Key to coping with uncertainty: be flexible

Some of society’s biggest challenges — such as climate change, global health and terrorism — are also the hardest to overcome because of uncertainty about the future.

Steven Popper is an economist at the RAND Corporation. He uses computer simulations to search for strategies that are “robust,” meaning they’re effective under many different possible future scenarios. He says the most robust strategies are often what he calls “adaptive.”

Steven Popper: The way the game is usually played is that we pretend that we’re going to . . . come up with strategies or policies that are going to stand the test of time. We’re going to sit down at Kyoto and we’re going to figure out what everybody’s going to do for the next 50 years. In fact, we know that’s not going to happen.

Steven Popper suggests that world leaders work now to identify “safety valves” — world events happening in a certain way — to ensure that a policy that isn’t working is able to change. The key, says Popper, is to set the rules for change in advance.

Popper thinks world leaders might remain more flexible if they work in advance to identify specific “signposts.” A signpost might be a variety of things. In the area of climate change, for example, it might be that tight pollution restrictions begin to exceed agreed upon cost limits. At that point, leaders could fall back on rules, identified earlier to respond to that specific situation, if and when it occurs.

Steven Popper: What we’re saying here is to think beforehand about how to craft strategies knowing full well that you want to be adaptive and flexible.

Steven Popper bio.

A presentation from Steven Popper and Robert Lempert on Robust Forward Looking Indicators of Human Progress: An Example of New Tools for Long-Term Policy Analysis

Popper told Earth & Sky that when organizations face problems with a lot of uncertainty, they often get bogged down in trying to predict what the future will be like. He explained why that is dangerous: “What we tend to do is we rely more on the tried and true, formal, analytic, deductive mode, which is that somehow we have to come up with a prediction of what is going to be the most likely outcome and then based on that, we think, well what is the most optimal solution? And this is why we often find ourselves surprised and discovering that we’re not prepared for the future that actually does come about, as opposed to the one that we had expected, that we thought was most likely.”

Our thanks to: Steven Popper, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA

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