Overlapping discussions on the topic of Risk
Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 10:00PM
Sigrun LurĂ¥s in Overlap, Risk

The picture above is from the Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu in New Mexico, USA. In the beginning of January I spent a weekend here with the most interesting crowd of people I've met in a while, the so-called "Overlappers", for the Overlap:Risk. Overlappers are people who believe that we need discussions across and between disciplines to meet and solve important challenges of today, and who see such overlaps between disciplines as the core of innovation. But why did I travel 11 000 km to spend a weekend with these people at this secluded and dry mountainous place? What did this event taking place 1400 km from the coast and 2000 m above sea level have to do with my work on designing ship's bridges?

The Overlap:Risk

The Overlappers meet annually for the multidisciplinary, collaborative experience of the Overlap "un-conference". The topic for this Overlap was "risk".

In my opinion, the organisers couldn't have chosen a more timely topic. We've experienced an increasing number of incidents with vast consequences affecting both the greater society and ordinary people's personal lives. In the last few years we've seen people all around the world losing their jobs and facing challenging economic problems due to the financial crisis. In 2011 terror hit Norway and we experienced killing of a large number of innocent people for the first time since the Second World War. Equally disturbing incidents happen regularly to people in other parts of the world. We see natural disasters more frequently and the consequences seem to worsen, both trends believed to be due to climate change by many claimed to be caused by human activities. Modern production and transportation systems become increasingly complex, resulting in unpredictable consequences if an accident occur.1 And as a result of the Fukushima disaster in 2011, ordinary Japanese people now got hands-on experience of the potential outcome of the combination of a natural disaster and complex industrial systems.

On the other hand, in this unpredictable and volatile world of ours, risk can also be something positive. We need risk-taking individuals and organisations to drive innovation. Without people and communities willing to take risk, we probably won't be able to solve the challenges with the negative side of risk.2

Setting the scene for risky discussions

Overlap:Risk was kicked off by the organiser Gong Szeto, who talked about his view on risk using pool (billiards) as a starting point. Gong claimed that you can play pool or you can play mindful pool. The difference is that in the latter case, you consider the outcome and future consequences of your action, while in the former you just play. From his pool analogy Gong made the point that risk is something one can make, just as much as it is something one can take. Gong finished his introduction by presenting 50 provoking dilemmas of the type "What would you do if..." These dilemmas allowed us to feel how making choices in high-risk situations isn't straight forward. This set the scene for some really interesting discussions over the next couple of days.

Overlapping in practice

The formal programme of Overlap consisted of group working sessions. In between the group work, selected participants gave presentations and facilitated discussions of topics somehow relevant to risk.

In the groups we worked with risk related to climate change, virus, love and national security. We started with one topic and each of the following rounds we had to take on a new topic and continue the work of one of the other groups. There were four groups and four rounds of group work, which meant that all groups worked with all topics at some point.

In the first round we were to unpack the topic and design a map of the territory. The second round we were asked to identify risks and design a risk map, starting with a new topic and the map of the territory we inherited from one of the other groups. In the third round with yet a new topic and map designed by another group, our assignment was to isolate the risks and design an attack map on which a strategy could be built upon. In the last round we were asked to operationalise a chosen attack strategy and design a tactical map, describing how the risk could be dealt with.

"Be intent on action, not on the fruits of action"

The quote above from the the ancient Hindu writings Bhagavad Gita was used by one of the participants, T. Thorn Coyle, in a talk on desire and risk. I think it sums up what I got out of the group work quite well. I don't think we solved the threats of climate change issue (sorry yellow team!), although we had some enlightening discussions. I learned to look at viruses in new ways, but I don't believe Overlap:Risk came up with a remedy for any viruses. And even though we after some interesting and many-faceted discussions concluded that being vulnerable is key to get love, the tactical map designed at Overlap:Risk won't be able to help all those who haven't found love in getting it.

The most interesting thing with the group was the experience of doing the group work, the action. The variety of the topics we worked with and the way the group work session was designed challenged my view on risk. I have previously worked a lot with safety and been used to see risk as something undesirable. Through the mixed topics and the different ways my team mates viewed them, I had to think of risk in alternative ways.

