Last week, the UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor launched the first of his annual themed reports, entitled ‘Innovation: Managing Risk, Not Avoiding It’. It is significant that Sir Mark Walport has chosen to focus the report on risk, recognising the significance of the topic for contemporary British society.
Mike has contributed a short case study to the report, using an historical example – the introduction of driverless trains on the Docklands Light Railway in London in the 1980s – as a means of thinking about the ways in which risks and perceptions of risks have been managed in the past, and what this might suggest for the introduction of new technologies in the future.
Writing the case study presented Mike with some challenges. Usually historians have the luxury of several thousand words in which to develop an extended argument, going into the nuances and complexities in some detail. In this case, though, the word limit was significantly tighter – only 500 words. It meant focusing in on the absolute essentials, as well as identifying what might be of most benefit for the contemporary user – important, given the report will be read by government staff and policy-makers in Britain and beyond in order to shape their decisions and frame debates in the future.
Mike’s case study identified a number of factors that influenced perceptions of safety and risk in relation to the DLR’s driverless trains, including proactive communication, public testing and the role of state regulation. He has suggested that these areas might all usefully be considered when introducing new technologies that might be perceived as in some way risky – but also that far from a knee-jerk reaction that feared driverless technologies, the public’s risk perception was more sophisticated, including a more open-minded approach to new technologies.
You can find the report and the associated evidence and case studies here.