Our theme for 2019 is ‘Uncertainty’.
Everyone is talking about uncertainty – in finance, climate, migration, disease or infrastructure. Decision-makers often treat all kinds of uncertainties as if they are risks, with probabilities that can be calculated. But sustainability involves other kinds of uncertainties – whether they’re due to incomplete evidence, complexity, divergent values, scientific disagreement, gaps in knowledge or the simple possibility of surprise.
Uncertainties can make it hard to plan ahead. But recognising them can help to reveal new questions and choices. What kinds of uncertainty are there, why do they matter for sustainability, and what ideas, approaches and methods can help us to respond to them?
This page collects together a growing list of resources, papers and links on the theme of Uncertainty to inspire thought and action.
The ‘Uncertainty’ theme is the second in a four-year programme built around research, learning and events. Find out more about our programme.
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Book: The politics of uncertainty
The Politics of Uncertainty: Challenges of Transformation (Routledge, July 2020) is an Open Access book which explores the politics of uncertainty in different areas, including finance and banking, insurance, technology regulation and critical infrastructures, as well as climate change, infectious disease responses, natural disasters, migration, crime and security and spirituality and religion.
The book features an introduction by the editors (and convenors of the Uncertainty theme), Ian Scoones and Andy Stirling.
Symposium: The politics of UNcertainty
Our main event in 2019 was the international symposium ‘The Politics of Uncertainty: Practical Challenges for Transformative Action’.
Blog posts, video, podcasts and more are available on the event page.
Blog posts: Introducing uncertainty
Introducing our Uncertainty theme
Embracing uncertainty: what are the implications for sustainability and development?
Uncertainty, politics and science
A series of three blog posts by Andy Stirling
- Politics in the language of uncertainty
- How politics closes down uncertainty
- Towards a more convivial politics of science
Other blog posts on uncertainty
Art, uncertainty and system change
Views from the coast: uncertainty beyond climate change
PASTRES: Pastoralism, Uncertainty and Resilience
PASTRES (Pastoralism, Uncertainty and Resilience: Global Lessons from the Margins) is a research project which aims to learn from the ways that pastoralists respond to uncertainty, applying such ‘lessons from the margins’ to global challenges.
PASTRES will foster a conversation with other policy domains where uncertainty is pervasive, including financial and commodity systems, critical infrastructure management, disease outbreak response, migration policy, climate change and conflict and security governance.
The TAPESTRY project examines how transformation may arise ‘from below’ in marginal environments with high levels of uncertainty, and how this could be scaled up and out.
TAPESTRY focuses on three ‘patches of transformation’ in India and Bangladesh – vulnerable coastal areas of Mumbai, the Sundarbans and Kutch – where hybrid alliances and innovative practices are reimagining sustainable development and inspiring societal transformation.
System Change Hive
Held in Brighton starting from February 2019, the System Change Hive is a series of discussions that brings together art and research on the theme of systemic change. Informed by ideas from STEPS and climate communications experts, and with mentoring from experienced artists, a group of emerging artists are creating a set of artworks that respond to concerns about environmental collapse under capitalism, and open up the possibilities of radically different futures.
recent steps publications on uncertainty
What is Uncertainty and Why Does it Matter?
STEPS/PASTRES Working Paper 105 by Ian Scoones, April 2019
Uncertainty. Chapter by Andy Stirling in Companion to Environmental Studies (Routledge, 2018)
Precautionary appraisal as a response to risk, uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance. Chapter by Andy Stirling in Routledge Handbook of Ecological Economics (Routledge, 2017)
Living on the Edge: Climate Change and Uncertainty in the Indian Sundarbans. Ghosh, U., Bose, S. and Brahmachari, R., 2018
Addressing Climate Change Uncertainty in Dryland Kachchh, India. Srivastava, S. and Mehta, L., 2018
Video: Why uncertainty isn’t just about risk (4 minutes)
Prof Andy Stirling, co-director of the ESRC STEPS Centre, introduces different forms of uncertainty, and explains why treating all uncertainty as risk can lead to neglecting some important questions.[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Pul8mb1ZPE[/embedyt]
Video: Methods to explore uncertainty (5 minutes)
Prof Andy Stirling explores four kinds of uncertainties (risk, ambiguity, uncertainty and ignorance) and shows how different methods can be useful for each of them, in order to make more robust decisions.[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9ObK0auGOk[/embedyt]
Video: Why embracing uncertainty means rethinking development (49 minutes)
Lecture by Ian Scoones on receipt of the Ester Boserup Prize for research on development, June 2019.[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGgGGxdDZBY[/embedyt]
Video: Lecture – Knowing, not knowing… and power (63 minutes)
In this lecture, part of our online course on Pathways to Sustainability, Andy Stirling takes a detailed look at different kinds of uncertainty, how decision making deals with them, and how power affects the way that uncertainty is treated in policy and practice.[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDfQ3fIKygQ[/embedyt]
Film: Uncertain Climate
A short film exploring the complex uncertainties faced by coastal and dryland communities in India, and the contrasting views of local people, policy makers and scientists.[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enLzBPnsbas[/embedyt]
Why the precautionary principle matters
In this opinion piece for the Guardian, Andy Stirling shows how uncertainty is about a deeper set of questions than just risk, and how the precautionary principle can allow time for exploring them.
Methods and tools
Multi-criteria mapping (MCM)
A web-based interactive tool which can be used to ‘open up’ incertitude about particular problems or scenarios.
A participatory research method where people take pictures and relate the things that matter to them, which has been used by STEPS in research with people living with uncertainty in the Sundarbans (see this example).
A list of methods useful for appreciating pathways to sustainability, many of which explore and take account of uncertainties, among other questions.