Larry Brilliant: Enabling sustainable humanity through getting serious about risk

Cross-posted from the Risk Science Blog


I’ve occasionally been accused of thinking big when it comes to Risk Science. So I was rather chuffed to hear former Executive Director of Larry Brilliant out-big me on every point as he delivered the 10th Peter M. Wege lecture here at the University of Michigan a couple of weeks ago.

Larry was talking about sustainable humanity, and the need to actively work toward a global society that overcomes problems (some old, some emerging) and continues to get better. But threaded through the lecture was the theme of risk, and the urgent need we face to become more educated and informed on the risks that humanity faces, and how together we can overcome them.

Many of the themes that emerged are near and dear to my heart, and are reflected in the Risk Science Center’s vision – enabling evidence-based and socially-responsive action on human health risks in a rapidly changing world. In fact, the lecture and Larry’s following answers to questions were so relevant to the Center that I felt like saying – next time someone asked what we were about – to simply say “what he said!”

Much of this was encapsulated in the following response to a question from Larry following the lecture:

We need a whole new generation of leaders, leaders who are cross-trained in governance, who understand risk literacy, who can communicate complex problems in simple ways, who truly believe in democracy, and who are willing to engage with their constituents in a way that ups the conversation. So people know what the hell they’re voting for. And what the consequences and the risks that they’re taking on. We’ve reached the stage where the public is being used as if it were the ultimate re-insurer. What happens when a nuclear power plant us built on an earthquake fault and things go bad? It’s paid for by the tax payers in ways that we haven’t contemplated. Who has done the risk cost benefit analysis of continuing to use fossil fuels? So these are not things that we normally train students with. It’s a shame but I think that the three “r’s” of reading, writing and arithmetic must have a fourth “r” added: risk; as we understand the ever-more risky world that we have inherited and the complex interrelated-ness of the factors that lead to it.

Of course, enabling sustainable humanity is about far more than risk. But, as Larry so eloquently indicated, we neglect developing a deep and sophisticated understanding of risk and how we should be responding to it at our peril.

The transcript of Larry Brilliant’s lecture can be read here, and the lecture and Q&A session can be listened to below:

[Track 1: Introductions. Track 2: lecture. Track 3: Q&A]

Dr. Larry Brilliant is Dr. Larry Brilliant is president of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, and a University of Michigan School of Public health alumnus.

The videos of the lecture and the following question and answer session can be watched here.

2 thoughts on “Larry Brilliant: Enabling sustainable humanity through getting serious about risk”

  1. I just saw Larry also this week at the Skoll World Forum for Social Entrepreneurs (and there’s me thinking I was just someone drivelling on in the arcane land of emerging tech, and I find I am in fact a social entrepreneur, excellent!). The event was for those who are implementing innovative, sometimes revolutionary solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems. Immensely inspiring and motivating, everyone I met, from many countries, in many fields, had an astonishing story of their work to tell.

    I went to think and learn about the appropriate role of emerging technologies in our future world. Obviously Larry’s 4 r’s are unarguable, though actually I would put the 4th R as Responsibility. Risk to me, denotes understanding only, Responsibility denotes understanding and doing something about it.

    Hey, though this is gross self puffery, if the leaders of tomorrow are – ‘cross-trained in governance, understand risk literacy, who can communicate complex problems in simple ways, who truly believe in democracy, and who are willing to engage with their constituents in a way that ups the conversation’ – maybe someone will fund MATTER one day, cos that’s exactly the experience I have (12 years in governance, 25 years in comms, 15 years in multi-stakeholder collaboration). We would be spot on if I understood what ‘risk literacy’ actually meant! But then I find most of the people who talk about it don’t either, so will carry on reading Andrew’s blog to find out!

    1. I’m expecting to see the new business cards when we meet: “Hilary Sutcliffe – Social Entrepreneur”!

      Of course, R for Responsibility makes a lot of sense, but as Director of a Risk Science Center how could I resist Larry’s R for Risk! That said, I also think that this makes a lot of sense, but needs a lot more unpacking before that sense is clear.

      Keep pushing with MATTER! (

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