Why embracing uncertainty could help us to face the future

Published on 21 January 2020

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Nathan Oxley

Impact Communications and Engagement Officer

If the first few weeks of 2020 are anything to go by, this year looks set to be a turbulent one. Wildfires in Australia have caused devastation. Indonesia is shocked by severe flooding in its capital. The latest chapter in conflict in the Middle East threatens to escalate, but nobody knows what the outcome will be. Protests and strikes continue to express people’s anger at governments’ indifference to injustice or hardship. The combination of social and environmental changes, surprises and threats may seem overwhelming.

At the same time, efforts to manage and govern this change continue. The World Economic Forum prepares to turn 50 next year. The United Nations will convene a major milestone for climate change in November, with a Conference of the Parties (COP) that will face many demands for more ambitious, coordinated action, despite shifts in power and influence and the difficulties of negotiating between many diverse interests and powerful actors. The COP will take place in the UK, facing its own uncertain future as it prepares to leave the European Union. Insurers and banks struggle with the implications of new risks, and with less calculable uncertainties or surprises.

And in countries, towns and rural areas all over the world, people are dealing with futures that are not set in stone, despite powerful stories that promise change. Everywhere, people are trying to manage uncertainty or responding to unexpected opportunities or disasters.

Making sense of this uncertainty is important, but uncertainty itself is not always well understood. The world is complex and many things – from financial systems, to disease outbreaks, to the effects of climate change – are not fully knowable. But in the ‘real world’ of policy and business, the full depth and breadth of challenges presented by the unknown are rarely fully acknowledged – and virtually never embraced.

A new series of blog posts, videos and podcast episodes explores this theme, focusing on the politics of uncertainty. We explore how people talk and think about uncertainty, how policies and decisions are shaped, what information is included or excluded.

Why is there often so much pressure to treat every kind of ‘unknown’ as a measurable risk? What are the benefits of acknowledging different views of facts, framings and values, and the possibility of surprise? Could this help to reveal more possibilities and prepare better for the future?

The materials draw from an international academic symposium, The Politics of Uncertainty: Practical Challenges for Transformative Action, held at the Institute of Development Studies in July 2019, convened by the ESRC STEPS Centre.


Watch a playlist of all videos from the symposium.


The STEPS Uncertainty Podcast is a series of four conversations recorded with participants after the symposium, available as a podcast to stream or download.

View/subscribe on iTunes

Blog series

Participants in the symposium reflect on the event in a series of blog posts.

View the series


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