Spring 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 1 // Futures // 1FUT1

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Future Risk Assessment: Issues Programming Opportunity


J. David Deshler
Futures Editor

Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

In the future, Cooperative Extension has an unprecedented opportunity to provide education in conjunction with economic, technological, environmental, and social impact or risk assessments. These assessments will become more crucial to the quality of life on our planet and will affect the lives of millions of people, including those yet to be born. Decisions about impact and risk assessments shouldn't be made by experts alone, but should be formed by participation on the part of an informed general public.

The resources of the land-grant universities can be used to ensure quality impact and risk assessments through the Cooperative Extension System. No other adult education network is likely to fill this crucial educational niche that's essential to the future of our American society through the next 20 years. Cooperative Extension should willingly accept this significant educational role, seek funding, and engage staff to undertake it.

What Are Impact or Risk Assessments?

Impact and risk assessments are futures techniques that help us anticipate potential unintended hazards or undesirable consequences associated with specific situations or proposed plans. The assessment may call for adaptation or abandonment of proposals or the consideration of alternative proposals to provide protection against risk. Different types of risk assessments (economic, technological, environmental, and social) focus on unique effects; however, effects from several of these categories are likely to be included in any specific assessment.

Assessments may be conducted in response to proposals of employment and tax policy, energy technology, plant closings or openings, agricultural policy or technology, physical structures, transportation, biotechnology, waste treatment, housing construction, electronic technology, water quality efforts, medical technology, welfare policy, and urban redevelopment, to name a few.

History of Impact or Risk Assessment

Economic impact assessments have been around a long time. Their use has been a major interest of businesses and governments. Questions that these studies typically address include: (1) Is the proposal workable, feasible, and within budget? (2) Who will use it and pay for it? (3) How can demand be generated? (4) What is the benefit/cost ratio? (5) Which alternatives will maximize the net value of benefits? For many years, if the answers to these questions were positive, it meant a green light for the technology, development project, or economic policy. However, these questions didn't include a concern for environmental or social risks.1

No one seriously doubts the major role that decades of technological innovation have played in shaping the modern world - its living standards, geographical features, atmosphere, and food chain. Technological advance has been considered a source of economic, social, and cultural progress over the centuries. Increasingly, technological efficiencies have been realized in primary industries such as agriculture and mining, in the production and distribution of energy, in transportation, and in electronic and information processing. However, more recently economic impact assessments of development, including various forms of technology, didn't include considerations of the effects of technologies on the environment and health.

An amazing series of alarms and controversies over technology has occurred.2 Unforseen disasters from DDT to oil slicks and nuclear power meltdowns have received worldwide attention. A different set of questions emerged. Society became more aware of environmental dysfunctions, as well as indirect and delayed impacts on natural resources and human social patterns. Frequently, these effects were undesired and unintended. Clearly, feasibility and desirability were recognized as different from each other. Risk assessment techniques have provided tools to examine the often unquestioned applications of technology and the rush to unbridled development.

Once the door was opened to technological and environmental impact assessment, it took little time to recognize that social impact assessment had been neglected. Concern for unintended, indirect, and delayed impacts, such as thalidomide on people, became important enough to require social impact studies as well. It's widely recognized now that even if all negative effects can't be avoided, they should be anticipated as fully as possible through impact assessments that include technological, environmental, and social effects. To fail to do this leaves society subject to unintended human, social, and environmental costs and sometimes irreversible consequences that are more severe than the original problems that prompted the action. Most impact studies now assess combinations of technological, environmental, and social impacts.3

Purposes of Impact or Risk Assessments

The primary purposes of economic, technological, environmental, and social impact or risk assessments are to provide: (1) an information base for understanding complex effects of proposals such as construction, new products or technologies, new policies, and service provisions; (2) an early warning system to prevent adverse effects; (3) a tool for citizen groups to use to protect the public's interest and the interests of future generations; (4) a means of identifying alternative approaches, technologies, and adaptations that are less harmful; and (5) a basis for planning that involves affected constituents.

