Pre­par­ing for the un­known un­knowns

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

We live in per­ilous times. Just as we seem to get our bear­ings, some­thing hap­pens to make us feel as if our legs have been knocked out from un­der us. Ac­tions and events of­ten are in­ter­twined, and what hap­pens on one level – af­fect­ing in­di­vid­u­als, states, eco­nomic sec­tors, and com­pa­nies of all sizes – may have reper­cus­sions on oth­ers.

The re­cent ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Paris are a case in point, af­fect­ing not only the fam­i­lies and friends of the vic­tims, or even only the peo­ple of France. The re­ver­ber­a­tions are be­ing felt around the world, and they will con­tinue to have an im­pact – far beyond Europe – on pub­lic pol­icy, elec­toral pol­i­tics, me­dia free­dom, and more.

The at­tacks came at a time when the world tra­di­tion­ally tries to make sense of the year ahead – to fore­cast the risks that lie in wait, the op­por­tu­ni­ties that will arise, and the chal­lenges that will have to be over­come. But what about longer-term risks? Do events like the Paris at­tacks show that fore­cast­ing them is im­pos­si­ble? Or did the at­tacks ex­pose pre­cisely the type of risk that long-term pro­jec­tions should iden­tify?

The World Eco­nomic Fo­rum has just re­leased its “Global Risks 2015” re­port which at­tempts to pre­dict and rank the big­gest risks that the world faces over the next ten years. The WEF’s fo­cus is squarely on the macro level. For ex­am­ple, “the big­gest threat to the sta­bil­ity of the world in the next ten years comes from the risk of in­ter­na­tional con­flict.” And the men­ace of war is fol­lowed by a raft of so­cial, en­vi­ron­men­tal, geopo­lit­i­cal, tech­no­log­i­cal, and eco­nomic risks and trends.

But all of th­ese risks will be felt on an or­gan­i­sa­tional, and ul­ti­mately, in­di­vid­ual level as well. That is why we spend time in con­fer­ence rooms and around kitchen ta­bles try­ing to iden­tify and mit­i­gate them. And yet we also know that the pace of change is faster than ever be­fore, and that gov­ern­ments, busi­nesses, and house­holds are find­ing it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to keep up. Be­neath all of our iden­ti­fy­ing, quan­ti­fy­ing, and mit­i­gat­ing of risk lies the un­de­ni­able and time­less truth that the only con­stant is change.

For Her­a­cli­tus, change was the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple of life. Machi­avelli re­ferred to it as for­tuna: the events that shape us and de­ter­mine our well­be­ing are of­ten beyond our rea­son and con­trol. Though we can at­tempt to plan for change, we can­not al­ways pre­dict the pre­cise na­ture and time at which it will oc­cur.

More­over, for all the risks that we can and do plan for, it is those for which we can­not pre­pare that can do the most dam­age. That is why, along­side all of the iden­ti­fy­ing, quan­ti­fy­ing, and mit­i­gat­ing, we must also embrace the idea that not all change can be clearly fore­seen and planned for. The im­pli­ca­tion is that we must in­still in our fam­i­lies, or­ga­ni­za­tions, and states the re­silience and tools needed to act ef­fec­tively in times of cri­sis – and thus to min­imise the po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing im­pact of un­ex­pected change.

This ethos will also help us max­imise the po­ten­tial ben­e­fits of such flux. After all, with­out un­fore­seen change, much of hu­man en­deav­our would be fruit­less, and in­no­va­tion would be un­nec­es­sary.

Shock­ing things like the mas­sacre at Charlie Hebdo in Paris hap­pen, and they seem to be hap­pen­ing more fre­quently than ever. They turn our world up­side down and make us ques­tion our sense of who we are.

It is at such mo­ments that we demon­strate our abil­ity – or lack of it – to con­front the un­ex­plained, the un­planned, and the un­fath­omable. At the same time, such mo­ments re­mind us that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions ul­ti­mately will judge us not on the ba­sis of what we ac­cu­mu­lated – whether per­son­ally, as or­gan­i­sa­tions, or as states – but by the im­pact we had on those around us, and by how well we re­sponded to their needs.

In per­ilous times, when the emer­gence, tim­ing, and dif­fu­sion of risks can have a paralysing ef­fect, what mat­ters is not sim­ply what we ac­com­plish, but how we ac­com­plish it. In such times, the value we cre­ate can­not be mea­sured only in terms of money. More im­por­tant is how much stronger, more ca­pa­ble, and more re­silient we help our col­leagues, part­ners, chil­dren, and fel­low cit­i­zens be­come. Per­haps the main risk this year – and in the decade ahead – is that we lose sight of this fun­da­men­tal truth.

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