World Economic Forum (#WEF) Global Risk Report 2012 (part 3—X Factors)


The last posts have dealt with the methodology World Economic Forum used to come up with the 50 risk factors and to show how they are interrelated. The purpose of this post is to discuss risk factors that were NOT included in the list of 50, which the WEF refers to as “X factors”. I want to illustrate these X factors with a science fiction series that has been written by John Barnes with the concept of “Daybreak”.

1. Methodology for coming up with X Factors

When the WEF did its survey to ask participants about their estimates regarding the 50 risk factors, they included a blank field for the participants to identify any risk factors which were not included in the original survey. These were factors that represent risks to be watched over in the future. The risk survey has a time horizon of 10 years, but with the rapid growth of technology, it is very possible that certain risks may rise in prominence that most people may not even be aware of today.

2. Examples of X Factors

Here’s a few examples:

 Mega-accidents—rather than industrial accidents having to do with oil or chemicals, accidents of the future may come from genetically modified micro-organisms or nano-scale materials.

 Mis-information—traditional broadcast media collapse, and mass reporting online takes its place

 Neotribalism—Polarized subcultures in the physical world create borderless communities that can affect political regimes in the real world

 Volcanic winter—A major volcanic eruption could alter the Earth’s atmosphere and cool the planet, temporarily but severely disrupting food supply

3. X factors in science fiction—John Barnes’ Daybreak series

There are others that are listed on page 46 of the Global Risk 2012 report, which can be accessed here: http://reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2012/. However, I chose the above 4 risk factors because they are an integral part of the science fiction series called Daybreak by John Barnes, consisting of the novels Directive 51 and Daybreak Zero. 10 years in the future, there is a growing subculture of resistance against the Big System. This repository of resentment of those who oppose the technological, political, and economic elites grows through the Internet and social media until it reaches critical mass.

On October 28th, 2022, a coordinated release of genetically modified micro-organisms and nano-scale materials (called “biotes” and “nanoswarm” in the novels) is coincided with the kidnapping of the Vice President of the United States and an attempted “911” style mass terrorist attack. The Office of Future Threat Assessment has been studying Daybreak, but their expertise is now critical to the Federal government’s attempted response to that threat. This initial attack is part of a series of attacks that attempt to eliminate the Federal government and the bases of modern civilization itself.

To counteract this threat, it is important to figure out what Daybreak is. One group in the government treats it as if is a terrorist group with a discrete set of leaders. However, some argue that it may be a “system artifact”, an emergent property of the Internet that has somehow become self-aware and is the force manipulating the attacks.

What is left of the government tries to organize the pockets of small-town America that have banded together to protect the remaining resources and one another against the tribes that are growing in the periphery in the absence of any authority.

4. Lessons learned

I didn’t want to add any more descriptions of the plot for those who intend to read the novels. If you are a science-fiction fan I would definitely recommend the novels because they are very good indeed. The multiple characters are well-drawn, and the plot is fast-moving and detailed enough to be quite believable.

The interesting lessons for me having read the novels after reading the Global Risk 2012 report are as follows:

a. The novel shows how risks in one category affect the others. The initial attack is of a technological variety, but the nature of this combination biological/nano-technological attack is that it destroys the infrastructure of society, creating a societal risk. The kidnapping of the Vice President of the United States and the subsequent attacks on the Federal government represent the geopolitical risk of the collapse of global governance.

b. The novel shows that there is a need for imagination when it comes to risk analysis, because there are always going to be X factors which may be negligible now, but which may come to the forefront in the future.

Even in the current time frame, there may be factors which one may not have thought of which could affect one’s project and even become mission critical.    One of the reasons why I like reading science fiction is because it stimulates my imagination.

I was reminded of Apollo 1 fire, which occurred during a launch simulation test of the Apollo Command Module and killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. Frank Borman was one of the Apollo astronauts on the panel investigating the causes of the fire. The fire was technically caused by a spark from a wire which had lost its Teflon coating. The spark ignited highly-pressurized oxygen atmosphere in the Apollo Command Module, and caused the runaway fire. However, when a Congressional inquiry was made and Frank Borman was asked about the causes of the fire, he said it was a “failure of the imagination”. NASA had been considering the risks involved with travel out in space, but had not analyzed carefully enough the risks involved with testing here on the ground.

 The design flaws that caused the fire were uncovered and led to an improved design which would carry the later Apollo astronauts all the way to the moon.   Therefore, it is important to “look forward” and “look backward” when dealing with risks, to be aware of the possibility of unaccounted-for risks, and to make sure the risks that are uncovered are accounted for and mitigated against in future projects.

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