Just When You Thought It Was Safe… Emergent Risks

Decades ago, the ‘Jaws’ film series struck a chord with its marketing slogan ‘Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water’. Risks are like sharks as well. You think you’ve disposed of one, only to find a new one circling you and your organisation, waiting for an opportunity to emerge and attack. The Institute of Risk Management has a research paper on offer dealing with emergent (or is that emerging?) risks – which it defines as those risks that have not yet happened, but that are expected to firm up and increase greatly in significance in the near future.

The IRM report doesn’t feature sharks as a risk, although it cites the sinking of the Titanic as a past example. The emergent risk, like the emergent iceberg for the Titanic, is by IRM definition poorly understood. It also lacks a track record by which probabilities of the risk happening and expected losses it might cause might otherwise be calculated. Trying to identify emergent risk is a tricky business too, apparently. It is often difficult to identify or anticipate, with no defined boundary with other types of risk.

That doesn’t stop other individuals or organisations from going out on an emergent-risk hunt. How they’ll fare is another matter. A recent Princeton University conference paper on emergent risk reminded participants that emergent risk is a by-product of a ‘massive causal loop of (global) feedback and adaptation’. It also compared emergent risk (not to be confused, say the authors, with emerging risk) and systemic risk: ‘If systemic risk is about how one bad apple can spoil the barrel, emergent risk is all about how being in the barrel may spoil the apples’. With all this going on, perhaps we’ll be safer in the sea anyway: shark repellent, anyone?