Emerging Systemic Risks in the 21st Century

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) | 2003

What is new about major risks in the 21st century? Recent years have witnessed a host of large-scale disasters of various kinds throughout the world: hugely damaging windstorms and flooding in Europe and ice storms in Canada; new diseases infecting both humans (AIDS, the Ebola virus) and animals (BSE); terrorist attacks such as those of 11 September 2001 in the United States and the Sarin gas attack in Japan; major disruptions to critical infrastructures caused by computer viruses or simply technical failure.

These are just some of the extremely costly disasters that have struck over the past few years. And yet, it is not just the nature of major risks that seems to be changing, but also the context within which they appear and society’s capacity to manage them. The forces shaping these changes are many and varied. For example, weather conditions appear to be becoming increasingly extreme.

The population density in urban centres and concentrations of economic activity in certain regions are rising, rendering these areas more vulnerable. Globalisation in all its dimensions – economic, technological, cultural, environmental – is growing apace and increasing interdependence, making it all the easier for dangerous pathogens, pollutants and technical failures to spread. Equally important, the frontiers of scientific discovery and technological innovation are expanding at breathtaking speed, confronting society with unknown (indeed, unknowable) impacts, and therefore immensely difficult choices. If the past is any guide to the future, these trends are set to continue.

This report, produced by the OECD’s International Futures Programme (IFP), explores the implications of those developments for the economy and society in the 21st century, focusing in particular on the possibility of major systems becoming more vulnerable in the future. Health services, transport, energy, food and water supplies, information and telecommunications are all examples of sectors with vital systems that can be severely damaged by a single catastrophic event or chain of events.

Such threats may come from a variety of sources, but the report concentrates on five large risk clusters:

  • Natural disasters.
  • Technological accidents.
  • Infectious diseases.
  • Terrorism- related risks.
  • Food safety.

It examines the underlying forces driving changes in these domains and identifies the challenges facing OECD countries – especially at international level – in assessing, preparing for and responding to conventional and new hazards. It also sets out a number of recommendations for governments and the private sector as to how the management of emerging systemic risks might be improved. Importantly, it advocates a coherent approach to management, and proposes policy tools for achieving that objective.

Report: OECD 2003 Emerging Risks