Victor VAN RIJ's Interview

Victor VAN RIJ, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
Mini CV

Victor van Rij provides strategic and policy advice on educational and research policy matters. He is active in foresight, horizon scanning, early warning signals and Wild Cards at National and European levels regarding the development in areas as varied as ICT, education, robotics, energy, health, ageing, scarce resources, agriculture, risk assessment, and infrastructures.

Interview result

Can you envisage any major wild cards, positive or negative, that may occur in the next 20 years?
I can imagine too many – that, in a nutshell, is the problem of wild card research. I can imagine many in the financial area, environmental, geopolitical developments, scarce resources, etc. It is very difficult to distinguish what is chosen because of hope or facts. Both are important, because a wild card may become self-fulfilling. It is a complex area and we just try to find out how it works. At the moment, the geopolitical wild cards might be the most dangerous for the whole world: geopolitical conflict caused either by environmental catastrophe or by scarce resources. It is like in the Cold War, when people were very scared. Now we have the reverse in the futures world: we have a lot of powers, but a few of them are enough to make a catastrophe.
 What would be the most dramatic impact of this wild card and how do you think it should be addressed by future research?
 Many of these wild cards are completely out of the sky and officially these are the real wild cards. But if you look more widely, you could say that wild cards were built up over a period of time. Our project is looking at instruments to foresee how the wild card is developing, so that you could perhaps interfere in its evolution or at least build up some emergency scenarios when the thing really happens. The financial crisis could be an example of a wild card you might have seen earlier. You might at an earlier point have prepared an emergency plan or taken some measures before it unfolded to the catastrophe it became. I can foresee this kind of research on these kinds of wild cards, that have some internal building-up mechanism. The really wild wild cards come from nowhere, e.g. America was there when Columbus sailed there. That was really a wild card, as it might not have existed. Many other things that are called wild cards are not this kind, as they are building up. The ones that are building up are separate from weak signals. You can do a lot of research on them. You can put a lot of signs on these slowly building up mechanisms, where there is a piling up of small events that eventually burst out in a large event. I can imagine research on these kinds of wild cards. But we should sort out the types of wild cards into those that we can foresee somehow might occur, which we can have some agenda for, and those that you cannot foresee, which we should deal with differently.
 So you would like to see some categorization of wild cards?
 Yes. We started a little on this and this is part of the categorization. If you take earthquakes and flooding, or the Icelandic volcano, for instance, there is a lot going on around this. With the volcano, there were a lot of signs already that suggested to us that this one could become a real wild card. Without this, it would perhaps have had more impact than it finally did. Suppose we did not have the small accidents before with volcanic ash, and nobody had done anything and all flights had gone on. We would have had 30 or 40 accidents in a week. This would have been a much larger shock than it was. The availability of much better data resources and data surge possibilities nowadays makes it better. We can react much better than before on some of these wild cards. So I assume it can improve if we put an intellectual process on this.
 Have you noticed or pinpointed any weak signals that could hint at the growing likelihood of a geopolitical wild card?
 With this geopolitical wild card, you can see quite a lot of signals, but we should group what signals are relevant and how to follow them. One signal is not enough. It is just like in the aviation industry, where cracks in the metal work are considered to be weak signals of the material becoming too worn out and you can have an accident. You should have an eye on what kind of signals you can see, and if there are a few and you see them increasing, you can get worried. In the geopolitical corner I would look at threats like North Korea, which might blow up. If you had a lot of these kinds of incidents – suppose North Korea is doing this and Iran is doing this and Israel or Pakistan or India are starting to – we will get a situation where we see a Cold War kind of reaction from China and the US on certain resources in Africa. I don’t have these signals yet, but for geopolitical tensions I would focus on these kinds of signals. There is much more you can imagine. You can look at certain kinds of small events throughout the world and check out whether they are increasing; but on the other hand, the signals might be the triggers in this one. If you think about the nuclear one, the signals might be ticking away before it goes boom.
 If we look ahead to the future of European Research which of the scenarios or weak signals or wild cards do you think should be given the top priority in research?
