Policy Operation Room exercises (POR) are preparedness simulations meant to develop the skills to deal with wicked problems. They are the main tools in bringing the research of WISE project to bear on everyday reality of decision-making. However, in developing these tools further, we have begun to understand that we are navigating in the uncertain and foggy territory of fiction, probability and plausibility. When dealing with decision-making in multifarious wicked and contested situations, reality itself is multiplied, as perceptions of it of necessarily are. PORs become essentially a form of learning through fiction.
The devil is in the detail, so they say. Interestingly, this adage also seems to apply when designing new and innovative preparedness exercises. Let us explain how this insight is connected to a historical turn in thinking about what is real.
In an intriguing article from 2015, Elena Esposito claims that since the time of the Baroque, the Western world has been living under conditions of a “double reality doubling” (Esposito, 2015). During those times, Western society shifted from understanding society and the cosmos as a compact unit that could be taken for granted to an era of inescapable uncertainty. Gone was the idea that the world is made of concretely definable “objects” of which humans had only imperfect knowledge.
This idea was replaced by a sense of living in an inescapably uncontrollable world of individual observers, who constantly observe those everchanging objects (and other observers) in always uncertain ways (2015). As a result, Esposito claims, reality itself was multiplied. The central epistemic task was no longer simply to differentiate “the real” from “the unreal” (to reach universal truth), but also and above all “to distinguish several forms of reality, all real in their own way but different from each other” (2015).
This reality multiplication, however, was itself double. One of the forms of reality doubling was fiction, with its new claims of “realism” and “plausibility.” Another was statistics, understood as a calculus of reasonableness and probability, “designed to enable non-arbitrary decision-making when one does not have sufficient information” (2015).The latter, however, was as fictive as fiction itself, since, as Esposito says, statistics “does not work with the real world (which turns out to be uncertain and unreliable), but with models that overlap the intransparent world to offer an orientation in a world dominated by uncertainty” (2015).
Thus, ever since the times of the Baroque, we have been living in a situation where “reality” becomes the result of the combined contribution of the double fictive components (fiction as we know it in the form of the plausibilistic novel and probabilistic statistics) and “reality as such” (the world as we observe it). The main task then of reality navigation today, says Esposito, is to explicitly interweave the two approaches:
“Interweaving ‘the imaginative and probabilistic, the novel and historical’, this approach successfully uses both fiction and statistics to ‘govern by uncertainty’. It does not reject formalization, but uses it to learn, not to predict—to get prepared for surprises, not for precise events” (2015).
Little did we know when starting up the WISE project that this historical rift between probability and plausibility would also be deeply felt in our work with devising new kinds of preparedness simulations or Policy Operation Room (POR) exercises. Or indeed, that we would perform more or less the same kind of double reality doubling that Esposito is describing when analyzing century-long development paths!
A Fork in the Road
What then more specifically is a POR? A POR can be understood as a situation room for interactive decision making among policymakers, managers and experts about wicked socio-ecological disruptions, that is, disruptions characterized by urgency, path dependence, complexity, uncertainty, value conflicts, indeterminate solutions, and high demands for expertise. In a POR exercise, participants mimic the way they would make decisions in a real-life disruption. That our first formulation of the POR occurred against a backdrop of near-total unawareness of the plausibility-probability divide is visible in the first formulations of the POR concept with its embedded “risk scenarios,” where we said that:
“1) wicked socio-environmental decision challenges can be developed in a credible format for stakeholders only by integrating the domain-specific risk scenarios in innovative and unexpected ways;” and that
“2) the evaluation of decision processes and outcomes from multiple perspectives is only possible by integrating the quantitative probabilistic knowledge of Bayesian networks with qualitative heuristic knowledge of narrative scenarios.”
As it turned out, however, this seemingly minor and technical task of “integrating the quantitative probabilistic knowledge of Bayesian networks with a qualitative heuristic knowledge of narrative scenarios” turned out to be one of the main intellectual challenges of the whole consortium in developing the new policy mechanism for urgent path-dependent decision making. After many discussions about whether and how it would be possible to integrate those two perspectives into the PORs, the decision was made to split the whole POR concept into two main categories: 1) those based more on risk and probability assessments (so-called Bayes-PORs), and 2) those more based on narrative and plausibility assessments in acute crises (so-called Crisis-PORs). In the middle, a 3) hybrid variant was devised (so-called Path-PORs).
Interestingly, from the point of view of Esposito’s (2015) analysis, what happened here was a perfect mirror image of the path broader historical developments have taken. First, we lived under the assumption that we could create a row of identical PORs based on single “real objects” (here, activities pertaining to increasing adaptation and resilience in the face of inescapable socio-ecological disruptions). Then, we developed insight into the different ways in which this “real reality” consists of “everchanging objects (and other observers) as constantly observed by individual observers in always uncertain ways” (that is, the first reality doubling), an insight which led straight onwards to a distinction between different kinds of PORs based on either probabilistic or plausibilistic reasoning (that is, the double reality doubling).
And as if this was not enough, before closing mid-term, the WISE project also performed not one, but two Esposito-like meta-analyses of how the perspectives of probability and plausibility could perhaps after all be theoretically related to each other via the connecting notion of scenarios (Pihlajamäki et al., 2020; Janasik, in press). However, these analyses did not influence the design of the PORs as basically tripartite.
Learning through Fiction
What then are the implications of both the original “double reality doubling” and WISE’s current work with the tripartite PORs for preparedness research and policy? This is an empirical question, both in terms of what will emerge from our forthcoming analyses of the enacted PORs and in terms of how the WISE researchers went and are still going about addressing the deep tension within the project at the meta-level.
Here we would only like to make a modest theoretical proposition about the function of the WISE POR typology of Bayes-PORs, Crisis-PORs, and Path-PORs in the light of what recent cognitive science tells us about the evolutionary value of reading fiction in the first place. According to cognitive literary analyst Karin Kukkonen, the function of fiction is to “extend the learning process about the real world by presenting the mind with as many alternative scenarios as possible to recalibrate and specify our probabilistic understanding of the real world” (Kukkonen, 2014; see also Kukkonen, 2020). This implies that the more fiction you read, the better you are off in terms of how to respond to an ever-changing “real” world from the point of view of both adaptation and resilience.
Now, in the context of WISE preparedness exercises, we naturally do not have the abundant resources provided by either the whole of plausibilistic environmental fiction or of probabilistic environmental modeling. What we have is a tripartite typology of ways to design preparedness exercises addressing specifically the topic of how to integrate the long term into the short-term. But in its own distinct domain, we suggest, this typology, and the intriguing story behind it, functions as a contextualized and historicized version of the argument that the multiplication of fictive stories of whatever kind can be in the service of adaptation and resilience.
At best, that is. Just like Esposito’s historical double reality doubling, also this “double reality doubling” can be seen as a way of interweaving, in the context of preparedness and anticipatory exercises specifically, the imaginative and probabilistic in an approach that successfully uses both fiction and statistics to “govern by uncertainty.”
And just like its original historical counterpart, this contextualized version does not “reject formalization, but uses it to learn, not to predict—to get prepared for surprises, not for precise events.” (Esposito, 2015).
 Many discussions even revolved around the question: can you really incorporate a true surprise or an “unknown unknown” into a probabilistic model?