5.2 Managing Uncertainty and Ignorance

Course subject(s) 5. Understanding and Identifying Risk

This section is about dealing with the uncertain future, given the many (unknown) unknowns. We will show the implications and responsible ways to deal with them. The following 3 lectures will discuss the following points:

  • We start with introducing the¬†Precautionary Principle, using climate change as a running example.
  • Then we discuss some other ways to deal with an uncertain future, such as pilot experiments and monitoring. For this, our case-study will be te use of nanoparticles in sunscreens.
  • As a bonus, we will have an informative primer to the causes and consequences of climate change. Spread the word ūüôā

Lecture 1: Risk, Uncertainty and Ignorance in Technological Design

The next web lecture by Prof. Rafaela Hillerbrand is about risk, uncertainty and ignorance in technology and how they can be dealt with. What are the possible side-effects of new or existing technologies? We will be using the example of climate change to elaborate on this.

A key notion which we introduce in this web lecture is the Precautionary Principle: simply put, it states if there is a potential for harm from an activity, and if there is uncertainty about the magnitude of impacts, then anticipatory action should be taken to avoid harm, even if we do not know how likely a negative impact is and how severe this could be.

Note:¬†In this lecture, the ‘Bayesian approach’ is mentioned in passing. We will discuss this approach in detail in the¬†next set of lectures.

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Lecture 2: Dealing with an uncertain future

In 1943, Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM said “I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers”. Of course, the computers of his time were large mainframe computers like the ENIAC in the picture below. He could not have possibly known that there would be personal computers (PCs), laptops, tablets, smartphones etc., or that development would require everyone to have access to at least one computer, if not multiple.

The above quote shows that it is impossible to predict the future. You can probably think of quite some examples yourself! We are dealing here with what are called ‘unknown unknowns‘. These unknowns have many implications for responsible innovation. For example, how can we deal with risks that we do not even know about? This is the focus of the next web lecture by Prof. Ibo. He will discuss the following points.

  • The ‘Collingridge dilemma’ which states that in the early phases of technological development, technology can still be changed, but the effects of technology are hard to predict. In the later phases, we see the opposite. The effects are clear but technology has become so embedded in society that it is hard to change.
    Or as Collingridge himself so eloquently put it: “When change is easy, the need for it cannot be foreseen; when the need for change is apparent, change has become expensive, difficult and time consuming.”
  • Anticipating the future using the Risks approach and the Precautionary Principle.
    (see also the previous web lecture)
  • The need for an experimental approach to deal with uncertainty.
  • A case-study on how titanium dioxide nanoparticles used in sunscreens had the unexpected side-effect of causing cancer.

Important definitions

  • Risk assessment:
    Determine risks of a new technology and then decide whether these risks are acceptable. Risk is mathematically defined as the product of likelihood of a certain outcome and severity of consequences from that outcome.

However, the problem is that we often cannot easily calculate the probability of certain outcomes occurring, resulting in uncertainty. Furthermore, we may not even know all possible consequences. This is called ignorance.

  • Precautionary Principle:
    When an activity raises threats to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken, even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

 

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Bonus: Climate change explained

Interested in the physical aspects of climate change? This will be explained in the following web lecture. This material is cross-posted from the TU Delft MOOC on Water & Climate, presented at edX.

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Creative Commons License
Responsible Innovation by TU Delft OpenCourseWare is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://ocw.tudelft.nl/courses/responsible-innovation/.
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