Procedures for Impact Assessments

Rarely is a proposal to be assessed confined to a single option; usually a variety of alternatives must be considered. In addition, the various groups having an interest in a study are likely to be unclear about what the potential problems are. Thus, the initial framing of the problem may require frequent reworking. Many qualitative and quantitative tools may be brought to bear: cost-benefit analysis, trend extrapolation, systems analysis, social surveys, historical surveys, historical analogy, Delphi, conferences, workshops, briefings, hearings, advisory committees, moot courts, artistic judgment, on-site field investigation, scaling techniques, and scenario creation.4 Therefore, it's impossible to identify a single general methodology applicable to all potential impact situations. Cooperative Extension staff will, in most cases, not be engaged in actually conducting impact or risk assessments; rather, we should know what good ones look like and be able to facilitate the use of the resources of our land-grant universities when needed.

Decision Dilemmas of Impact Assessments

Several conflicts are inherent to impact assessments. These conflicts are political and usually call for public policy education. Typical tradeoffs or decision dilemmas associated with most impact assessments are: (1) short-term benefits versus long-term costs; (2) tolerable risks versus benefits and costs; (3) economic growth versus environmental protection; (4) decentralized, simple, citizen-controlled technology versus centralized, complex corporate- or government-controlled technology; (5) benefits to some versus burdens to others; and (6) benefits to present generations versus costs to future generations.

One purpose of an impact study is to make these choices known. The choices obviously aren't all technical, but are value-laden and political as well. They reflect social goals. No "hard research" answers exist to such questions, or established degrees of tolerable uncertainty and risk. Political issues are at stake among special interest groups, organizations, government, the general public, and those trying to represent future generations.

Role of Participation in Impact or Risk Assessment

To some extent, technological, environmental, and social impact or risk assessments are attempts to exert democratic control over unbridled development and special interest group benefits that could be implemented at the expense of the public's interest. As such, participation in the assessment is as important as its findings. Citizen involvement can help bridge the gap between factual technical analysis and value-oriented policy decisions. Several approaches to participation that have been tried include: (1) gathering data from a wide range of parties that are likely to be affected; (2) including interested parties and stakeholders on advisory committees to plan, analyze, and react to assessment findings; (3) involving interested parties in working together to create adaptations and alternative plans for innovations, once the potential impacts have been assessed; and (4) encouraging participatory research controlled by interested parties.

This last form of involvement can be particularly important when government agencies are unresponsive, try to minimize or cover up consequences that are embarrassing, or receive limited resources for risk assessments. We should remember that participatory research originally documented hazardous conditions at New York's Love Canal and brought the findings to the attention of public health officials. The influence of many grassroots groups has resulted in government and industry carrying out technological, environmental, and social risk assessments. People often need to act to protect themselves.

Roles for Extension in Impact Assessment

Extension personnel can perform the following roles in impact assessment: (1) identify conditions and situations that require impact assessments; (2) act as brokers between citizens and organizations that perform impact studies, including the land-grant institutions and government agencies; (3) disseminate findings from impact assessments to the general public; and (4) facilitate dialogue among interested parties concerning the value bases for decisions.

Extension is the one adult education system that can provide excellent impact and risk assessment education using the resources of the land-grant universities. The community college and public adult systems aren't prepared to undertake it. Government, in most cases, is an interested party and isn't likely to be accepted in an educational role. Other special interest groups will, of course, participate educationally on behalf of their own perspectives. Extension can fill a unique niche among educational providers. "Module 6: Education for Public Decisions"5 and "Module 7: Techniques for Futures Perspectives,"6 the new core modules titled Working with Our Publics: Inservice Education for Cooperative Extension provide us with a foundation for this issue-oriented public policy educational role. Impact and risk assessment education could very well offer Extension the "boll weevils" issue of our generation.


1. C. Dede, "Technology and the Future," in Handbook of Futures Research, J. Fowles, ed. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1978).

2. E. Lawless, Technology and Social Shock (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1977).

3. J. Coates, "Technology Assessment," in Handbook of Futures Research, J. Fowles, ed. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1978).

4. P. Manheim, "The Effects of Social Impact Analysis on Decisions Allocating Investments in Resources by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers" (Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1984).

5. V. House and A. Young, "Module 6: Education for Public Decisions," in Working with Our Publics: Inservice Education for Cooperative Extension (Raleigh: North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service and the Department of Adult and Community College Education, North Carolina State University, 1988).

6. D. Deshler, "Module 7: Techniques for Futures Perspectives," in Working with Our Publics: Inservice Education for Cooperative Extension (Raleigh: North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service, Department of Adult and Community College Education, North Carolina State University, 1988).