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Risk assessment as a design issue

I’ve been called priggish for insisting that some issues deserve more design attention than others. The trouble is that we are not good at judging risk – especially long-term ones – as a society, and when big issues get overlooked at the expense of insignificant ones, we end up mis-spending our creative energies. An example of skewed risk assessment from last week: British newspapers – and television followed meekly along – have been filled with terrifying stories about the danger to children of pedophile teachers in schools. Now I have a teenage daughter in an English school, and even one molestation of a child is a crime too many. But this lurid coverage is clearly motivated less by concern for child safety than by the urge to sell newspapers. Fact: according to government statistics, the number of cautions or convictions for sexual offences against children has been declining steadily in recent years – and of the sexual crimes against children that do take place, a third are carried out by adolescents, and 80 per cent take place in the child’s home, or in the home of the perpetrator. Now, compare the danger posed to children by “pedo teachers” to the fact that 4,863 children under 16 were killed or seriously injured in road accidents or as pedestrians last year. Do the papers denounce cars as a present threat to children? No, they don’t: They run endless stories and ads promoting cars. And the number of children killed and maimed by cars is itself insignificant compared to the environmental degredation billions of children will inherit as a result of design actions taken by all of us today. I know, I know: I’m being moralistic again – and tedious bad-news eco-stories don’t sell papers. But I don’t have to like it.

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