It was time for “Wildcards” this week in World Futures class. I have a bunch of thoughts jostling around in my head, and thought I’d try to get them written down – not likely I’ll get them sorted out anytime soon.
I’ll reveal a bias upfront that wildcards have not been a topic of particular interest of mine. Over the years, I’ve been involved in a few consulting projects focused on them, and have used them in exercises to stimulate and expand thinking on occasion. I’ve more or less accepted the notions from the tour de force in the field: John Petersen’s excellent “Out of the Blue” that a wildcard was a low-probability, high impact event. He may have done the work too well, in that not much else has been written about them. In recent years, new work has emerged, such as that of fellow futurists Elina Hiltunen and Marcus Barber to name a few).
What really got me excited about the concept was Oliver Markley’s piece on “A new methodology for anticipating STEEP surprises” published in Technological Forecasting & Social Change in 2011. We were fortunate to get an advanced preview of the work in class via guest lecture. He proposed a new typology of wildcards with the addition of a third criteria: credibility. Subtle though it may seem, I feel it was a genius stroke! So here are the four types with the third criteria.
- Type I Wild Card: low probability, high impact, high credibility
- Type II Wild Card: high probability, high impact, low credibility
- Type III Wild Card: high probability, high impact, disputed credibility
- Type IV Wild Card: high probability, high impact, high credibility.
So the classic wildcard is still there – the Type 1. Note that the credibility is high, that is, few dispute that the wildcard could happen, or that it would have high impact, but that it is low probability.
Note that the next three types are all high probability (what, “a wildcard with high probability,” you say). The impact is still high across the types. It’s the credibility that’s in question. A Type 2 wildcard is viewed as high probability by experts, but has low credibility with non-experts. In other words, the experts see it coming, but the non-experts don’t. And now we can bring in the idea of progression developed in Molitor’s Emerging Issue Curve to capture a potential evolution from low to disputed to high credibility as non-expert awareness grows. So, for example, climate change started as a Type 1, then scientific consensus grew to it being high probability, but the public was largely unaware. I’d argue it’s now a Type 3, as society is debating/disputing it (but aware).
This “evolution” in thinking about wildcards, for me at least, brings them back into the consideration set worthy of proper attention. Where I still feel a bit muddled is whether wildcard is the right word for types 2-4? Indeed, the journal suggested a modification that led Oliver to title the piece “Steep Surprises.” I’m not sure if that’s it either. What I am sure of, is that it’s time to [re-]introduce wilcards into the futurist’s deck of playing cards. A few more ideas are stewing about, but I think that’s enough for now. Andy Hines