USNC Professional Team

Thoughts on part one of KPMG's "Expect the Unexpected" report

Karen Langbehn
Started by Karen Langbehn on
23 Mar 2013 at 21:56
PhD Candidate, Applied Rhetoric of Science , University of South Florida
Know-how: Public Value Mapping , Water Security , Policy Analysis & Adaptation

Part One of the KPMG report "Expect the Unexpected: Building business value in a changing world" highlights an extremely important factor - one that, I believe, pretty much determines whether sustainable and profitable responses to changing economic, ecological, and social conditions can be accomplished. That factor is: a new way of thinking.

KPMG explains this new paradigm of thinking as "expecting the unexpected;" in academia, interdisciplinary scholars (ecology, philosophy, culture) like T. Morton call it "The Ecological Thought;" my discipline, the rhetoric of science, refers to this mode of thinking (primarily as it pertains to science and technology) as the "management of uncertainty" (Herndl). Regardless of its moniker, though, the implications that KPMG articulates for shifting to this new paradigm of thinking - a perspective that expects the unexpected- mean learning to look at the world in a new way, a way that:

takes into account globally interconnected megaforces (climate change, energy and fuel, material resource scarcity, water scarcity, population growth, urbanization, wealth, food security, ecosystem decline, deforestation)
acknowledges and realizes the importance of the causal relationships between megaforces, feedback loops, effective intervention points, and complex scenarios (p. 37)

"Expecting the unexpected" means a paradigm shift from thinking about disciplinary expertise, isolated "solutions" and certainty to thinking about these megaforces in a holistic way; understanding the network of complexity that has resulted from tremendous success of scientific research, technological development, and a "business environment that is more complex and faster-moving than ever" (KPMG, p. 2). "Complexity," the KPMG report argues, is the top priority of senior corporate decision-makers, who all report that "managing complexity is important to the success of their organizations" (KPMG p. 39).

My understanding of this imperative, in terms of business, is informed by my research of the ways that rhetoric, public policy, and the sub-discipline of science, technology, and society explain society's responses to climate change adaptation (an example of the complexity mentioned above). One of the current conversations in these disciplines pertains to an argument for a "world risk society," (Beck) one which recalibrates the place of judgment by demonstrating the limits of techno-scientific rationality and highlighting the uncertainty that attends to scientific and technological development" (Danisch p. 173). Although this explanation pertains specifically to scientific and technological development, KPMG's explanation of the purpose of "systems thinking" (to assess and manage new risks comprehensively and uncover risks that were previously unidentified, p. 40) as used in a business context, can be traced to the same underlying message about risk, perception, and managing complexity from the perspective of science, technology, and society:

the risks that we confront now are different in kind than the risks we understood
in earlier eras ... these threats are real and exist on an unprecedented scale because they cannot be delimited
spatially, temporally, or socially. It is the magnitude and global nature of contemporary risks that set them
apart from earlier forms of risk and lead to the development of a different perception of risk ... and although
risk is still closely tied to the science of statistics, that tie does more to highlight the uncertainty that attends
risk than it does to eliminate it" (Danisch 178-9).

"Expecting the unexpected," therefore, is a result of the argument that risks in the contemporary era are vastly different, exponentially more uncertain, and tremendously more complex than the risks we've been accustomed to calculating and predicting. Contemporary risks are "manufactured uncertainties" resulting from human intervention into the natural world for the purposes of industrialization, etc., causing unintended consequences and a proliferating scene of uncertainty and contingency" (Danisch 179). Because the way in which we conceive of these new risks has dramatically changed, so too must our thinking about limits, certainty, and "symptomatic" solutions ... we must expect the unexpected, think the ecological thought, manage uncertainties ... and this challenge starts with a paradigm shift in our perception.

The argument that KPMG makes here relates directly with how I see potential in the rhetorical/linguistic theories of framing as a strategy for communicating this paradigm shift effectively. Framing theory argues that different-but-related language about the risks of megaforces like climate change is required in order to provide challenges for innovative responses to increasing complexity and opportunities for deliberation about adaptation policy ...


Stan Bronson
Karen, very insightful analysis. New development in the agenda…KPMG has a great interest in what we are doing with USNC. Joanne Beatty, KPMG Director for Sustainability and chair of our Corporate Advisory Council, introduced me by way of telephone on Thursday to Mark McKenzie, who authored much of Expect the Unexpected, and is KPMG’s Climate Change expert in their global headquarters in Amsterdam. What will happen is that on Wednesday, May 15, we will go to their headquarters and begin workshop that will be facilitated by KPMG experts. We will divide into our discipline groups of academics, corporate, NGO and government where we will identify drivers that have benefit for each sector, identify goals that can connect those drivers and list how these could relate to solutions the USNC Knowledge Exchange Platform develops. We then will drive over lunch to the City of Lelystad where we will continue the workshop by bringing together the US universities and their Dutch and UK counterparts. It will be a full and enlightening day.
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