In the 21st Century there can be little doubt that the challenges we face globally require the very best of science, technology and engineering innovation to address them. And the pace at which we need to address them will mean taking some risks and perhaps making some sacrifices too.
The demand to find solutions to the present and future challenges is clear. I personally think there has never been a more exciting and challenging time for any young person to consider becoming a scientist or an engineer. They will be required to innovate and find solutions to new and different challenges from those of the past – but it is also critical that they learn important lessons from the wonderful triumphs and dreadful disasters that have happened before. And it is fundamental that engineers and scientists of the future learn to communicate effectively – not just with one another – but with the whole of society about some of the risks and unknowns that accompany new technologies and innovations. And perhaps the most important skill of all will be learning to think increasingly in multiple dimensions – to find solutions to problems which do not then in turn create problems in other areas.
We need to recognise the hazards and risks that may lie ahead and use those all important innovative skills to find truly sustainable solutions. Risk management and innovation are symbiotic!
But communication and especially communication of risk is another important challenge in solving the problems of the present and the future. If scientists and engineers believe they can provide the solutions, it is also essential for them to communicate the practicalities of this with others. Despite all of the technological advances of many decades, scientists and engineers are still not trusted by large tranches of society. This is at least in part the result of our collective failure to communicate effectively. I’m not talking about simply telling people what we have invented or designed. Real communicators listen as well as talk, they understand what is concerning their stakeholders and respond to those concerns. If finding the solutions has never been more important, establishing public trust and confidence in innovation and science is not only important but imperative. Risk aversion increases with levels of affluence, so it follows that many of us are more risk averse than previous generations. But risk and responsibility go together. If we don’t explain that risk is part of all of our lives, all of the time and that there is a risk in doing nothing as well as a risk in taking action; we will not gain support for moving forward.
I believe we need to be clear that risk management and innovation are entirely compatible. Risk elimination and innovation is an oxymoron. We are all familiar with the precautionary principle. In its most generic sense we all utilise it all of the time in our daily lives – weighing up the risks of what we do or are about to do versus the benefits. But in its formal definition and subsequent application there seems to be little doubt that the precautionary principle can be a barrier to innovation.
But the basic facts are these:
Building public confidence will not come from telling people that “we know best”. What will help to deliver it is:
This guidance on Risk published today by the Engineering Council needs to be essential reading for all engineers. Young engineers need to learn and we more mature engineers; need to re-learn about risk and our role in risk communication.