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 

Grand Challenges

What is the European Research Area?

"The European Research Area is composed of all research and development activities, programmes and policies in Europe which involve a transnational perspective. Together, they enable researchers, research institutions and businesses to increasingly circulate, compete and co-operate across borders. The aim is to give them access to a Europe-wide open space for knowledge and technologies, in which transnational synergies and complementarities are fully exploited. (text from http://ec.europa.eu/research/era )

"ERA consists of activities, programmes and policies which are designed and operated at all levels: regional, national and European. There are a number of fully integrated European-level structures and programmes: the EU RTD Framework Programmes, including the current Seventh Framework Programme (2007-2013), related European agencies and undertakings, as well as a number of intergovernmental infrastructures and research organisations. Some have existed for more than 50 years, such as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the research activities of the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). Many were created in the 1970s and 1980s, such as the European Space Agency (ESA) and the first Framework Programmes. But there are also important new organisations which are changing the ERA 'landscape': notably, the European Research Council, the Joint Technology Initiatives and the European Institute for Innovation and Technology."

Note: This section about ERA is based on information available at http://ec.europa.eu/research/era/

What are the ERA Grand Challenges?

The following is an extract from the Final Report of one of the seven Expert Groups set up by DG Research of the European Commission, in the context of the follow-up to the Green Paper "The European Research Area: New Perspectives" adopted by the Commission on 04 April 2007.

"This report presents a rationale for a European Research Area that has a clear purpose which is meaningful to Europe's citizens and political leaders and relevant to its key actors. While there is a pressing need to improve the effectiveness of the public research system, the ultimate justification of the resources and commitment needed to achieve this lies in increasing the value of the contribution that public and private sector research makes, and is seen to make, to Europe's economic, social and environmental goals.

The central means to achieve this is to engage the research system in Europe's response to a series of Grand Challenges, which depend upon research but which also involve actions to ensure innovation and the development of markets and/or public service environments. Challenges may be rooted in economic, social or scientific goals but share a need to demonstrate their relevance at the European level, their feasibility in terms of Europe's capability to engage with them, and a clear research dimension such that they gain the commitment of the research community and pull through the necessary improvements in its efficiency and effectiveness".1

How did the iKNOW identify the Grand Challenges?

The list of 21 Grand Challenges presented in the iKnow ERA Toolkit is the result of extensive discussions by iKnow partners with science, technology and innovation policy expertise. The Manchester Institute of Innovation Research of the University of Manchester (UK), Finland Futures Research Centre, Z_punkt (Germany), RTC North (UK), Technology Centre of the Academy of Sciences (Czech Republic) and the Interdisciplinary Centre for Technology Analysis and Forecasting (Israel). [please move to footnote]

The Grand Challenges were developed and described in terms of their (1) relevance for Europe, (2) relevance for research and (3) feasibility as an economic or social investment. These criteria were identified, as above, by the ERA Expert Group on Challenging Europe's Research: Rationales.

The description of the Grand Challenges (GC) against the three selected criteria is an open process and continuing process. The list was then socialised and shared with more than 40 experts participating in the iKnow workshops in the United Kingdom and Czech Republic. During this socialisation process, the iKnow team opened the discussions in search of additional inputs to the existing list, or new ideas for possible further Grand Challenges.

Application of the Wild approach to the Grand Challenges

We should make clear, it is not feasible to produce a totally comprehensive and evenly spread list of all possible research themes, to cover all possible fields of science and policy. But the 21 Grand Challenges presented here are a reasonable approximation and spread, which is weighted toward what is of most significance and relevance to ERA and the future of Europe. This tends to steer towards the social science and policy end of the spectrum.

Again, we see the 'Wild approach' and the WI-WE resources as more or less indispensable for exploring and deliberating on such challenges. How else can we explore the vital interconnections between different areas? Or how do we ask the 'what-if' questions, which should be low probability according to the theory, but seem to happen very frequently.

To take one small example: The shut-down of EU airspace in 2010 caused by the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, raised many questions about such interconnections. Here we saw a unique combination: a modest geological event, an advanced technology system, multi-lateral policy and regulation, and complex passenger logistics and liabilities, all facing fundamental questions about risk and safety. There was much rapid learning, so the next volcanic eruption might be not such a surprise. But it can be anticipated that the next Wild Card event will be equally surprising, in a quite different way.

For each Grand Challenge in this toolkit, there is a common pattern. Each involves interconnections between different areas: political and ethical debates and dilemmas; trends, transitions and paradigm shifts; and a research agenda which needs a creative and pro-active response. So on each of the pages for each Grand Challenge we follow a common format based on the questions above:

  • Is it relevant to address at a European level? i.e. What is the scope of the European agenda?
  • Is there a clear research dimension contribution? In this case we focus on the particular contribution of the Foresight and Wild approach.
  • Is it feasible as an economic or social investment? Approximately, what kind of benefits, and what form might these take? This is interesting, because to follow through the logic of the Wild approach, suggests a wider than normal range of stakeholders, users, or beneficiaries of such research.

Outline of the 'Wild approach' and the 'WI-WE resources'

This ERA toolkit is about the application of the iKnow methods and tools to the agendas and themes of the ERA.

On the surface this is about the 'Wild Cards' and the 'Weak Signals' which help to track them. However it's not so much about individual wild cards (hundred of these have been mapped in the iKnow project) – it is more about the underlying thinking and practice, and resources which are needed. There are many ways to frame this: but the iKnow project has developed a particular set of concepts and definitions. Here are the key words which are used throughout this report:

  • The general ideas and concepts, and general approach to foresight and knowledge systems, we call the 'Wild approach'.
  • The resources and tools, and the particular types of information needed to do this, in many different applications, we call the 'WI-WE' resources, tools, etc (shorthand for 'Wild Card and Weak Signal'). This includes the actual items which can be found on the iKnow platform: and also the methods and tools which are outlined in the Practical Guide.


1 Georghiou, L., Cassingena Harper, J., Cooke, P., Cozzens, S., Dearing, A., Henriques, L., Langer, J., Laredo, P., Sanz Menendez, L., Weber, M. and Popper, R. (2008), Challenging Europe’s Research: Rationales for the European Research Area (ERA). Report of the ERA Expert Group, European Commission, DG Research, EUR 23326 EN. Available at http://ec.europa.eu/research/era/pdf/eg7-era-rationales-final-report_en.pdf