SRA World Congress on Risk - 2015

2015 marks the 50th year of Singapore’s independence. It is hard to believe that half a century ago this sprawling metropolitan city was a simple fishing town with a population of just over a million.

Today, the population has increased by a factor of five and the city-state is the third busiest shipping port. Singapore in fact ships half of the world’s annual supply of crude oil.  In order to sustain this exceptional growth Singapore has imported enough sand to support a 20% increase in the island’s surface area. This thirst for expansion has been criticized internationally due to fears that this trade in sand is resulting in detrimental effects to the areas it has been removed from. As a result, the question is now being raised: whether Singapore’s exponential growth is in fact sustainable? Given this context could there have been a more appropriate backdrop for the 2015 World Congress on Risk where the main topic of discussion was “Risk Analysis for Sustainable Innovation”?

The 2015 SRA World Congress began on a slightly unorthodox but welcome note with not one but two plenary sessions scheduled for the morning of Monday the 20th of July and what a treat they were.

The morning began with a gripping talk from Lt. General Thomas Bostick of the US Army Engineer Corps. He made the powerful argument that although plans to mitigate against natural disasters are readily drawn up, it is the uncertainty around risk that often results in a lack of funding for contingency planning. It is only when a risk is directly foreseeable that money is invested in ensuring the safety of the US people and waterways. Lt. Bostick went on to explain that in order to garner resilience, a temporal element is required, first we recover, then we adapt.  The discussion on risk and resilience in an ever-changing world was further supported by Professor Wolfang Kroger, of ETH Zurich, as he explained that in order to become more practical in resilience efforts, the mindset of the public must be adapted in order to accept social and cultural change. Lively discussion then began among spectators. The debate ranged from President-elect Jim Lambert’s commentary on time- claiming that it is at the forefront of risk analysis- to how the successes of resilience efforts are often lost to the public and rarely praised.

After a brief break the second plenary of the day began with former SRA President Ortwin Renn of University of Stuttgart sparking a conversation on risk and innovation in a time of rapid transformation. Professor Renn then captivated the audience by highlighting the fact that in contrast to ailments of centuries past, modern premature deaths are characterized by events over which society or the individual now has some control. Honorary guest speaker Senior Parliamentary Secretary of Singapore Hawazi Daipi put this argument in a local context by explaining that the primary effort of the Department of Workplace Health and Safety in Singapore was to change the mindset of workers from compliance to one of prevention.

Eager delegates then dispersed to attend further discussions on disaster risk and resilience management, sustainable innovation and to browse the posters that were so thoughtfully put together.

Day two of the World Congress began just as enthusiastically as day one with a compelling plenary on dealing with emerging threats to society. Aleksander Jovanovic of University of Stuttgart started the morning explaining his concept of “Industrial Revolution 4.0”. He particularly highlighted the difficulties laypeople have in grasping fundamental understandings of where technology is heading today, stating that with the advent of automation, “humans could go the way of the horse,” and that the practice of human skills may be lost.

Next Athena Ronquillo-Ballesteros, Director of the Sustainable Finance Center at the World Resources Institute, struck a chord with delegates with her remarks on climate change. Ms. Ronquillo-Ballesteros highlighted the fact that 40 years ago typhoons in the area averaged around 19 a year. Currently, however, they are reaching as many as 39 a year. She argued that it is the most marginal communities that are most vulnerable to the repercussions of climate change, however ended optimistically by noting that all is not lost. Many destroyed communities have turned the risks they face into opportunities by rebuilding their infrastructure to better integrate innovation and sustainability for a brighter future.

Parallel session topics were dominated by fascinating subject matter such as nanotechnology and Ebola and the day ended with a meeting of heads of regional organizations to discuss efforts to streamline and further integrate the SRA community.

Reluctant riskies appeared at the final day of the congress eager to soak up as much knowledge as possible during the last hours of the congress. Former SRA President Robin Cantor caused cheer among the audience as she introduced the panelists of our final plenary session on integrating social and physical science in order to properly address risk. That prevention is cheaper than tackling a threat once it has arisen was the main point put forward by Jukka Takala of the Workplace Safety & Health Institute of Singapore. This was followed by thoughts from the USA Environmental Protection Agency through the highly-able speaker John Vandenberg, National Program Director of Human Health Risk Assessment. Dr. Vandenberg highlighted the fact that where you reside does matter in a context of life expectancy and that fatalities are no longer simply a factor of genes, but also of social and physical actors. Professor Jose Palma-Oliveira crowned the plenary sessions with a visually stunning journey through his research on public perception of physical science. Professor Palma-Oliveira found through a long-term study in Portugal that people are suspicious of technical and scientific conclusions, however are overwhelmingly open to accepting scientific reasoning, in turn allowing social risks to become realities that would otherwise be thought as unacceptable.

This year’s SRA World Congress was a huge success. Just like Singapore itself, the SRA continues to expand at a rapid rate and everyone involved can be proud of this high-level and extremely informative meeting.  I for one returned home full of ideas and thoughts around issues such as using data to explain threats before they emerge and I am confident the rest of the delegates left similarly refreshed and stimulated.

View the full photo album: https://www.flickr.com/photos/society_for_risk_analysis/albums/721576564....