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iKnow Newsletter 1 (September 2009)

What is a Wild Card?

In recent years, Foresight has emerged as a key instrument for the development and implementation of forward-looking research and innovation policies. Some activities show an interesting mix of approaches combining three types of elements: prospective studies of long-term opportunities and alternatives, participatory networking, and policy orientation. However, far too little attention has been paid to the identification and analysis of Wildcards and Weak Signals (WI-WE).

Wild Cards are surprising and unexpected events with low ‘perceived probability’ of occurrence but with very high impact (e.g. 2001 attack to the World Trade Centre on 9/11, major disasters in environmental or technological systems, etc.). Serendipity or the faculty of making scientific discoveries by accident is another important source of wild cards, which can be included into the unexpected surprises of human actions category. Some typical examples are the discovery of the penicillin (by Fleming), LSD (by Hofmann), dynamite (by Nobel), America (by Columbus) and Viagra (by Osterloh), to name a few.


Given that wild cards have so far been understudied, the iKNOW project has developed its own wild cards classification, which includes three broader groups (see Table below):


  • nature-related "surprises"
  • unintentional "surprises" resulting from human actions
  • intentional "surprises" resulting from human actions.

Types of Wild Cards
(Black Swans)

 Key Aspects

Nature-related "Surprise"

Unintentional "Surprise"

Intentional "Surprise"


Often unavoidable, thus should focus on risk or surprise management

Possibly avoidable if focus on risk or surprise assessment and management

Often unavoidable, but possible to manage if prepared




Creative, Descriptive





Requires technical perspectives to recognise systems

Requires technical, individual and organisational perspectives to recognise systems failures or serendipity

Requires individual and organisational perspectives to explain systems


Exogenous drivers, thus little or no control

Endogenous drivers with low to medium

Endogenous drivers with medium to high control

 Weak Signals

Some and normally undetected

Many but normally undetected or underestimated

Few but normally hidden or underestimated