In the BwN project ‘Coping with uncertainty’, the method described above was applied in retrospect to the Sand engine, in order to identify the most important uncertainties. The results and lessons learned from this analysis that can be of importance in future BwN projects are described in this section. The above mentioned uncertainty management strategies were not applied using the described tool.
- Uncertainty and policy development
- Uncertainty range
- Uncertainty as a weapon
- Role of reports
1. Uncertainty and policy development
Uncertainty gets meaning in policy development and is therefore much more than what classical science defines as ‘deficit of knowledge’. In policy development, there are multiple stakeholders and actors with different backgrounds, values, beliefs, interests and powers. They may have different interpretations of a (uncertain) phenomenon. As a consequence, ambiguity – uncertainty due to the existence of multiple, equally valid knowledge frames – is the most important type of uncertainty in BwN projects. More specifically, uncertainty gets meaning in policy development via its social implications, such as swimmer safety or financial commitment. These are more important than the unpredictability of weather conditions or the lack of knowledge about the natural system´s behaviour. As a consequence, strategies that “deal with differences” between the various actors and stakeholders will be the most important in managing uncertainty in BwN projects. Participation and cooperation are keywords. Facilitating dialogues and negotiation is an important way to achieve convergence.
2. Uncertainty range
In the BwN project ‘Coping with uncertainty´, no evidence was found that the magnitude of an uncertainty is important. No clues were found in either documents or interviews indicating anything like a maximum acceptable deviation or uncertainty bandwidth. Uncertainties are important if they have a potential effect on the success of a project. It is not so much the magnitude that matters, but rather the effect! To minimise the effect of uncertainties in a BwN project, however, is not an easy task as this involves longer temporal and unclearly defined spatial scales. For the same reason, it is also more difficult to determine which actors should be involved in policy development. As a result, uncertainties can arise if certain parties feel ignored.
In general, people are reluctant to explicitly accept uncertainty (although implicitly they do so all the time by accepting all sorts of risks). In the traditional command-and-control approach to flood protection engineering (e.g. construction of dikes and storm surge barriers), sufficient control and predictability is perceived to warrant a desired future state. The possibility of things taking a different course is ignored or considered acceptable. In the case of a BwN-approach, however, uncertainty is a more prominent characteristic; this means that the exact state of the system cannot be guaranteed, even though its basic functioning can. Our current policy practices are not familiar with accepting such uncertainty in projects and designs. One would rather prescribe the exact number of trees per unit area, for instance. Changing this situation requires a number of success stories of BwN-projects in the media, showing that these solutions work despite the inherent uncertainties.
4. Uncertainty as a weapon
Uncertainty can be a powerful weapon in disputes about a project. Opponents can use “high levels of uncertainty” in general or an “uncertain, dangerous issue” in particular as a weapon to create ambiguity and tackle promising initiatives. Pointing at the uncertainties and the ‘precautionary principle’, opponents can mobilize politicians that share their ideas, as was done in the Sand Engine case with the issues of swimmer safety and drinking water safety. In fact, it is not the uncertainty that matters here, but rather the insecurity that people tend to associate with it. These concerns should be taken seriously, given due attention and reduced as far as possible. Beware, however, of people that are not interested in the truth and just want to stop the project.
5. Role of reports
The role of reports and additional research – traditionally meant to reduce uncertainty – is different in a BwN project. Reports can still be used to “influence people”, but are less appropriate to reduce uncertainty about the unpredictable natural system and its behaviour. Uncertainty about swimmer safety, for instance, is caused by the fact that the natural behaviour of the currents in the vicinity of the Sand Engine project is to a certain extent unpredictable(it may be even more so on an straight open coast, but people are accustomed to that). By definition, uncertainty due to unpredictability cannot be reduced by additional research. Nevertheless, in the development process of the Sand Engine, an additional swimmer safety study was performed. An unwritten goal of this study may have been to ‘reassure’ the lay public with the idea that everything possible has been done to come to grips with the uncertainty.
Given the innovative character of BwN-type projects and the uncertainties associated with them, the support of a strong political leader or champion is essential to bring such projects to realisation. In the case of the Sand Engine, several people credit Mrs. Lenie Dwarshuis, Province Deputy, for taking this role stating that the project would not have been realized without her continuous efforts, enthusiasm and perseverance.
Start to manage uncertainty as early as possible, by stimulating participation and cooperation. This will promote common framing, thus avoiding ambiguity. In the Sand Engine project, there was concern about the budget and whether dredging companies would come up with a sufficiently low price per unit sand. This potential problem was coped with by involving market parties in an early stage, so as to be realistic about the cost level to be expected.