The Need to Account for Uncertainty in Public Decision Making Related to Technological Change


  • Poul Harremoës Environment & Resources DTU, Technical University of Denmark, Denmark


environment, risk, prediction, design, cause-effect, uncertainty, ignorance, management.


In the extreme, there are two opposing approaches to technological development: The empirical iterative approach (also called ‘‘trial and error’’) versus the deterministic predictive approach (also called ‘‘design’’). In scientific terms, the first is based on association and the latter is based on causality. In Europe, the latter developed as a consequence of the Renaissance, based on a combination of induction (data) and deduction (theory). The ‘‘success’’ of the Western world is based on the design approach. In contrast, China developed the empirical approach to perfection, in which respect they scored much better than the Western world. During the last century there have been an increasing number of environmental ‘‘surprises’’ as a consequence of economic development in the Western world. Many of these detrimental impacts on the environment have occurred due to disregarded knowledge or ignorance with respect to the causality (cause-effect relationship) between the pressures on the environment and consequences to the environment. The precautionary principle has been introduced as a means of dealing with uncertainty and ignorance in decision making. There is need for a change of paradigm from an elitist, narrow approach to an approach that recognises how far we may be from the ability to predict accurately the consequences of technological changes. This uncertainty has to be accounted for in order to prevent surprises. In case of recognised ignorance, solutions have to be flexible and robust, especially in situations involving irreversibility of the consequences of the decision. When recognising uncertainty and ignorance, the empirical iterative approach has its virtue as adaptive management.