I appreciate that what we experienced in the group work represents real life challenges. During the group work we had to quickly understand the situation that was presented to us through the previous group's work, try to make sense of it, and assess whether we approved of their description of the situation or if we felt a need to reframe it. Similar to real life, there was work done before us that we needed to understand, take into consideration, build upon or refuse.

We were also repeatedly faced with the problem of drawing boundaries. Starting with the fact that everything is related to everything makes a task overwhelming. But making the boundaries too narrow also introduces some challenges. Trying to overcome these kinds of issues in a really short time during Overlap (less than two hours!) was interesting and a good learning experience.

The role of risk in my work

How does risk relate to my PhD work? My overall research is connected to how systems thinking can be of help to designers working with high-risk environments. In the Ulstein Bridge Concept project, where we design the ship's bridge of offshore service vessels, the concept of risk is relevant on many levels.

The situations we design for are of high risk and the consequence of an incident can be disastrous. The moving environment is unpredictable and the operations carried out by the vessels for oil and gas production are complicated. At sea enormous forces can come into play and, if not handled in a good manner, the result can be fatal. As designers for domains like these, we need to have a good understanding of the risks of the situations we design for.

There is consensus in the maritime industry that the current use situation isn't acceptable. Research have shown that the designed environment plays a vital role in marine accidents. In one study 1/3 of 100 marine casualties were found to be caused partly by poor design of the equipment3. Several other studies conclude that the technology on the bridge does not support the users in a satisfactory manner4. When we go out and visit the mariners "in the wild", we see a lack of standardisation, low usability, information overload issues, technology that relies on the absence of human error and we hear about a daily life onboard where the mariners are concerned that amount of paperwork that was intended to make their operations safer, actually may threaten safety. We also observe designed environments that are far from appealing according to contemporary standards, which is a fact that shouldn't be underestimated for a place where people stay 24 hours a day for 4 weeks in a row. Many of these risk factors can be met by design.

However, talking about risk in the maritime world isn't only about the safety risk in the sharp end. In order to improve the situation, the ship yards, ship owners and operators need to take (or make!) the risk and develop new and revolutionary designs which can improve the situation. And the regulators must take the risk and allow for new designs to be put into use, even though they will have limited knowledge of how well the new designs will work, as there is no historical data to base "predictive" risk models on. Here design expertise can come into play. We designers can show the maritime world possible solutions and give people visions of how things could be in the future. We have already provided some visions of the future bridge, which fueled a lot of discussions, with the ULSTEIN BRIDGE VISION™ (see own blog post).

Overlapping themes

Overlap was about much more than what I've discussed here. Most of all it was about diverse and engaged people meeting and discussing important issues. People with an openness and a willingness to share. It was about respect and an eagerness to understand other people's viewpoints. And it was about making new contacts across national and disciplinary borders.

Now that I'm back home, it seems like Overlap will be just as much about what happens afterwards, as it is about what happened during the event. Going to a dry, rocky, mountainous landscape 1400 km from the coast and 2000 m above sea level might just prove to be an important turning point in my PhD work and beyond. Both because it challenged my views on some things, and because it introduced me to people that I'm sure will continue to challenge my views on things in future discussions.

Thanks a lot to the UBC project and Ulstein for making it possible for me to go to Overlap:Risk.

All pictures in this post are taken by Sigrun Lurås during the Overlap conference at or nearby the Ghost Ranch.


1 As described by for example Charles Perrow in "Normal accidents" (1999), James Reason in "Managing the risks of organizational accidents" (1997), Nancy Leveson in "Safeware" (1995), Erik Hollnagel and David Woods in several books and articles and others.

2 Taleb, N. N. (2012). Antifragile : things that gain from disorder. New York: Random House.

3 Referred in Rowley, I., Williams, R., Barnett, M., Pekcan, C., Gatfield, D., Northcott, L., & Crick, J. (2006). MCA RP545: Development of guidance for the mitigation of human error in automated ship- borne maritime systems.

4 See for example the research by Margareta Lützhöft, James M. Nyce, Erik Styhr Petersen, Stella Mills, Eva Olsson and others.

Article originally appeared on speiling (http://www.speiling.net/).
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