Risk, vulnerability, and resilience

Risk, vulnerability, resilience: what’s in a name?

The predominant approach to risks can be characterized as ‘technoscientific’. This primarily quantitative and predictive approach is geared towards expert assessments of risks, which are considered to be the only assessments that are systematic, thorough, and objective. However, producing such assessments of risks can be a rather problematic endeavor, since many risks turn out to be less tractable than commonly acknowledged. The two main aspects of technoscientific risk calculations – the likelihood of a problem occurring and the consequences of its occurrence – often defy exact or exhaustive specification. In some cases, neither the likelihood nor the consequences of risks are understood fully or known at all, a problem commonly identified as ‘uncertainty’.

Such uncertainties can be addressed by means of a more complete and interdisciplinary view of risks. Take for instance the notion of vulnerability, which is related to the notion of risk, but indicates a slightly different approach. Vulnerability can be defined as the state of being at risk, and describes the ability of individuals, technological artifacts, communities or sociotechnical systems to cope with various kinds of internal and external disturbances. Studies of vulnerability reveal technological and organizational elements of critical events that may not immediately or easily reveal themselves. Making such elements explicit requires more work on how technologies and related practices give rise to vulnerabilities. By studying technologically mediated practices as cultural practices, the interests of various social groups that are involved, as well as relevant organizational and societal components of such practices are made visible.

Such diligent studies of vulnerabilities and their causes can make individuals, organizations, and society more ‘resilient’, by which I mean the ability of individuals, organizations, and sociotechnical systems to recover from disruptions. Resilience is not necessarily a beneficial property if it signifies the capacity of such systems to return to an original state, especially this state was the source of vulnerability in the first place. For this reason, resilience would be a more beneficial property if understood as ‘adaptive capacity’, which refers to the ability of individuals, organizations, and systems to adapt to (a range of) contingencies, and thereby improve their ability to withstand perturbations.

Whether adaptive capacity is cultivated depends partly on the ability of those involved to exchange valuable knowledge. Such ‘interfaces’ between social groups are of crucial importance. One type of such interfaces I’ve studied in more detail is the so-called ‘science-policy interface’.

Science-policy interfacing

In the paradigm of ‘speaking truth to power’, scientists are expected to provide ‘objective’ knowledge to policymakers, who can subsequently implement this knowledge in processes of policymaking and decision-making. Most risks entail a degree of complexity and uncertainty (e.g. global warming), which does not always bode well for approaches to risk that rely on quantitative methods exclusively. Although there is greater attention for the uncertainties concomitant with scientific theories and instruments, as well as a greater appreciation of blind spots in knowledge, producing more knowledge about risks does not automatically lead to better forms of risk management. What is more, scientists, decision makers, policy makers often do not share the same approach to risk, uncertainty, and ignorance. In my work, I have studied ways to improve the interface between science and policy in order to deal with risk, uncertainty, and ignorance.

Today, governments are confronted with ‘wicked problems’ of insurmountable social complexity due to the various ideas and sentiments about a particular issue. Climate is such a highly debated and contested geopolitical issue, where scientists are but one type of voice amidst a turbulent environment fraught with power relations and interests. More and more approaches to climate governance stress the need to involve various social groups. This requires asking what interfaces between science and society contribute to dealing with risks in a participatory and transparent way, how social groups can become more involved in countering the effects of global warming and building a more resilient society, and what technologies (e.g. simulations, data visualization, and information graphics) can contribute to participatory forms governance.

Relevant publications

  • Kouw, Matthijs, and Arthur Petersen. 2018. “Diplomacy in Action: Latourian Politics and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” Science & Technology Studies 31 (1): 52-68. [Download]
  • Munnichs, Geert, Matthijs Kouw, and Linda Kool. 2017. “A Never-Ending Race: On Cyberthreats and Strengthening Resilience.” The Hague: Rathenau Insituut. [Download]
  • Munnichs, Geert, Matthijs Kouw, and Linda Kool. 2017. “Een nooit gelopen race: Over cyberdreigingen en versterking van weerbaarheid.” The Hague: Rathenau Insituut. [Download]
  • Kouw, Matthijs. 2014. “Designing Communication: Politics and Practices of Participatory Water Quality Governance.” International Journal of Water Governance 2 (4): 37–52. [Download]
  • Kouw, Matthijs, Andrea Scharnhorst, and Charles van den Heuvel. 2013. “Exploring Uncertainty. Classifications, Simulations and Models of the World.” In Virtual Knowledge: Experimenting in the Humanities and the Social Sciences, edited by Paul Wouters, Anne Beaulieu, Andrea Scharnhorst, and Sally Wyatt, 89–125. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [Download]
  • Moody, Rebecca, Matthijs Kouw, and Victor Bekkers. 2013. “Virtually Visual. The Visual Rhetoric of GIS in Policy Making.” In Virtual Knowledge: Experimenting in the Humanities and the Social Sciences, edited by Paul Wouters, Anne Beaulieu, Andrea Scharnhorst, and Sally Wyatt, 127–49. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [Download]
  • Kouw, Matthijs. 2012. Pragmatic Constructions: Simulation and the Vulnerability of Technological Cultures. Den Bosch: Uitgeverij BOXPress. PhD Thesis. [Download]