Humanity has always been intrigued by events which would destroy it. The Gilgamesh epic leads to the Babylonian flood myth leads to the Biblical story of the Flood which (almost) ends mankind. The end of the world and the last judgement occupies – one might almost say obsesses – the minds of the Abrahamic religions in the Middle Ages and later, so much so that eschatologyoccupies its own discipline in theology.
The development of the atomic bomb brought the science fiction of the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century into the world. In a less religiously observant society, the fear of a theological end of days was replaced by the more immediate, and more secular, fear of imminent nuclear annihilation. This fear remains with us: it remains the focus of bodies like the Nuclear Threat Initiative, podcasts like the excellent Atomic Hobo, and a continuing strand of dystopian and apocalyptic fiction.
The threat of absolute nuclear destruction has increased, not decreased, since the end of the Cold War. As it has faded into the background of the general consciousness, though, it has been replaced by other, equally dystopian fears. Climate change and the coronavirus pandemic are very real events which have brought the fragility of human life firmly to the fore. And as we worry about those, our horizons have expanded to worry about other existential, or at the least civilisation-destroying risks, from solar flares to meteor strikes, from engineered viruses to terrorism.
This time, though, there is plenty of advice, thought and research available. At the University of Cambridge, the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk is dedicated “to the study and mitigation of risks that could lead to human extinction or civilisational collapse”. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists “informs the public about threats to the survival and development of humanity from nuclear weapons, climate change”. At Oxford, the Future of Humanity Institute brings “the tools of mathematics, philosophy and social sciences to bear on big-picture questions about humanity and its prospects”. The Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence examines the opportunities, and risks, of AI. And also at Oxford, The Oxford Martin School is dedicated to bringing “together the best minds from different fields to tackle the most pressing issues of the 21st century”.
And now we have “Future Proof”, a new report from the Centre for Long-Term Resilience in the UK. The CTRL is a private body, headed by two former senior civil servants, and it is its focus on “putting resilience at the heart of policymaking” that both distinguishes it from, and makes it in many ways more practical than, much of the other thinking in the space.
For a start, “Issue-specific policy recommendations” start on page 15 of a 52 page book. One feels that the authors are used to giving practical advice to hard pressed ministers who have little time or attention and who need to know what to do, and why.
These recommendations are really rather good. Sections cover biosecurity, artificial intelligence, improving the UK government’s risk management process and (somewhat inevitably), increasing funding for research into extreme risks. One could, were one an adventurous minister, take this report and run with it. If you did, you would make probably the greatest change to the UK’s non-military resilience profile for decades.
We particularly like the “roadmap to improve UK management of extreme risks.” Establishing a “dedicated red team to conduct frequent scenario exercises” is of course close to our hearts.
The “Three lines of defence” model is simple and achievable. Risk ownership units in government departments report to an Office of Risk Management and a Chief Risk Officer at the centre (probably the Cabinet Office) with oversight from a National Extreme Risks Institute. This formalises a risk management approach which, as the authors say, “is currently done quite effectively for non-extreme risks, but much less so for extreme risks”.
Tucked away at the bottom of the risk management section is “increase the resilience of the national grid”. And this highlights the one significant drawback of this report. As we have said, taken as one report, and implemented thoroughly, “Future Proof” would make a major difference to UK resilience. But it would not be enough. There are more extreme risks we need to think about – and importantly, there are extreme opportunities.
We know from our work with government, here and overseas, that preparing for the future can get swept up in the demands of the now. SAMI is, indeed, part of the future proofing infrastructure that the authors are looking for. Initiatives like the Futures Framework give an opportunity for government to engage with the risks and opportunities of life in the next five, ten, fifty years.
Futures thinking is not just about resilience and risk mitigation – it is also about opportunity. The authors are right that the pandemic, by bringing a crisis front and centre (and straight into the Treasury, importantly) provides an opportunity – what they call a “social immune response” – to re-evaluate our approach to risk. Before the shock of the pandemic fades, “we need to seize this opportunity to put in place lasting protections to safeguard the country from extreme risks — both at a risk-specific level and at a systemic level.”
We agree: with the important caveat that government should also put in place lasting structures to allow the country to benefit from the future. Understanding the future – through the work that SAMI and others do – will allow the government, and the UK, to do both.
Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
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