Visualising and managing uncertainties


Uncertainty can be a prominent issue in policy and project development processes, as both decision-makers and the general public generally have difficulty accepting uncertainty about the outcomes and effects of large-scale – and probably costly – interventions. In comparison to traditional hydraulic engineering solutions (eg. dykes and storm surge barriers) that attempt to control nature, uncertainty is an inevitable part of BwN projects, due to the uncertainty of natural processes that are utilised in the design.

This tool is aimed to provide guidance on two issues. Firstly, if a specific uncertainty is identified, it is crucial to understand its nature or type. To that end, a classification of uncertainty is provided. Secondly, different types of uncertainty have quite different characteristics. As a result, these uncertainties require very different strategies to manage them. Strategies are therefore suggested for each specific type of uncertainty. This tool is mainly based on the research of Brugnach et al. (2008) for the NeWater project and the PhD work of Van den Hoek in BwN project ‘Coping with uncertainty in water engineering projects embracing natural dynamics’.

The meaning of uncertainty

Both in the scientific literature and in professional practice, uncertainty used to be regarded as a ‘deficit of knowledge’, caused by e.g. the absence of information, insufficient quality of the data available and/or contradictory findings. This classic interpretation implies that uncertainty can be dealt with via strategies such as “do more research”, “go for more accurate data” and “use better measuring equipment”.

In practice, interpreting uncertainty as a ‘deficit of knowledge’ will narrow down its analysis and management, with too much focus on specific details. Such details are usually of minor relevance for decision-makers who ultimately decide whether or not the proposed project will be realised, as well as for the public whose commitment may be essential to get things done.

Is it really necessary to reduce every uncertainty to a minimum? Recent scientific literature indicates that uncertainty is much more than a deficit of knowledge, if and when it plays a role in policy development processes. The answer to the above question should therefore be negative. It is more important to focus on those uncertainties that can become “trouble-makers” in policy and project development and threaten the continuation of promising, innovative initiatives. By definition, such innovations – like BwN – involve many uncertain elements, if it is the first time that such a project is realised (otherwise it would not be an innovation).

Uncertainty is defined here as the situation in which there is not a unique and complete understanding of the system at hand (Brugnach et al., 2008). The tool is meant to analyse uncertainty in policy and project development. It provides insight into the different types of uncertainty and provides some strategies – or tips and tricks, do’s and don’ts – to deal with the “troublesome” uncertainties. Using practical examples, we will show that it is essential to correctly identify the type of uncertainty, as the type determines the appropriate strategy.

Building with Nature interest

The tool is interesting for BwN for two reasons. Firstly, BwN proactively uses natural dynamics and materials, of which the behaviour is difficult to predict on the short-term and largely unpredictable in the long run. This means that uncertainty is an intrinsic characteristic of the use of BwN design principles in a water engineering project, probably more so than in the case of a traditional engineering approach. Moreover, the use of BwN design principles is innovative and many people are still unfamiliar with the BwN concept. This means that there is also a lot of room for perceived uncertainty, feelings of insecurity, and ignorance. The tool can be used in all phases of BwN project development.