Risk Assessment Can Be a Game-Changing Information Technology—But Too Often It Isn't



The printing press was a game-changing information technology. Risk assessment could be also. At present, risk assessments are commonly used as one-time decision aids: they provide justification for a particular decision, and afterwards usually sit on a shelf. However, when viewed as information technologies, their potential uses are much broader. Risk assessments: (1) are repositories of structured information and a medium for communication; (2) embody evaluative structures for setting priorities; (3) can preserve information over time and permit asynchronous communication, thus encouraging learning and adaptation; and (4) explicitly address uncertain futures. Moreover, because of their “what-if” capabilities, risk assessments can serve as a platform for constructive discussion among parties that hold different values. The evolution of risk assessment in the nuclear industry shows how such attributes have been used to lower core-melt risks substantially through improved templates for maintenance and more effective coordination with regulators (although risk assessment has been less commonly used in improving emergency-response capabilities). The end result of this evolution in the nuclear industry has been the development of “living” risk assessments that are updated more or less in real time to answer even routine operational questions. Similar but untapped opportunities abound for the use of living risk assessments to reduce risks in small operational decisions as well as large policy decisions in other areas of hazard management. They can also help improve understanding of and communication about risks, and future risk assessment and management. Realization of these opportunities will require significant changes in incentives and active promotion by the risk analytic community.