I was proud to be a finalist (14 finalists out of 2702 entrants from 122 countries; https://globalchallenges.org/en/our-work/the-new-shape-prize/finalists) in the recent Global Challenges New Shape competition , which sought suggestions for new approaches to the governance of global threats. Below is a brief summary of my thinking, which I am now expanding into a series of major articles (links to come).

My approach was based on the premise that interconnection between global threats constitutes a particularly serious threat to humanity’s future well-being, and even survival.  Interconnection means that the threats form a complex adaptive network, with many, constantly changing, feedback loops. Such networks can collapse or change rapidly to a very different state through three mechanisms:

  1.  Unexpected consequences of small deliberate changes in some part of the network
  2. Rapid transmission and amplification of small unplanned fluctuations in some part of the network
  3. Unpredictable emergent behaviours of the network as a whole.

Some progress has been made in identifying warning signs for imminent critical events, but most human institutions are unable to respond effectively by the time that the warning signs become sufficiently obvious. This applies particularly to the United Nations, which has fifteen specialized agencies, none of which has a specific remit to address global catastrophic risks.

We need a new way of thinking; one that uses network science, forward planning and complexity thinking to avoid critical transitions where possible, but which also has the capacity to make and implement rapid decisions when critical transitions become inevitable. Those decisions concern resilience, and the balance between investment in recovery after an event, or investment in adaptation to the new circumstances.

What is complexity thinking?  It is more than the recognition that many factors may be involved in a complex problem. It is also recognizing that those factors may be linked in a complex network, with many feedback loops. Global warming, for example,is connected not only to loss of biodiversity, but is already affecting food security, with longer growing seasons meaning that pests can survive from one season to the next. On the other hand, our choice of food may also affect global warming, with the food system itself emitting about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions.

 As another example, phasing out the use of coal will affect jobs in coal-dependent economies, and also energy costs in the short term, with consequential social disruption, and perhaps changes of government.  This in turn can affect biodiversity, especially with just five countries – Russia, Canada, the United States, Australia and Brazil – holding 70% of the remaining wilderness.Loss of biodiversity can, in turn, affect climate change through changes in global vegetation patterns.

The World Economic Forum has mapped a network of twelve such interconnected global threats, and others should surely be added.This network is a complex adaptive network, where the strength and nature of the links and feedback loops is constantly changing and evolving. Such networks are liable to sudden, unpredictable changes (“critical transitions”) that can resemble the tantrums of an unruly child. To quote Andy Haldane, chief economist for the Bank of England:  “Complex systems exhibit tipping points, with small changes in parameter values capable of moving the system from stability to collapse … The radical uncertainty in such complex webs generates emergent behaviour which can be near-impossible to predict, model and estimate.”

The ponderous processes of most governments, and of institutions such as the United Nations, are not fit to deal with such threats. At best, they can prepare us for known risks. But interconnection adds a new dimension – one that the former U.S.Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously referred to as the “unknown unknown.” Rumsfeld was referring to weapons of mass destruction, but the biggest mass destruction of all, and the biggest unknown unknown, is that which may emerge from the complex interconnection of global threats.

I believe that insurance-based complexity thinking provides a possible solution. Insurance is concerned with defense against risk, and avoiding loss in the face of risk – just the sort of thinking that we need when faced with global catastrophic risk. This is not to suggest that traditional profit-oriented insurance companies should be involved – simply that the same style of thinking, with an awareness of and allowance for the properties and behaviours of complex adaptive networks, should now lie at the core of the governance structures responsible for our future safety and well-being in the face of global catastrophic risks.

Cartoon credit: Jacob Samuel

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