Responding to the Thunberg question

A key outcome of the WISE project is the Policy Operations Room (POR). It is a novel decision-making platform for testing and developing strategic decision-making capabilities during chronic crises. After five years and eight experiments, the basic design principles of a POR are ready.

When I explain the WISE project to journalists, I tell them that we are trying to find a research-based answer to the question Greta Thunberg keeps asking world leaders: “You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But […] if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil […] How dare you?”

Why indeed is it so difficult for decision-makers to act immediately on pressing environmental crises, even though they know procrastination only ensures a future of unprecedented catastrophes? The Thunberg question and our work focus on creeping crises. They are threats that mature under the radar of authorities over many lifetimes and then erupt as urgent crises. Climate warming and nature loss are good examples. To bridge the mismatch of diverging timescales of crises and policy, our work focuses on changes in decision-making procedures that could be implemented relatively quickly and easily. As important as they are, fundamental institutional changes are known to take a long time.

After a series of simulation exercises conducted since 2019 in WISE and its partner project LONGRISK, answers are beginning to shape up. We are proposing a novel decision-making platform, the Policy Operations Room (POR), as a tool with which to test and develop decision-making capabilities. The POR template is flexible enough to fit in a variety of contexts and levels of decision-making. The POR brings together decision-makers and experts across sectors in the same “operations room” to make strategic crisis management decisions with complex decadal consequences within a two-to-three-hour session. Some basic design principles can be identified.

How to design a fruitful POR

First, the POR should bring together policymakers and experts around the same roundtable to deliberate over policy choices. Although evidence-based decision-making is called for in policy circles, politicians often treat the in-house expertise of public administration as information sources that may be listened to on a need-to-know basis but not interacted with. Yet knowledge produced in isolation from policy processes and drawn upon only to clarify technical details differs significantly from knowledge obtained during in-depth deliberation between decision-makers and experts.

Second, the rules of engagement in a POR should promote equal authority and plural perspectives among the participating experts and policymakers. Just bringing them together is not enough, when the status quo assumes policymakers always have the final say and experts act merely as one-way sources of technical information. Designing competent policies to tackle the complex social and environmental crises we are now facing is impossible without extensive and meaningful incorporation of expertise from multiple fields.

Third, the agenda of a POR should be structured around alternative futures. They provoke the imagination of decision-makers. In doing so, they also facilitate critical introspection of entrenched ways of thinking. Scenario techniques have many uses in a POR, such as taking the participants to an imagined future with audio-visual dashboards, illustrating the implications of decisions taken during the exercise, and diagnosing how an organization’s strategic plans might fail to respond to disruption scenarios inferred from global climate and biodiversity reports. All of these are useful alternative ways of thinking about the future.

Fourth, the agenda should highlight alternative ways of framing decision problems. Multiple perspectives provide novel ways of sharpening the focus on the most important decision challenges. In POR experiments, for example, we have frequently observed that the strategy with which many decision-makers avoid difficult trade-offs between economic and environmental considerations is to assume that considerations beyond short-term economics are implausible and improbable to succeed. To avoid such cognitive lock-ins, the POR facilitator must ensure that diverse stakeholder and expert views are brought to the roundtable.

The final design principle may be the most challenging to fulfil. The POR agenda should encourage learning and discourage defensive heuristics. Decision research has found that managers in private and public organizations often opt for an inferior option whenever they think choosing the best one would endanger their position or harm their reputation. As the former president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker famously quipped, “we all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it”. In climate policy, a version of defensive heuristics is ideological climate denialism, which refers to social structures and processes that result in ineffective action despite ample knowledge on climate change.

The development of principles in praxis

The five design principles have emerged from an iteration between exploring literature relating to decision platforms and empirical POR exercises. We have organized eight PORs since 2019 with three Finnish cities: Helsinki, Tampere, and Kotka. It is useful to follow the evolution of observations from the first exercise in 2019 to the last ones in 2022, and how this evolution resulted in the design principles.

The first and second design principles (roundtable of policymakers and experts with equal authority) resulted from a switching between joint and separate exercises for the two groups. We first organized a roundtable exercise with city politicians and administrators, then a separate roundtable for administrators only, and finally went back to the joint roundtable exercise. The reason for the administrators-only POR was the observation that city experts need to be empowered before bringing them together with the top politicians. The normal procedure in cities seems to be that the experts express themselves only when asked by a politician.

The third and fourth design principles (alternative scenarios and problem frames) are the result of experimentation with different ways of presenting futures and problem frames. We began with a path-like script for the POR. Participants are given decision options with which to tackle urgent climate-induced energy and transportation management crises while taking into account the decadal consequences of the decisions. The participants are taken into imagined futures in 10-year steps and given decision options in each step. To enable a more nuanced consideration of alternative futures, we linked in later PORs the deliberations by the participants to actual strategic goals of the city. This forced them to critically review the viability of existing sectoral strategies in light of the plausible scenarios of chronic environmental crises that our research teams presented them.

To tackle the challenge of defensive heuristics, the sequence of PORs we have organized has highlighted the importance of defamiliarizing. Although the participants are politicians, administrators, and experts with formal positions in the city, it is advisable to de-emphasize their formal institutional positions and instead point out their unique capabilities as knowledgeable shapers of the future. In addition, the venue and setting should not remind the participants of situations in which city decisions are ordinarily made.

Most importantly, we have tried to diminish defensive heuristics by addressing the patterns of thought that underlie it. The participants sense a contradiction between the strategic goals of their own organization and the risks they perceive to lie ahead. This contradiction results in cognitive dissonance between the actions the participants think they should take and the risks they believe to be endangering such actions. We have tried to amplify the participants’ cognitive dissonance so that they would reduce it by modifying the strategic goals to better match the risks. The tool for playing with the dissonance has been an audio-visual dashboard with brief narrated videos and animations.

In the first POR, we magnified the dissonance by displaying facts about the dire future consequences of climate-induced crises. This, however, only resulted in the participants modifying their risk perception rather than the strategic plans. In other words, they felt the risks were exaggerated and that the strategies were more or less OK to face future challenges.

In subsequent PORs, we went emotional. On one hand, we tried to reduce the participants’ trust in the strategies by analyzing the city’s sectoral strategies and showing how poorly they addressed the coming crises. On the other hand, we tried to amplify the participants’ perception of future risks by showing them mock-up climate newsreels and animations of chronic storms, floods, and fires in the future. Initial results of this two-tack approach are promising. The participants have been visibly and verbally moved by the dashboard and have addressed the strategic threats with alternative solutions.

Have we found an answer to the Thunberg question? We have not found the answer but rather pointers to several plausible answers. The five design principles for a strategic crisis decision platform indicate why it may be so difficult for decision-makers to act immediately on pressing environmental crises, even though they know the catastrophic consequences delayed action. But the principles also indicate that something can be done immediately and with relative ease to remedy the situation.