How can we protect ourselves from unknown threats?

Earthquakes, acts of terrorism, flooding, pandemics, food poisoning, oil and gas emissions, cyber attacks, radioactivity, hurricanes and traffic accidents – the list of potential threats to society is long. Common to all of these is that they are extremely difficult – if not impossible – to predict. And how do we prevent the unpredictable? We conduct research and find new solutions.
How can we protect ourselves from unknown threats?

Professor and President for the SRA-E, Lars Bodsberg

The annual conference of the Society for Risk Analysis – Europe (SRA-E) was held on 17–19 June 2013. Entitled Safe Societies – coping with complexity and major risk, the conference brought together some 200 international researchers and industry representatives at NTNU in Trondheim from a wide range of fields to discuss risk analysis and management in the context of societal security. The SRA-E seeks to encourage the sharing of knowledge and experience to ensure that research activities maintain the highest possible standard and that research results are put to use.

Bjørn Otto Sverdrup, the head of the secretariat of the Norwegian 22 July Commission, opened the conference with a powerful presentation of his experiences with terrorism. In addition to his involvement in the intensive review of the terrorist attacks of 22 July 2011, Mr Sverdrup was also involved in handling the hostage situation at Statoil’s gas production facility in Algeria in January of this year in his capacity as a vice president at Statoil. His presentation turned the spotlight on the main theme of the conference: How can we prevent unpredictable risks? Situations that we cannot even conceive of?

Presentations on subsequent days of the conference looked at research on earthquake disasters in Iran, risk communication in connection with swine flu, management of uncertainty in organisations, and a myriad of other topics.

Nordic Black Swans

Samfundssikkerhed, SRA-E

In the field of societal security research, a Black Swan is an event that is beyond the realm of the imagination and ultimately alters our cognitive frameworks. The terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 in New York and on 22 July 2011 on Utøya Island are Black Swans. However, the terrorist attack on the Government Complex in Oslo on 22 July 2011 was not, because the risk of a bombing could be predicted. The sheer gruesomeness of these terrifying events underscores just how important it is to conduct research both on the management of security breaches and on new, incomprehensible scenarios.

Risk research is invisible

Lars Bodsberg, Senior Research Scientist at SINTEF Technology and Society in Trondheim and one of the co-organisers of the conference, was recently elected President of the SRA-E, the European chapter of the Society for Risk Analysis. His aim is to attract more members to the organisation to further boost the quality of research and practice in the sphere of societal security. Mr Bodsberg is working actively to give security research a more prominent position on the political agenda.

“Obtaining funding for security research is a challenge. Everyone agrees that security is vital. But who is willing to pay for it? Citizens expect security to be in place. It is the invisible foundation on which society rests. So I hope that the research councils in the Nordic countries will give priority to this research area,” he says. “Risk analysis has already proved its worth,” he continues. “Just look at the area of transport and traffic. Norway has managed to reduce the number of traffic-related deaths by 50 per cent, even though there are many more cars on the road. This is the result of thorough risk analysis efforts.”

New Nordic chapter of the SRA-E in the works

The first step towards establishing a Nordic chapter of the SRA-E was taken at the conference. Lars Bodsberg warmly endorses this development: “I think a Nordic chapter will encourage a higher level of cooperation and activity in the area. In particular it will benefit younger Nordic researchers who will be able to develop close contacts and share experiences. I’m very pleased to say that it looks like a Nordic chapter of the SRA-E is going to become a reality.”

A working group comprised of Nordic researchers has begun developing the framework for the chapter, which will be presented at the next SRA-E conference in Istanbul in 2014. Nordic cooperation is important because the countries share similar mindsets, legislation and challenges. And because threats – whether from climate change, terrorist attacks or some other source – know no boundaries.


Societal security is a new priority area for NordForsk. The deadline for submission of proposals for the first phase of establishing a Nordic Centre of Excellence in Societal Security was 14 June 2013. Fourteen proposals covering a broad scientific scope were received. The best of these will receive a grant of roughly NOK 100 000 from NordForsk for network-building, which will support the efforts of Nordic research groups to prepare complete proposals for submission at the beginning of 2014.

The Nordic Societal Security Programme has a budget of approximately NOK 40 million, with financing from NordForsk, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), the Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection (DSB) and the Icelandic Centre for Research (RANNIS). NordForsk is working to secure financing from Finland and Denmark as well, so that researchers/project managers in these countries will also be eligible to apply for funding from the common pot. The aim is to allocate some NOK 80 million in total.


Text and photos: Linn Hoff Jensen

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