 The one I discuss above is difficult to research, although historical or social sciences research might play a role, e.g. building up conflicts or the role of scarcity of resources. . The other one is very obvious and there is a lot of research already in the energy area. Underneath the geopolitical ones are always the scarcity things, so energy is key beneath this. If you have enough energy in a sustainable, environmentally healthy way, you can probably overcome a lot of other problems, and then the consequence of other problems becomes less. There is already a lot of attention on energy, in the light of the failures in energy and economic development, but also with geopolitical considerations. It needs some policy and a lot of research on the different energy solutions, but also on the geopolitical distribution, etc. So the energy wild card needs full attention in research. Scarcity of energy, energy solutions – you can have a lot of wild cards in the energy area, from the climate one and the unsafe energy forces like the BP oil leak, environmental catastrophe, to lack of energy in urban areas for a longer time, etc. A lot of wild cards are cooperating in terms of the energy system.
 We use the definition of a wild card as a low probability high impact event. Do you use a similar definition? Is this a good enough definition?
 Yes. We also try to categorize them further in their character, but in general this definition is OK with me. It is just a rare event, which changes the rules of the game completely. It changes the positions and the way we look at the world. Is weak signal a definition or terminology you use?How do you define weak signals in your project? I am not so fond of the weak signal. ‘Weak’ indicates a relative notion – it can be weak for me and strong for you. So it is more a matter of early warning, and who should be warned. I don’t have a clear definition, but it is more like a signal coming from communication theory..So you should think about who is sending and who is receiving, and then in regard to the wild card it becomes clearer. I am preparing some publications on this.
 Can you think of any interesting lessons from your previous foresight studies that use the wild cards and weak signals approach?
We started, just like in the UK, with horizon scanning. The main thing is to identify a lot of issues that may be of importance for the future. Looking back to the horizon scanning in the UK or even to the old trends work of the UK Ministry of Defence or Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affars (DEFRA), and in our own work, we did not call them wild cards then. I can think of many things that afterwards I can consider a wild card that were not formulated as a wild card, but which were probably identified as an issue because someone had a wild card in their head. It is always some fake notion that some technology may give answers on certain problems, without looking at all the other problems that might lead to the same solution. It is just a wild card that this technology will serve the world best. This is possible, but not so likely if you take into account everything else that is happening, so it is a small or even a big wild card. If you look at publications of the nuclear physicists during the ITA programme, they throw one big wild card on the world because it is going to save the world. Perhaps they are right and perhaps they are wrong. I guess a breakthrough in nuclear fusion is on your list.
 What in your opinion are the best methods to identify wild cards and weak signals?
 We are trying different approaches. Because of the complexity of the subject it is very hard to say what the best methods are. I guess it will always be a mix of experienced scanners, who are trained to have a very broad view and really know their subjects. So for energy, you have to know the energy area but have also to be able to look outside it to find wild cards which are of importance for energy and policy. You have the same issue for the education system: you need to be aware of what is going on in the education system and policy, and then you need a very wide view of what might interfere with this policy from outside. You need a very special view of the world, and people who are trained to scan all these forces. In addition, if we find potential wild cards that really happened, we should study them further and look at their development and the preceding weak signals. We should not look at signals as incidents or things. Instead, if you find one you have to track down what is connected to this. Tracking down of signals by manual scanning is not the best way. You should have some automatic tools to follow your signal and see where it came from originally, who is sending the signal, who is connected, etc. There should be a lot of tool development to help people if they have found a signal. So it is about signals and connections:.who was involved in making it, what is the real evidence based on, what is the timeline, does it grow, does it diminish. We simply don’t know about this, because we have only researched a little into it. We have not yet analysed this to find out what kind of signals would be the best ones to search and what we need to know from the signals to understand their meaning. I am busy tracking down some of the past examples to see what I can learn from these. I hope to have some interesting results where you can quantify the essence of the weak signals, which might be the start of recognizing them earlier. I was rather appalled when our National Planning Agency said that the financial crisis could not have been seen earlier, as in our horizon scan, and also in the UK, we mentioned it already connected to the sub prime metrics.

Interviewer (Institution)

Manchester Institute of Innovation Research

Manchester Institute of Innovation Research

Innovations - new products, services and ways of making or doing things - are fundamental to business success and to economic growth and development. Manchester is one of the founding centres for the study of science, technology and innovation. The Manchester Institute of Innovation Research builds on a forty year old tradition of study in the area. More...

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