Societal Risk

Risk impacts the fundamental structures of society

As societies grow more fragmented yet interconnected, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine collectively what the most important risks are for societal wellbeing and how they should be managed.

We have identified several key issues central to understanding societal risk, namely:

  • As society becomes less trusting and more diverse, who and how to decide on suitable levels of risk?
  • Should the focus be on risk mitigation at individual, national or global level?
  • In an era of austerity, how to achieve less and better targeted risk regulation?
  • How to measure the cumulative impacts of risks that are individually insignificant?

Anticipating and understanding societal risk is critical for any organisation that needs to remain responsive to the vagaries of its customers, shareholders or stakeholders. There are difficult trade-offs to be made between societal participation and an expert-led form of governance, fairness and adaptability of risk regulation or between control and resilience.

An example of our work

Riskworld 2020

What beliefs might influence risk management? Who is entitled to shape trade-offs between competing goals? How will decision-making be driven?

Wilkinson A, Elahi S, Eidinow E (2003). Special issue: RiskWorld. Journal of Risk Research, 6(4-6): 289-579.

This project on the future of societal risk was undertaken by the Journal of Risk Research, together with King's Centre for Risk Management, Kings College London, Shell International Limited, the UK Health and Safety Executive, Electricité de France and the European Patent Office.

What is risk?

Since time immemorial, man has had to contend with 'risk'. Ancient man had to balance the benefits of hunting with the dangers of meeting the sabre–toothed tiger. Yet today, the meaning of risk has shifted – to most people, 'risk' is synonymous with 'danger' and there is an assumption that all risks can be identified – and then quantified and controlled. However, most people take refuge in what is already known, which all too often remains limited to familiar ideas based on past experience.

There are many expert methodologies that evaluate risk in order to minimise or avoid it. These often assume risk to be a precise, technical term, a static, objective quantity. The lay public tends to view risk as a more dynamic, mutable concept, inextricably linked to the context in which it is developed. Finding the balance between these two approaches has never been easy, and both experts and lay people have clear bias with regard to risk.

Risk is a multifaceted subject, spanning a wide range of disciplines. Its extraordinary breadth makes it interesting, yet poses unique problems for achieving coherency. The impact of these specific disciplinary and societal cultures on the perception and management of risk is profound. Different cultures generate their own perceptions of risk, which in turn, influence culture. These risk perceptions are likely to shape not only a society's predominant beliefs and knowledge, but also the way society is governed and regulated.

Driving forces changing the nature of risk

Our analysis identified four driving forces impacting upon society, and thereby affecting our perceptions of risk. These are:

  • Global interconnectivity
    i.e. the powerful forces of economic globalisation, market liberalisation and technological developments have linked regions, countries and societies together and created new interdependencies. Man–made flows of finance, people, ideas and other goods – and bads, such as terrorism – are interacting with environmental systems in a myriad of ways, creating unpredictable and long–term effects.
  • The atomisation of society
    i.e. the potential for individuals to modify their position in society – and greater alienation for those unable to meet the challenge. The combination of higher levels of education, democratic political systems, global mobility and information and communications technologies have all contributed to the ability of individuals to assume multiple and fluid identities regarding religion, community, interests, hobbies and lifestyle – even ethnicity and nationality. The result of this increasingly networked dynamic society has led to a decline in deference to authority, making it more difficult for governments to manage and serve the collective interest.
  • Ability to measure and monitor
    i.e. technological advances have led to increasingly comprehensive and precise measurement tools at every scale, offering greater and more detailed knowledge of the human environment than ever. The paradoxical result has been a growing awareness of the unknown elements of human understanding, in particular the complex dependencies between interconnected elements within a system.
  • Technology
    i.e. the pace of technological change is increasing exponentially, leading to rapid standardisation and global diffusion of untested technologies. The nature of some of these new technologies as well as their spread and speed of adoption is leading some to question their value, and raise the ethical dilemmas they pose to humankind and/or the environment.

A new risk environment

The nature of risk is changing. The unprecedented pace of change is redefining the risk landscape, increasing the number of actors involved in each process and multiplying global connections and interfaces between different systems. This complex environment has no precedent – it is dynamic with cause and effect often distant in time and space; and socially complex due to the diverse number of decision–makers, each with their own values, mental models and goals. Clearly, traditional risk–management tools are ill–equipped to deal with this complexity.

