4. Transforming ‘wicked-problems’ into ‘moonshot-opportunities’: The role of research and innovation in the responsible and sustainable assessment and management of ‘catastrophes’, ‘wild cards’ and related ‘weak signals’

Convenors: Rafael Popper, Raija Koivisto, Jari Kaivo-oja, Toni Ahlqvist and Joe Ravetz.

Session type: Full paper session and speed talk sessions.

The Covid pandemic has brought the importance of foresight and wild card analysis to the forefront of the research and innovation (R&I) policy debate. A decade ago the European Commission devoted considerable resources to the so-called Blue Sky research initiatives, to better position wild cards and weak signals analysis in the foresight realm, as well as in science, technology and innovation (STI) policy circles, with the help of collaborative research efforts such as the iKnow project. The world faces complex and interconnected Grand Challenges that require complex and interconnected responses, calling for creative action based on strategic thinking. Over 20 years of research and policy on sustainable development and innovation, we have seen that the need is as clear as ever – we need a step change in the quality of foresight-driven shared intelligence at every level – communities, organisations, networks, economies and societies, from local to global. How to go about this? This track calls for theoretical, methodological and practical contributions supporting the systematic and timely interconnection of social and technical knowledge, developing forward-looking tools and methods for addressing ‘wicked problems’ (including grand challenges, wild cards and related weak signals) by providing relevant frameworks and knowledge on potential ‘wicked solutions’ or grand responses.

The proposed session will focus on frameworks for theory and practice interconnecting the four ecosystems associated to what could be referred to as the ever growing ‘Knowledge Diamond’ (see also Unger and Polt, 2017), consisting of: Research ecosystems, Education ecosystems, Innovation ecosystems and Regulation ecosystems.

It has become recognised that R&I programmes should be addressing the ‘wicked problems’ or societal challenges that confront Europe and the world. A huge amount of information has been generated concerning such challenges, creating a knowledge management problem even for those working within one problem area. The problem is even greater when we take into account the need for understanding of the possible interactions or synergies between societal challenges. The volume of information is continuously increasing with studies at various levels of granularity, and considerable controversy associated with many of the topics. The notion of societal challenges and related crises is not just indicating that these are “wicked problems” that confront our societies. They are understood as presenting challenges that can be addressed through RTDI and the creation of conducive environments for adoption of innovations. Challenges may be rooted in economic, social or scientific goals but share a need to demonstrate their relevance, feasibility, and a clear research dimension.

The session will seek new methods for systematic assessment of crises, catastrophes, wild cards and related weak signals, as well as their management with the help of R&I (policy). Contributions are expected to extend this approach to a more general process of foresight, horizon scanning and critical issues analysis with concrete applications to grand challenges and the ultimate goal of devising ‘wicked’ or ‘grand’ solutions and responses. The rationale for this is a simple one: without a wide-ranging assessment of factors that may impinge upon the trajectories of grand challenges and the outcomes of grand solutions – especially factors that are generally overlooked, or only manifest currently as “weak signals” – it is very likely that analyses and prescriptions (also in the form of R&I policy) will be too linear and insufficiently robust. As with other aspects related to crises, relevant knowledge is widely dispersed, and appropriate action crucially requires inputs from many stakeholders. Resilient societies can confront change more effectively when informed stakeholders are better able to understand the nature of these changes, and the likely responses of their partners. This effectively means that foresight-driven strategic intelligence (including wild cards and weak signals analyses) should be widely distributed, and regularly co-produced and applied in multi-stakeholder settings. The session can be linked to ongoing political discussions of economic and social stress tests of the Member States of the European Union.

In summary the track themes would include:

  • State-of-the-art frameworks for the mapping of ‘catastrophes’, ‘wild cards’ and ‘weak signals’;
  • State-of-the-art approaches for the assessment of ‘catastrophes’, ‘wild cards’ and ‘weak signals’;
  • State-of-the-art approaches for the management of ‘catastrophes’, ‘wild cards’ and ‘weak signals’;

This track aims to include a mix of full paper sessions, speed talks for work in an early stage as well as roundtable sessions. We are open to collaborate with other scholars in the field to organise the track.



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Popper, R., Popper, M., and Velasco, G. (2020) ‘Sustainable Innovation Assessment and Management Framework: Principles, Methodology and Practice’ in Martini, M., Holsgens, R., Popper, R. (2020) (Eds), Governance and Management of Sustainable Innovation: Learning from experience to Shape the Future, Springer.

Popper, R. and Butler, J. (Eds) (2011) iKnow Policy Alerts, Report of the Blue Sky iKnow Project for the European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Manchester: The University of Manchester. ISBN 978-0-946007-22-6.

Ravetz, J, (2020): Pandemic-3.0 – from crisis to transformation – Exploring the COVID-19 Challenge. Journal of Future Studies. https://jfsdigital.org/2020/08/18/pandemic-3-0-from-crisis/

Ravetz, J, Miles I, Popper R (2011) iKnow ERA Toolkit: European Research Area Toolkit – Applications of Wild Cards and Weak Signals to the Grand Challenges & Thematic Priorities of the ERA: Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, University of Manchester. ISBN 978-0-946007-26-4. Availble online at http://community.iknowfutures.org/news/toolkit.php

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