Can humanity manage the consequences of its ingenuity – Daniel Sarewitz

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

As society and technology develops, how can we manage the resulting complications and complex problems? Are we encountering problems that are too hard to solve?

This is an issue that Professor Daniel Sarewitz spoke about at a recent presentation at the Australian National University titled ‘Can humanity manage the consequences of its ingenuity? Technological complexity and the limits of understanding’.

Professor Sarewitz’s talk covered:

    • That humans are inherently technological and innovative beings. Our technology can create as well as solve problems which means we can simultaneously be very good at solving certain types of problems and yet have difficulty with others
    • There are different types of problems/conditions
      1. Level 1 – problems or situations where we can reduce the uncertainty around what the problem is and which are amenable to a technological fix
      1. Level 2 – situations where we can manage the uncertainty but not remove it
      1. Level 3 – conditions that create uncertainty
    • Level 1 problems (such as measles or smallpox) are suited to being addressed by solutions that meet three rules
      • there is clear cause and effect and so the solution can be embodied in technology (e.g. vaccination). The problem can be controlled
      • the effects of the technology/solution can be seen over a short period of time which builds agreement around the solution
      • you can demonstrate incremental improvement over time. There is evident progress
    • Level 2 problems are complex systems that focus on error correction and learning over time. Professor Sarewitz gave the example of a complex system like an aircraft carrier – you cannot ensure everything will work all the time, but you can work towards it
    • Level 3 problems involve irreducible uncertainty. You may not be able to ‘solve’ the issue, rather it may be a condition that has to be managed and where you focus on ‘solutions’ that people can live with. The Professor gave the example of toxic chemicals, where the ‘solution’ may be to develop less toxic alternatives rather than removing the use of chemicals altogether
    • The approach to addressing level 3 conditions involves options that are:
      • Politically attractive – focus first on a few small steps that make sense for multiple reasons and offer rapid and demonstrable pay back
      • Politically inclusive – focus on pluralistic processes
      • Relentlessly pragmatic – focus on actions whose effects can be measured in the short as well as long terms

How does this relate to public sector innovation?

I like the framework in that it reinforces that there are different types of problems that require different types of solutions, some of which will need to be innovative. It highlights that the ‘solution’ itself can generate unexpected changes and issues that in turn require further work/solutions. And it shows that not every problem can be solved, sometimes it’s a matter of identifying the best ways to manage the condition and focus on finding ways to live with the uncertainty rather than being able to remove it.

I think the advice for tackling level 3 conditions is also very relevant to the implementation of innovations in the public sector. The clearer the benefits can be, the quicker the benefits can be realised, the more that people can be engaged in the process, and the easier it is to tell that the innovation is working in the short term as well as the long term, then the more likely that the innovation will be successful.

I have attempted to faithfully represent the presentation by Daniel however any errors/misrepresentations should be considered my own.