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What Is the Difference Between a Problem and an Area of Concern?

In our sanctuary projects we ask our panelists to explore and develop an area of concern and the various conceptual policy possibilities pertaining to it. But we also try to prevent them from focusing upon problems–and especially from trying to find solutions to them. There is, of course, a close relationship between a problem and an area of concern–for an area of concern is an area of concern precisely because it may give rise to problems. But the distinction between a problem and an area of concern is fundamental to the kind of anticipatory, future-oriented, policy work that we do at IF.  It is also a distinction that some people find difficult to understand.

One way to understand the distinction is to think about roofs. If you ever had a leak in your roof, then you probably know full well what a problem is. But anyone who has a roof over his head has an area of concern regardless of whether or not it leaks. Having a leaky roof focuses a home-owner’s attention upon the immediate here and now. It also focuses his or her attention upon a very specific feature of the roof–the leak–and it cries out for an immediate solution, and immediate repair, even if it is only temporary, and even if it is not actually raining at the moment. This is what a problem is all about, and it is very different from an area of concern. Simply having a roof over your head will not focus your attention upon the immediate moment, let alone call for immediate action, unless there is a problem with it. But it may still hang over your head as a perpetual area of concern–and precisely because there are a myriad of different things that can go wrong with it. It may develop leaks.  It may become a nest for birds. Or squirrels. Or bats. A tree may fall on it. A meteor may drop through it. People may crawl across it and break into your house. Etc. Etc.

Thinking about an area of concern, and developing contrasting possibilities pertaining to it, is thus very different from thinking about a problem. Thinking about a problem calls upon you to think about how you should respond, here and now, to something that it–the problem–has placed in front of your face. But thinking about an area of concern calls upon you to think about the different ways in which you might respond, sometime in the future, to the various possible somethings that it–the area of concern–might run across your imagination. Thinking about a problem is thinking about to respond to something very specific in the here and now. But thinking about an area of concern is thinking about how you might respond to something that might develop in ways in which it has not yet developed in the here and now.

This is the reason why thinking about areas of concern is fundamental to what we do at IF, and why we try so hard to keep our panelists from focusing upon problems and trying to find solutions to them. We believe that policy decisions are too often made in crisis situations in which we are faced with problems that call upon us to act before we have explored a full range of the possible responses pertaining to them. And we believe that focusing our policy thinking upon areas of concern, before they have developed into problem situations, may help us to solve the problem of being continuously jostled from crisis to crisis.