iKNOW ERA Toolkit

Applications of Wild Cards and Weak Signals to the Grand Challenges & Thematic Priorities of the European Research Area

Funded by Directorate-General for Research and Innovation Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities 

the ERA Toolkit


Why an ERA Toolkit?

This 'ERA-Toolkit' report aims to be a source of reference and inspiration, for all those involved with the European Research Area.

We explore some of the applications of the iKnow methods and tools to the themes of the ERA.

We find from experience that such themes call for a 'Wild approach' to exploration and deliberation in foresight and horizon scanning. In particular, this is supported by the 'WI-WE' (Wild Card / Weak Signal) resources - a whole platform of innovation tools (iBank, iScan, iLibrary, iCommunity, iDelphi, iNews and iOracle), as created by the iKnow project.

The themes of the ERA range far and wide, across technological, economic, environmental, political, social and ethical (TEEPSE) issues. Here these are set out in the form of 21 'Grand Challenges'and 11 'Thematic Priorities'. Each of these Grand Challenges and Thematic Priorities is a broad and deep agenda. Often they aim to address so-called 'wicked' problems: issues which lack fixed boundaries or definitions; without clear scientific methods or evidence; and lacking any consensus on policy responses. Each of these extends from multi-disciplinary scientific approaches, towards other parts of society; policy and governance; finance and business; media and culture; and community and civil society.

And for each of these Grand Challenges and Thematic Priorities, it is clear that conventional research methods are generally not enough. To explore a world which is increasingly complex, interconnected, multi-level and vulnerable, new approaches are needed, which can respond both to systemic risks and to creative opportunities. To explore such risks and opportunities is the essence of the Wild approach, as supported with the WI-WE resources.

This report provides a first outline of how this is taking shape on the ground.

It is designed to be used in parallel to the iKnow platform on http://www.iknowfutures.eu, and in particular to the Practical Guide to applications of Wild Cards and Weak Signals.

Aims and objectives of the report

We have produced this report mainly for research policy-makers, research project leaders and researchers in the ERA, who are grappling with these wider challenges, and who will benefit from working with the Wild approach and the WI-WE resources. The main aims of the report include:

  • General guidance for the application of the Wild approach and the WI-WE resources, in the ERA context.
  • Outline of key research agendas in each of the ERA Grand Challenges and Thematic Priorities, with directions for the Wild approach and WI-WE resources.
  • Demonstration of examples of the WI-WE resources, with extracts from the iKnow project platform. For each Grand Challenge and Thematic Priority addressed in this report, there is a set of 5 Wild Cards and 5 Weak Signals. Full details for each, together with the results of iDelphi surveys, can be looked up on the www.iknowfutures.eu

Outline and audience of the report

Following this Introduction, the ERA Toolkit is set out in three main parts:

  • Part I: Grand Challenges and the applications of the Wild approach.
  • Part II: Thematic Priorities and the applications of the Wild approach.
  • Part III: Background and implications for ERA research.

We see several types of audience and user groups in the ERA context:

  1. Research policy makers, programme coordinators and managers.
  2. Research project proposers, investigators and researchers.
  3. Research users and knowledge intermediaries.
  4. Research disseminators and educators.
  5. Research funding organisations.


Research in a 21st century Europe

The ERA research themes are increasingly multi-level, trans-disciplinary, user or policy-oriented, pro-active and socially engaged. This reflects a Europe and a global context, which is increasingly complex and inter-dependent, volatile and vulnerable, driven by systemic risks and grasping for creative opportunities.

To respond to this, in the wider spirit of the knowledge society, requires not only new research themes, but new paradigms for research. We can sketch these with some leading questions:

  • Why the research is done? There is generally increased awareness of higher purposes and inter-connections to society and policy. Even the most esoteric laboratory work cannot ignore its implications.
  • Who the research is by and for? We find that beyond traditional scientific or policy communities, there is business and finance, media and culture, communities and civil society, and other non-European cultures and belief systems.
  • Which themes and topics? Generally, enlarging the scope of science and technology towards its social, ethical and environmental issues, with possibly a re-balancing towards social science and humanities.
  • How such research is done? Generally, the new modes of research will extend beyond disciplinary boundaries, towards the exploration of complex adaptive and emergent system effects. These often inter-connect between society, technology, economy, environment, political and value systems.

In particular the 'how' question raises the issue of complex interconnections, which in our experience are beyond the remit of traditional fields and methods. So this is the entry point for the 'Wild' approach, supported by 'WI-WE' resources and information. Broadly, this Wild approach aims to explore the frontiers of what is probable or plausible, by asking 'what-if' questions. It seeks to systematically gather Weak Signals, relate them to potential Wild Cards, and to explore creative opportunities which interconnect between different parts of the system.

Much of this agenda, has been emerging for several decades of multi-level Framework Programmes and the parallel strands of the ERA. Only now is there a prototype information system which enables it to be formalized and structured, with the iKnow innovation network and knowledge management technology platform.