Global Governance Institute


Complex Global Governance: Governing Global Catastrophic Risks at the Edge of Order and Chaos

15 December 2020, 6:00 pm–7:30 pm


What are the implications of complexity thinking for tackling global catastrophic risks? Join us on 15 December for this digital panel discussion with Leslie Rankin, Dave Snowden and Tom Pegram.

This event is free.

Event Information

Open to







Julia Kreienkamp

‘We are all in a situation that resembles driving a fast vehicle at night over unknown terrain that is rough, full of gullies, with precipices not far off. Some kind of headlight, even a feeble and flickering one, may help to avoid some of the worst disaster'.

Murray Gell-Mann (1994)

Keynote respondent: David Snowden, Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Cognitive Edge

Opening remarks:

  • ‘Governing Global Catastrophic Risks’, Tom Pegram, Associate Professor in Global Governance, University College London
  • ‘Environmental breakdown: a new, highly complex and destabilised domain of risk’, Lesley Rankin, Researcher, Institute for Public Policy Research

Chair: Julia Kreienkamp, Global Governance Institute, University College London

Astrophysicist Martin Rees suggests that we are unlikely to see 2100 if we do not start taking collective action now to meet the formidable challenges facing humanity. The response timescale for contending with global catastrophic risks presented by an increasingly fragile and unstable biosphere – intensified by a hyper-concentration of wealth and power among a few individuals, and exponentially growing technology – is rapidly diminishing. The stakes could not be higher. What is to be done?

This event will explore the implications of complexity thinking for governing global catastrophic risks, in particular climate change and environmental breakdown as a new, highly complex and destabilised domain of risk. Such risks are different from other existential risks, not due to their scale or severity, but rather the governance challenge they pose due to unusually high levels of complexity. Complexity is a realm of ‘unknown unknowns’, making prediction impossible and the search for a ‘right answer’ elusive. The possible – even probable in the long run – risk of catastrophic systemic failure demands that we continuously seek to ‘make sense’ of complex problems in their changing contexts. 

This panel discussion will bring together leading experts in complexity science, governance and global catastrophic risk to exchange views on why legacy governance toolkits and multilateral structures are ‘not fit for purpose’ when it comes to responding to global catastrophic risk. The panel will also address why it is vital that governance and global catastrophic risk scholars and expert practitioners take seriously the core insight of complex systems science; that we can only determine outcomes in highly constrained environments (such as an operating theatre). Intervening in complex systems where no simple direction of causality is apparent requires a different set of governance tools, beyond command and control structures. This is readily apparent when it comes to stabilising the Earth’s exceedingly complex biosphere. Engineering ‘expert’ solutions will not suffice. There is no mission control for cooling our rapidly warming planet.

This event builds upon the research project ‘Governing Complexity: Design Principles for Improving the Governance of Global Catastrophic Risk’, kindly supported by the Global Challenges Foundation.

About the Speakers

Lesley Rankin

Lesley Rankin is a researcher in the economy team at the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR).  Her recent work has focused on the implications of environmental breakdown for various areas of policy, as well as gender and automation, and the gender pay gap. She has written for a range of publications and her research has generated front-page headlines.  She is the co-author (with Laurie Laybourn-Langton and Darren Baxter) of ‘This is a crisis: Facing up to the age of environmental breakdown’ (2019).

Dave Snowden

Dave Snowden is the Founder and chief scientific officer of Cognitive Edge. His work is international in nature and covers government and industry looking at complex issues relating to strategy, organisational decision making and decision making. He has pioneered a science based approach to organisations drawing on anthropology, neuroscience and complex adaptive systems theory. He holds visiting chairs at the Universities of Stellenbosh and Hull and has held similar positions at the Universities of Pretoria, Warwick and Surrey as well as Hong Kong Polytechnic University. 

Tom Pegram

Tom Pegram is Associate Professor in Global Governance at the Department of Political Science, University College London (UCL). He is also Deputy Director of the UCL Global Governance Institute. His research focuses on global/transnational governance, regulatory politics and international organisations, with particular expertise on the global environment and human rights regime.  He is the co-author (with Julia Kreienkamp) of ‘Governing Complexity: Design Principles for Improving the Governance of Global Catastrophic Risk’ (2019).