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Mapping Wild Cards

Inspired by: FP7 » Cities are lunch for plastic bag-bugs

version: 9 / updated: 2011-02-06
id: #1619 / version id: #272
mode: VIEW

Originally submitted by: Ian Miles
List of all contributors by versions (mouse over)
Last changed by: Rafael Popper
WI-WE status:

Source of inspiration

European Commission Framework Programme for RTD (FP7)

Theme/activity of inspiration

Theme 6 - Environment (including Climate Change)

Sub-theme/area of inspiration

Environment and health

Optional reference/s to FP7 project/s

Use the following format: Project Acronym (Project Reference No.). Use commas if more than one project is associated to this Wild Card, for example: ALFA-BIRD (213266), SAFAR (213374), LAPCAT-II (211485)
POPART (212218) http://cordis.europa.eu/fetch?CALLER=FP7_PROJ_EN&ACTION=D&DOC=1&CAT=PROJ&QUERY=0125117ff890:17a7:0d2fd0c2&RCN=88882 See also: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/organisation/policies/reviews/scientific-areas/0806-synthetic-biology.aspx


(max. 9 words)

Cities are lunch for plastic bag-bugs


(approx. 150 words)
Please describe the Wild Card (approx. 150 words)
Synthetic organisms are developed for use in the industrial production of plastics, both to extend product life and to accelerate environmental bio-degradation. The latter varieties prove difficult to control and in some tests are seen to attack many types of plastics. There are sudden fears that omnivorous ‘plastic bag-bugs’ could rapidly consume all the plastics in the built environment and so the material basis of society: these are compounded by official secrecy, media paranoia, inadequate regulation, and financial speculation. Nano-environment technology innovations to preserve plastics are adopted far too rapidly and widely. While an immediate result might be to encourage even worse pollution and landfill (“we will be able to clear this up cheaply tomorrow”), increased efforts to deal with the problem may turn out to be counterproductive. New ways of encouraging plastic degradation are discovered but inadequately assessed – for example, living organisms evolve or escape from their contained environments, beginning to destroy the useful plastics and other materials in everyday life, not just waste products. The material basis of civilisation begins to be threatened, and some serious disasters ensue as, for instance, foods are contaminated, hospital equipment dissolves.


urban environment, nanotechnology, pollution control, plastic, civilisation, bugs


(max. 250 characters)

Synthetic organisms are developed for processing of plastics, but are difficult to control: there are fears that plastic eating ‘bugs’ could destroy the material basis of society.


Closest timeframe for at least 50% likelihood
Please use one of the following options:

Features of life if the wild card manifests

Feature 1: business models and industrial environment
Sudden focus on risk, uncertainty and insurance in runaway effects of technology. Crisis for businesses that cannot adapt their systems. Search for more resilient products and processes.
Feature 2: education and research environment
Mainstream RTD in nano-technology and related fields is severely disrupted. Interest in nano-engineering, but also in many more traditional fields following consumer return to traditional materials (see below).
Feature 3: consumers, markets and lifestyles
Consumer plastics e.g. plastic bags are withdrawn from the market and consumers have to suddenly adapt. Huge instability in consumer markets – return to traditional products (e.g. wood, paper, metals, ceramics) unless these too are affected.
Feature 4: technology and infrastructure
The perceived risk is magnified by the size of the infrastructure in which plastics are embedded (electricity, gas, telecommunications). Major reengineering required as critical components become degraded.
Feature 5: politics and global affairs
This throws a spotlight on the regulation of technology and environment. Some countries/regions hit heavily – and blame those where new systems have originated.
Feature 6: health and quality of life
There are rumours and scares about carcinogenic effects of the synthetic organisms, but firm evidence is patchy and controversial. As well as immediate impacts on everyday life, could well be environmental impacts of degraded materials.
Feature 7: security and defence
There are valuable security and military applications, so much of the leading technology is taken into defence research establishments, disappearing from media attention and from regulation. Unstable environment, and some high-tech security equipments fail catastrophically.

Type of event

Unplanned consequence of events/trends/situations (e.g. financial crisis, accidental breakthrough)

Type of emergence

please select (if any) describe related trend or situation
A new development/situation
(e.g. a Romani state is established in central Europe; A message from an alien civilisation existing on a distant planet is received and understood, etc.

Historical parallels

runaway technology with unforeseen effects and amplified feedback

Type of systems affected





please specify:
please select
Level 3: important for the European Union
Level 4: important for the whole world

Early indicators

(including weak signals)

Research on bio-degradeable nano-technology.

Latent phase

Obstacles for early indentification

information/communicational filters (media/editorial interests, language, reasoning)
institutional filters (rules, laws, regulations)
scientific filters (knowledge/technology access)

Manifestation phase

Type of manifestation

In a probably pervasive way (contagious or transmittable)

Aftermath phase

Important implications
Transformation of a system (e.g. new applications, change in stakeholders relations/influence)


The wild card would transform the plastics & polymers production industry, and technology regulation on a wider level.

Key drivers or triggers

Provide up to 2 possible drivers or triggers of HIGH importance. Click on HELP to see examples:
please describe
Driver / Trigger 1
please describe
Driver / Trigger 2
Technological/Scientific Nano-tech & synthetic biology innovations.
Environmental Environmental policy demand for new technology.

Potential impacts (risks & opportunities)

Timeframe options
Risks Opportunities
short term
(1 to 5 years after the Wild Card manifests)
Introduction of more robust regulatory frameworks and Standards for nanotechnological developments.
medium term
(5 to 10 years after the Wild Card manifests)
Rethink of the role of hydrocarbon polymers as a universal material.

Potential stakeholders' actions

it occurs
it occurs
Policy actors (at the international, European and national levels) Integrated assessment as the basis for industrial regulation.
Non-for-profit organisations (e.g. NGOs, political parties, social movements, voluntary associations) Campaign on anti-materialistic consumption.

Relevance for Grand Challenges

where? please justify:
particularly relevant Europe world
Ethics and abuse of S&T
Techno-security, hazard & risk

Relevance for thematic research areas

please justify:
particularly relevant
Nanosciences, nanotech, materials & new prod. tech.
Environment (including Climate Change)
Regional development

Pan-European strategies potentially helping to deal with the wild card

please justify:
particularly relevant
Fostering and facilitating coherent international cooperation in science and technology Need for international standards in nanotechnologies

 Features of a research-friendly ecology contributing to deal with the wild card

For further information about 'research-friendly strategies' click here

please justify:
particularly relevant
Creating a closer link between researchers & policy-makers
(e.g. supporting both thematic and cross-cutting policies, highlighting the strategic purpose of the European Research Area, etc.

Relevance for future R&D and STI policies

Note: RTD = research and technology development; STI = science, technology and innovation
The regulation of nano-technology and synthetic organisms in the environment is a continuing challenge. There are implications for STI policies, which would benefit from ‘wild-card’ approaches to future-oriented technology assessment: and for discursive participatory ethical debate and deliberation. Need for research into materials that can resist the new treatment methods - while not becoming hazardous waste in their own right.