Preparing for the Unknown Unknowns

LONDON – 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.