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Wild cards are major ‘known’ events or developments that can emerge, paradoxically as shocks, at any time. They are the ultimate ‘high impact, high uncertainty’ events, but typically their systemic impacts are ill-defined. Sometimes they are seen as so unlikely that they can be ignored. Or not even registered in risk calculations. Often they are seen fatalistically, along the lines of ‘nothing we can do about that’.
Sometimes, as in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments, business and the international community fail to recognise the threat and create resilience against worst case scenarios.
Wild card events are sometimes missed because their relevance to interconnected systems is not clear. While in some ways networks make us more resilient to moderate disruptions, in an interconnected world an extreme event in one system when interlinked with other critical systems can create catastrophic, synchronised chains of events. Again, COVID-19 demonstrates the scale of the challenge.
Even small wild card events can tip fragile systems into chaos. For example, the complex ‘inter-systemic’ relationships between climate, water, energy, food and political stability are only now becoming clear. Mapping connections and simulating potential wild card trigger events is one of the grand challenges of complexity science.