Risk is not one single, individual event, future and uncertain, that can positively or negatively influence the achievement of certain results, to the point of destabilizing a single individual or an entire organization. Risk is now on the global horizon, within which, as organizations and individuals, we move and are guided.
A horizon which German sociologist Ulrich Beck has codified in a successful and effective definition: Risikogesellschaft, risk society. We are all exposed to risk, because we all live in the risk society. Taking note of this is not only an act of responsibility, but it implies a strategic advantage. The ability to anticipate a risk lays precisely in not turning emergencies into social panic and fears into catastrophes.
Here is a little vocabulary, taken from Beck’s works, to guide ourselves through the risk society. Our society. Challenges and innovation. Risk, as the sociologist teaches us, foreshadows a new utopia: a positive change in the ways and in the practices of a strategic decision.
Risk society, Beck observes, “does not mean that we live in a more dangerous world compared to before. Simply put, risk is at the center of each and everyone’s lives and at the center of the public debate, as we now perceive it everywhere. And it is indeed everywhere”.
“From a sociological perspective, the concept of risk is always a matter of anticipation. Risk is the anticipation of disaster in the now, in order to prevent that disaster from happening or even worse. Anticipating a risk means putting the potential danger in perspective. The anticipation of the disaster puts a strain on the most steadfast certainties, but offers everyone the chance to produce significant changes, kickstarting new energies”.
“Risk is not, in other words, the catastrophe, but the anticipation of the catastrophe. It is not a personal anticipation, it’s a social construction. Today, people are aware that risks are transnational and they are starting to believe in the possibility of an enormous catastrophe, like radical climate change or a terror attack. For this sole reason we find ourselves tied to others, beyond borders, religions, cultures. In one way or the other, risk produces a certain community of destination and, perhaps, even a worldwide public space”.
I asked myself what concept would better define our age. The answer was: risk. Risk touches life itself
Culture of uncertainty
“What we need is a “culture of uncertainty”, which must clearly be distinguished from “culture of residual risk” on one hand, and the culture of “risk-free” or “security” on the other. The key to a culture of uncertainty is in the availability to openly talk of how we face risks, in the availability to recognize the difference between quantitative risks and non quantitative uncertainties: in the availability to negotiate between various rationalities, rather than engaging in mutual condemnation; in the availability to raise modern taboos on rational bases; and - last but not least - in recognizing the importance of demonstrating to the collective will that we are acting in a responsible way in terms of the losses that will always happen, despite all precautions.
A culture of uncertainty that will no longer recklessly talk of “residual risk”, because every interlocutor will recognize that risks are only residual if they happen to others, that the aim of a democratic community is to take on a common responsibility. The culture of uncertainty, however, is also different compared to a “culture of security”. By this I mean a culture where absolute security is considered a right towards which all society should lean. Such a culture would choke any innovation in its cage”.
An unexpected event
“Even if there is no catastrophe, we find ourselves in the middle of a social development in which the expectation of the unexpected, the waiting for possible risks increasingly dominates the scene of our lives: individual risks and collective risks. A new phenomenon that becomes a stress factor for the institutions of law, finance, for the political system and even for families’ everyday lives. Being able to live in the risk society means anticipating the unexpected”.
“Within the reflection of the modernization processes, productive forces have lost their innocence. The growth of technological-economic “progress” is ever more obscured by the production of risks. “Initially, they might be legitimized as “hidden side effects”. But with their universalization, with the criticism carried out by the public opinion and the (anti)scientific analysis, risks definitely emerge from latency and acquire a new and central meaning for social and political conflict.”
Interconnected and aware
“It’s not a matter of quantity of risk, but of quality of the control that determines our living in the risk society. This is why I use the expression “constructed uncertainty”. The institutional expectation of control and even the guidelines of “certainty” and “rationality” are collapsing. Not the climate change, the environmental disasters, the menace of international terrorism, a virus itself, but the growing awareness that we live in an interconnected world - which is going out of control - creates the novel risk society.”
Freedom within risk
Risk is a constructive part of the social insecurity we live in. We cannot, however, definite it in absolute terms: “every insecurity is always relative to the context and concrete risks that a person or a society need to deal with”.
Beck concludes: “we need to accept insecurity as an element of our freedom. It might seem paradoxical, but this is also a form of democratization: it is the choice, that is continually renewed, between various possible options. The change stems from this choice”.