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Archive: January 2016 (Public Policy Design Special Interest Group)

Wednesday, 27 Jan 2016
Robert Solly

In November I was very fortunate to attend the 3rd international workshop on "Decision making under deep uncertainty" in Delft, The Netherlands, where I met a hugely enthusiastic and eclectic mix of operational researchers and scientists working to help policymakers making decisions on issues characterised by "deep uncertainty". The paragraph below describes the types of challenge covered by the workshop:

Flood risk management, fresh water supply, energy, telecommunications, defense, transport and infrastructure are all examples of fields with challenges related to deep uncertainty. Many investment and policy decisions in these and other fields have significant and often long-term consequences. Moreover, long-term objectives often require near-term decisions. Making sound near-term decisions is critical, yet we live in an increasingly unpredictable dynamic world governed by competing and changing beliefs and preferences. When decision makers and analysts face a deeply uncertain future (e.g. due to climate change), they need more than traditional prediction or scenario-based decision methods to help them to evaluate alternatives and make decisions. Fortunately, there are new methods and tools that can help them to make sound decisions in the face of these challenges.

Firstly, I was amazed at the variety of professions and applications present, including:

  • all sorts of scientists making predictions about climate, population, infrastructure and flooding
  • analysts from the World Bank looking at the effect of climate change on global poverty
  • statisticians using big data techniques to understand the effect of hundreds of variables
  • economists helping local councils to decide whether it was worth investing in flood defences, given their own beliefs about the likelihood of climate change

but right at the heart of this debate are some eminent operational researchers

  • using table top games to raise policymakers' awareness of the options available to them, and their pros and cons;
  • using Robust Decision Making pioneered by Rob Lempert of RAND (analysing millions of scenarios to assess the robustness of solutions to uncertain futures)
  • using methods like Dynamic Adaptive Policy Pathways to help plot out the potential ways in which a situation might develop, and the policy options most sensible in each case

Secondly, it was really heartening to see these approaches being endorsed and applied at all levels, from small towns in New Zealand, to cities in Vietnam, countries (for instance a study by Oxford University for the Treasury predicting the effects of population changes on infrastructure and services across the UK), and international institutions like the World Bank.

There's a really nice video summarising the event and the new society for decision making under uncertainty, which aims to bring together people from this range of professions and others to help people to plan with uncertainty.