see researches of Henrik Svensmark) have very large effects on our climate, which not to appreciate is unacceptable.
Hope, my english was good enough to may explin you my thougts about sustainabiltiy and the risks about it. I hope your symposium is able to start some of the needed and long epected large-scale changes for human population.

with best regards
Dirk

18 dirk_schwachtje@yahoo.de November 24, 2010 at 7:09 am

Sorry, but I thought I get a reply?

19 Andrew Maynard November 24, 2010 at 7:42 am

Apologies Dirk – my “day job” got in the way! I think you hit on two important points – that sustainability is about a lot of factors coming together, not just using new technologies effectively, and that technology-based solutions to issues demand a broader perspective than nanotechnology alone provides (and in some cases, demand innovative ways of using existing technologies/resources). Either way, there are consequences to actions that are taken – and as the relationship between cause and effect becomes increasingly complex and non-linear in today’s world, we need new approaches to ensuring the “effects” are beneficial. And that’s where new thinking on risk and uncertainty is essential.

20 Lynette Jandl November 28, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Ordinary citizen here. I can never understand why corporations aren’t more concerned about the potential risks that they may eventually have to spend money on- like for clean up, wrongful mass death settlements or whatever. Do they have a way to learn about these kinds of things- the humongous harms that could possibly happen? Or do they have a way, legally or somehow, to get out of it? Or are they just not dealing with it? I can imagine that the executives who are responsible for managing risks might also be responsible for profits and aren’t able to slow down profits by using caution when nobody anywhere in the world so far has experienced some of the risks expected by the experts and scientists I’ve heard from and read. At this point it would cost corporations a lot to be more careful without any clear compelling reason to spend more time on caution. They are probably going to have to keep focused on profits until something horrendous happens so their stock holders then won’t get miffed by the costs to prevent disaster. Will these corporate executives be part of the symposium? Would you please try to explain to them that there are so many people out here who want no harm to come to us or to our loved ones and we wish they would think harder about what could happen to us.

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