From this analysis three scenarios emerged, each with its own risk management strategy:

1. Expert Rules

The Expert Rules world is one where increasing global competition and rapid technological innovation emphasises the need for expert opinion and rules. Here, the greatest risk is not being in control, of losing scientific progress and its economic benefits, of moving beyond hard evidence to scientific uncertainty and so reducing momentum. The emphasis is on efficiency, control, speed and the role of expertise. The issue here is direct adaptation – the need to anticipate and respond to the immediate, visible effects and impacts of globalisation. However, this expert world of independent opinion and evidence is dependent on maintaining high levels of societal trust. Should the pendulum of trust swing from government towards civil society authority is likely to be challenged, so in order to avoid this, the emphasis is on shorter–term decision–making and litigation. The result is growing turbulence and volatility – and decisions made ever more quickly in order to minimise visible evidence of harm.

2. Common Sense

The Common Sense world is one where risk assessment and risk management are inextricably linked. The emphasis here is on control, efficiency, wider participation and legitimacy. The issue here is how to achieve social cohesion across an atomised society with low levels of collective trust, so the focus is on decisions that are perceived to be legitimate and acceptable rather than the speed with which decisions can be made. Risks cannot be analysed without understanding the context – which is provided by citizens' juries and risk councils. In recognition of the many different and often conflicting perspectives of risk the focus remains on establishing a common frame of reference – the new 'common sense' – which enables society to secure acceptable risk management.

3. Kaleidoscope

The world of Kaleidoscope takes learning and applies it within a defined context ensuring that diversity and adaptability are maintained in the face of growing complexity and turbulence. Here, the greatest risk is the risk of a unitary and inappropriate one–size–fits–all model or 'monoculture'. In recognition of the value of maintaining many different ways of perceiving and managing risks, and the dangers of uniform or imposed risk–management approaches, the emphasis is on a wide variety of localised context–specific solutions. The emphasis in this world is on resilience, legitimacy, wider participation and redundancy. There is an acknowledgement that risks are too dynamic and unpredictable to be controlled, and therefore the risk management focus is on the need to maintain diversity and navigate and adapt as necessary in the face of systemic change.


Risk impacts the very structure of society. It is everywhere, and has no respect for the artificial boundaries placed upon it—human institutions, geographical borders or even timeframes. Risk is dynamic, and static single point interventions that assess the risk and set out clear frameworks to manage it are unlikely to work.

Historically, societal risks were couched in terms of scientific certainty, probability and precision, but there is now a growing recognition of scientific uncertainty, social ambiguity and the emergent nature of risks. This dynamic change is due to the multiple interactions in and between natural and man–made systems, amplified or attenuated by accelerating technological innovation and global interconnectivity. Complex global risks cannot easily be defined or even predicted – let alone easily managed or centrally controlled. Society and its institutions will be forced to re–examine its tools and techniques in the light of this new unpredictable risk paradigm.

Moving to a more adaptive risk management approach raises some critical dilemmas. – Click to enlarge.

Moving to a more adaptive risk management approach raises some critical dilemmas. Should society acknowledge the need for resilience and redundancy, they will have to forgo their current emphasis on control and efficiency. The diagram above sets out the key trade–offs that have to be made, and each scenario has made different choices, depending on the focus of risk. These choices, described within each scenario, are very different, and their outcomes will reflect these decisions. How successful they will be at dealing with the new emerging paradigm of risk remains to be seen – there is no perfect solution.

If risk management is going to confront the growing complexity and dynamic nature of risk, the emphasis will have to be on adaptation and mitigation. However, this approach will only be successful if it takes into account the cultural context of risk, and addresses the behaviours and attitudes towards risk of the communities in question. An alternative is to attempt to contain risks, by ever closer micro management of individual risks, leading to greater public passivity – and great societal distrust when risk failures become evident and the inability of institutions to manage the risks manifest themselves.

One of the problems is the assumption that there are risks 'out there' – the legacy of a natural science background. The risks are 'in here' – they are a part of society and culture.

Professor Asa Boholm,
Center for Public Sector Studies, Gothenburg University, RiskWorld Interview