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We must start to ‘praise’ incompetence

Following recent railway accidents in Europe, national authorities had to wait weeks before establishing the exact causes; competence is now subjugated to technology and technology evolves every day – writes Michel Claessens

I want to talk about a subject that we should all probably admit to knowing too well: incompetence. Especially as incompetence is probably the first of our competencies. Our globalised and technological society generates what I call ‘systemic incompetence’. These days, we interact with the outside world through a wide set of technological interfaces and tools, which we cannot escape and whose detailed modus operandi is largely unknown to us. For example, Google and Facebook.

Following recent railway accidents in Europe, national authorities had to wait weeks before establishing the exact causes; competence is now subjugated to technology and technology evolves every day. Compounding difficulties is the fact that our competence nowadays is infinitesimal. We add up to very little without others and without the electronic extensions of ourselves.

Although society continues to promote the value of individual competence, the truth is competence is less and less individual and more and more collective. Without proper interaction with other disciplines and other people, our own specialty is bound to become useless. Alone, we are powerless – therefore all equal with respect to competence, and all equally incompetent.

But incompetence can be creative, just as competence can be destructive. Recent examples of scientific research demonstrate how incompetence can help to sort out problems and take decisions – such as video game players who have collaborated with scientists to unravel the tridimensional structure of proteins. Time and again in consensus and citizens conferences, people with no expertise at all – those seemingly incompetent – have shown to be capable of providing a relevant opinion on a complex technological subject.

In reality, the notions of competence and incompetence need to be redefined. We should acknowledge that the incompetence built in all of us might become, under some circumstances, a value. It may also open the way to solutions and innovation in the same way that ignorance, when recognised, can become an efficient engine for learning and self-development.

Incompetence as a way to progress. We can all learn from the practical situations described, which show that incompetence may become a genuine competency – whether it is at an individual, organisational or societal level. More exactly, what I call ‘miscompetence’ – a subtle mix of tested abilities and recognised ignorance – plays today a central role; in particular in processes of creation and governance.

The experience gained within large multidisciplinary projects shows that competence is today a collective dynamics. But the accident of Fukushima has shown that incompetence may have a global impact. While this century has seen much substantial advancement in all the fields of scientific and technological knowledge, we have become almost blind to some global issues that are fundamental and complex.

This blindness has generated errors and illusions in particular on the part of scientists, technicians and experts. Hyper-specialising is an obstacle preventing us seeing the global, which is fragmented into parcels. What is essential then becomes diluted in secondary considerations. However, essential issues are never fragmented and global issues are more and more binding.

What should be the place and role of scientists in a society confronted by major and multifaceted problems? How to integrate and act on these problems that require multidisciplinary approaches? I use in this context the concept of ‘miscompetence’. Just as misunderstanding describes poor understanding, miscompetence means a lack of competence. A priori, scientists are not incompetent. But the competence required to address the main questions of this time is obviously multiple and distributed. Miscompetence is, for each of us, altogether a reality, a weakness and a strength.

Our current conception of skills and competence is basically ‘disciplinear’ and related to a specific field of science or a technology. Competences are used in a linear way or ‘top down’. This must be replaced by a new governance which takes into account the fact that, in a complex and interconnecting world, competences are distributed and decisions that are likely to affect the whole society must involve, in one way or another, all the stakeholders concerned.

The success of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (is an interesting example of this new necessary governance, thanks in particular to associating scientific and political competences in a decision-making perspective. The relation between knowledge and competence is now more tenuous and, to say the least, less obvious.

Michel Claessens is head of communications at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor and author of Extolling incompetence slightly

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