We are caught between a rock and a hard place. The simultaneous rise of the risk and creativity agenda is one of the great paradoxes of our time, with risk avoidance strategies often cancelling out inventiveness. Creativity, openness and risk-taking are demanded of us to be competitive in a globalized world and to be inventive to adapt to 21st century needs. At the same time creativity is denied. The evaluation of everything from a perspective of risk is a defining characteristic of contemporary society. Risk is the managerial paradigm and default mechanism that has embedded itself into how companies, community organizations, the public sector and most cities operate. Risk is a prism through which any activity is judged. Risk has its experts, consultants, interest groups, specialist literature, an associational structure and lobbying bodies. A risk industry has formalized itself.
It subtly encourages us to constrain aspirations, act with over-caution, avoid challenges and be sceptical about innovation. It narrows our world into a defensive shell. The life of a community self-consciously concerned with risk and safety is different from one focused on discovery and exploration.
Risk consciousness is a growth industry: hardly a day passes without some new risk being noted. It is as if risk hovers over individuals like an independent force waiting to strike the unsuspecting citizen. This might concern personal safety or a health scare. In 1994 Factiva noted 2037 mentions of the term 'at risk' in UK newspapers; this rose to over 25,000 by 2003.6
The notion of accident seems to have gone from our vocabulary. Cleansing the world of accidents means scouring the world for someone to blame. Bad luck gets retrospectively reinterpreted as carelessness. Risk-taking, a positive activity, is viewed negatively through a prism of negligence.
This drives a tendency never to blame oneself or to take responsibility. Instead many litigate, leading to claims of a 'compensation culture', yet that culture feeds on deeper fears. The opportunity side of risk-taking begins to disappear. There seem to be no more good risks; all risks appear bad. The mood of the times is averting the worst rather than creating the good. Guidelines are drawn up on worst-case scenarios. Many say this culture of fear and litigation started in the US and developing from there has been exported to other societies, where the idea of 'reasonable endeavour' had a much stronger hold.
The media shapes perceptions of risk, creating a climate which disposes us to expect bad outcomes. It heightens dangers, it spec-tacularizes issues and even creates panics. Which risk factor emerges within the media or political battlefield can seem arbitrary.
The risk of food poisoning, constantly highlighted, is far less than risks caused by sedentary lifestyles encouraged by urban planning that reduces walkability in our cities and makes people obese.
Consciousness of risk comes in myriad forms. Some have been with us for a long time, such as assessing the financial viability of projects. Others concerned with safety, health, epidemics or bullying are more recent and grabbing most headlines are safety concerns about personal injury in the public realm, such as tripping over a tree trunk, stepping off the road into an oncoming car or tearing your trousers on the edge of a park bench. Undoubtedly a perception exists that the public have a greater tendency to seek redress if they suffer an injustice or injury. People look for someone else to blame for their misfortune.
The rise of claims management companies help; they advertise on TV, radio, the press, through direct marketing, street canvassing or tele-sales with slogans such as 'No win, no fee' or 'Where there's blame, there's a claim'. One group in Britain alone generated 15,000 claims per month, selling them on to solicitors, some of whom have up to 10,000 personal injury claims running, with dedicated departments acting like production lines. An environment emerges where suing is seen as an entitlement as when a leading practice was asked, 'Who can I sue when nobody is to blame?'
The major categories of claims affecting our living environment are fourfold. Occupier's liability affects the design of buildings and their aesthetic, for instance what railings or banisters are acceptable to ensure no injuries. Liability under the Highways Act affects the look of the streetscape, junctions or interchanges. Protecting against road accidents results in an increased clutter of barriers, guard rails and excessive signage and signalling. The only defence for local authorities is to have 'a reasonable system of inspection', with everything hinging on the word 'reasonable'. The basis of arguments concerns whether it was reasonably foreseeable that an accident could occur. The boundaries of 'foreseeable' are continually being tested and stretched.7
The rise in claims has forced local authorities to enhance their inspection and maintenance regimes. In Britain Leeds, Cardiff and Liverpool are often cited as having good procedures. For example, when claims clusters occur in specific areas, Leeds targets these for attention. This has affected the culture of maintenance, so maintenance is now conducted specifically with the avoidance of claims in mind rather than seeing the urban environment in terms of criteria such as 'Is it pleasing?' or 'Does it feel attractive?'
Concerns about construction industry safety have been widespread and involve employers' liability; there is little criticism of their safety improvements, embodied in Britain in the Construction, Design and Management (CDM) regulations which have created new professions such as planning supervisors. The process, though, has affected urban professionals in pursuing innovations. There is a preference to go for tried and tested technology, materials or procedures.
Ironically there is one area within this where people have become blind to risk - 'megaprojects'8 - because human frailties come into play. Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition provides a detailed examination of how promoters of multibillion-dollar megaprojects systematically and self-servingly misinform parliaments, the public and the media in order to get projects approved and built. It shows, in unusual depth, that the Machiavellian formula for approval is underestimated costs, overestimated revenues, undervalued environmental impacts and overvalued economic development effects. This results, the authors argue, in projects that are extremely risky, but where the risk is concealed from MPs, taxpayers and investors.
Yet we need to take measured risks as new agendas challenge us - think how the built environment is put together. The sustainability agenda demands new ways of building and sometimes using novel materials; new architecture can push at the boundaries of the tried and tested within construction; the desire for more walkable places can tip the balance between pedestrians and cars. Achieving these aims involves 'good risks'. They confront the legacy of how things have been managed in the past, yet, aligned to a culture of risk aversion, moving forward becomes doubly difficult.
The result of this thinking would be a reframed approach to risk management. A first emblematic step would be to rename the current risk statements as 'risk and opportunity policy', where each side of the coin is equally validated. Most risk statements currently focus on problems rather than possibilities.
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