In today’s security-obsessed society, deliberate risk taking has become the exception. The potential for insecurity and the unpredictability of the consequences of risky actions are misused as knock-out arguments against the exploration of revolutionary technologies and the trial and error process necessary for new kinds of entrepreneurial activities. As risk taking is considered irresponsible, the extensive use of new energy sources or genetically modified food for example is only accepted when even the slimmest chance of any harmful consequences has been ruled out. Nowadays, society has elevated risk aversion to the level of moral virtue and duty. This seems typical for ageing societies which have achieved a certain level of wealth. Meanwhile, we fool ourselves into believing that risks are solely dangers, that there can be real progress without any peril. Thus, it is the paradox of the current zeitgeist that the more secure and comfortable the technological progress and calculable chances taken in the past make us, the less willing we are to take the necessary risks to overcome tomorrow’s challenges.
This is a dangerous path, as without any risk taking there is neither change nor progress. Every step forward can bring us into uncertain terrain and unknown dangers. It is this conscious but deliberate risk behaviour which evolution has favoured and which has allowed us to achieve today’s level of knowledge and wealth. Thus, successful risk taking should be acknowledged and morally as well as economically rewarded by society. Evidently, accountability in case of failure is crucial too, but this should not amount to moral condemnation of unsuccessful entrepreneurial initiative. It also does not mean that we should shoulder the burden of every risk in order to achieve progress. But a society that automatically shrinks back from accepting even small risks will set itself on the path to stagnation and decline. There will always be more competitive, venturous, and thus, more successful societies. Since risk aversion prevents the seizing of opportunities, the American writer Erica Jong was right when she once wrote: “The trouble is, if you don’t risk anything, you risk even more”.
This article was written for the 42nd St. Gallen Symposium that took place under the topic "Facing Risk".