WISE aims to improve decision making in the context of wicked socio-environmental disruptions. Tackling such a complex task requires the diverse expertise and skills offered by an interdisciplinary team. However, interdisciplinarity brings with it a tendency toward miscommunication at the outset of a project, leading to frustration and inefficient work. As an interdisciplinary team ourselves, we at WISE have determined that differing conceptualizations of the concept of “risk” are a primary source of miscommunication within the group. Risk, already understood to be a difficult and divisive concept, occurs frequently during discussion of wicked socio-environmental problems, thereby prompting an investigation of the group members’ understandings of the concept. By explicitly identifying and discussing the different schools of thought regarding risk, we hope to improve within-group communication, hasten the process of building group cohesion, and improve our ability to leverage individual assets. We hope that by scrutinizing our own sources of miscommunication and addressing them, we can both improve our own interdisciplinary teamwork and provide an example for other teams to do the same, enabling us to more efficiently get to the important work of solving today’s most pressing issues.
Decision-making in the context of wicked socio-environmental problems demands interdisciplinary engagement. But why? Because wicked socio-environmental problems are by their very nature interdisciplinary. They are complex, tangled, interacting amalgamations of issues situated where the natural world, economics, politics, and society collide. To make this point clear, imagine if your nation were plunged into some ultimate worst-case scenario tomorrow, forced to juggle simultaneous crises. A wave of desperate refugees has arrived, a record-breaking winter storm hits, electricity outages ensue, a particularly vicious strain of influenza has landed in your capital city, and an oil spill disaster has taken place along your coast. Remember, these events do not occur in some isolated theoretical vacuum, they take place in a complicated global society, interacting with one another and sending ripples around the world.
It is absolutely plain, at least to me, that no one person or group would be sufficient to put out all those fires. Similarly, the painstaking work of foreseeing such calamities, preparing for them, building resilience, and developing adaptation strategies necessitates a wealth of expertise and skills. What would happen if ecologists, artists, engineers, economists, soldiers, or politicians were left alone to untangle these problems? I can imagine a spectrum of negative outcomes from, failing to get the job done, to leaving out critically important pieces of the puzzle, to outright chaos.
We, at the WISE project, are bound and determined to ensure Finnish decision-makers are prepared to deal with the wicked socio-environmental challenges ahead. Since we have made it our responsibility to grapple with these unwieldy problems, the masterminds behind the project gathered together what they knew they would need, a highly interdisciplinary team. If you ask us about our work, our backgrounds, and our interests you will get a level of diversity that would make Darwin’s finches blush.
Anyhow, with our team in place, it was time to get down to business. We enthusiastically plunged into the promising pool of interdisciplinary collaboration, as we tried to determine how to best use everyone’s expertise. But then, something happened. We started to smell the slightest whiff of tension in the air, some nagging underlying feeling that “I’m not sure what she is trying to say and I’m pretty darn sure she didn’t catch my drift either.”
So it is clear that dealing with wicked socio-environmental problems requires diversity, but as we discovered, this great melting pot of knowledge does not immediately result in effortless and productive task mastering. Interdisciplinarity brings with it, its own challenges. Chief among these is communication, which is undeniably important for the success of this type of teamwork. This is no great revelation. Many others have pointed out the challenges of interdisciplinarity and among these, communication issues are a dime a dozen.
Alright, so in our first year we were an interdisciplinary team trying to work through some communication challenges, difficult, but not particularly unique. The issues we were trying to communicate about though, now those were something special. We were trying to discuss amongst ourselves big complex challenges, taking place at a large scale, in multiple sectors, perhaps over very long time scales, and with a high degree of uncertainty. Often at the center of these discussions was the term “risk.” What is the risk of this? Of that? How do we mitigate the risk? How do we prepare for the risk? How do we manage the risk? How do we make sure decision makers are prepared to deal with the risk?
This combination, risk in the context of big complex challenges, is not something the human brain seems to be particularly good at. For context, think about why it is so difficult to talk about climate change and figure out what to do about it. Here we were, an interdisciplinary group, which we already know are susceptible to communication challenges, trying to communicate about something the human brain has a hard time computing. Not only that, but we need to devise a national level policy mechanism to help decision-makers deal with these difficult issues and how can we ever manage that, if our own team is not on the same page? Clearly, we have a big job to do.
With the funding clock ticking and plenty of work to get done, we decided the best course of action was to cut to the chase and root out the source of the communication conflicts surrounding risk. Why waste time mired in misunderstanding when we have bigger problems to solve? To determine the differences in the conceptualization of risk within our group, we interviewed each group member and analyzed texts they considered foundational to their understanding of the concept via topic modelling.
- Risk is a flexible term, with different meanings depending on the context and on the person using it.
- The quantification of risk is a particularly divisive issue. Some are certain it is possible to quantify risks in the context of wicked socio-environmental issues, others are less sure. Some believe it is necessary, others do not. Some have clear ideas about how to accomplish quantification tasks and some find other tasks more pressing. Some see negative moral ramifications in quantifying risk and others have no such qualms. The large-scale and complex nature of the problems WISE focuses on seems to exacerbate the differences in opinion and understanding about the quantification of risk.
- Interests related to risk are highly diverse. Some group members tend to focus on particular harmful events, others are interested in assessing risk either qualitatively, quantitatively, or both, some are interested in how the public responds to risk or crises, still others are interested in building societal resilience to risks, and the list goes on.
By explicitly identifying and discussing the different schools of thought regarding risk, we hope to improve within-group communication, hasten the process of building group cohesion, and improve our ability to leverage our individual assets. We hope that by scrutinizing the sources our own sources of miscommunication and addressing them, we can both improve our own interdisciplinary teamwork and provide an example for other teams to do the same, enabling us to more efficiently get to the important work of solving today’s most pressing issues.