Our briefing paper on understanding, preventing, and preparing for crises yet to happen is available now.
The AE Cardiff Briefing Series has been developed to complement AE Cardiff’s webinar series. Each paper summarises key points of discussion at our webinars.
Crises like the war in Ukraine, the recent pandemic and the climate change situation have a profound effect on all of us. We are all vulnerable – the impacts of crises can extend to all parts of society, the economy and the environment. Yet at the same time, we have unprecedented capabilities for anticipating crises and managing risk. We live in a digital age, where knowledge, information and data can be shared instantaneously, 24/7.
What are the ways to foresee, prepare for and, even, prevent future crises? How do we understand the nature of the risks we face, and how they can be managed? When a crisis does strike, what do we need to know in deciding on effective actions to take? How do we make sense of incoming information and data? Is it possible to build trust across our communities, and establish effective communications?
Chaired by Professor Nils-Eric Sahlin MAE, Professor and Chair of Medical Ethics at Lund University, and Vice-Chair of the European Group on Ethics, this webinar, held on 17th April 2023, brought together a panel of experts to address the above questions, considering some of the lessons learnt from recent crises and providing a lookout to what is needed for the future.
You can watch a recording of the webinar on SAPEA’s YouTube channel.
In an increasingly complex world, crises are not limited by borders or confined to specific parts of society.
Crises are transboundary and can cut across many different areas of day-to-day life. They have cascading effects, which arise from the many intersections among different parts of society, government and the economy through the systems that they rely on. The world is becoming ever more complex, with technology playing an ever-bigger role. The consequences of a crisis percolate across multiple sectors, introducing stressors into the systems through many different channels.
In dealing with transboundary issues, national and local needs are addressed by national and/or regional institutions, whilst acknowledging the limitations of such an approach. An international view, built on collective knowledge of what is happening at a more local level, is needed.
Current crises require a change in how they are understood, prevented and managed.
With some natural or technological hazards (such as an earthquake or the spill of a toxic substance from a production site), the management of the crisis may appear relatively straightforward. However, when the disruption of the system presents more complex ramifications that compound on each other (such as what happened with COVID-19), the approach must be more nuanced. Complexity implies the presence of a sophisticated mix of causes, amplifiers and consequences during a crisis, and there is no clear picture of all the causal and functional relationships between the many variables that are at play. From a rational decision-making viewpoint, trying to maximise expected utility or some other socio-economic parameter is not necessarily conducive to the best decision-making. In an environment of uncertainty and ambiguity, some actions can improve certain aspects whilst having deleterious effects elsewhere, with the distributive impacts having to be taken into consideration. A viable strategy is to not rush into taking action, but instead enquire and observe the effects of actions taken, the focus being on minimising the level of post-decision risks. Inclusiveness is another aspect to take into account, making use of early monitoring systems to observe how different communities deal with the consequences of actions undertaken to manage a crisis.
An international and collaborative approach is necessary to deal with complex crises.
There is a need for multiple agencies and governmental bodies to work together. The approach has to be interdisciplinary; one discipline alone cannot cover all the consequences of a complex crisis. This approach is not without difficulties, as the different responders in a crisis have their own niche expertise; they often work in a siloed fashion and can have problems interacting when approaching a shared issue. Trusted methods for the safe and secure transmission of knowledge/information/data between these agencies is essential for crisis management.
Dealing with complexity on the international stage does not have to lead to inactivity. Self-organisation and interaction between different stakeholders can lead to a fast-response system. This optimisation is apparent in the differing responses from nations to the same crisis, which can be due to adaptation to local conditions. It can provide an opportunity to compare results, learn from each other and avoid mistakes.
Crisis forecasting and response is dependent on the effective management of Knowledge, Information, and Data (KID) available.
There is a management need to collect knowledge, information, and data that synthesise all the input about the situation and provide crisis indicators. From the KID, we need to extract those features which are most informative and useful for strategic foresight, situation management and awareness. This applies: before the strike of a crisis, so that it can be forecasted and prepared for in advance, allowing for the necessary decision-making processes to be put in place during the crisis so that it can be managed effectively; and after the crisis so that successful recovery can take place.
For KID application in forecasting crises, prevention and preparedness are needed. Prevention can include safety and security risk assessments, and horizon scanning. The first of these allows us to decide which protections we need in the form of safety and security barriers, to prevent and/or mitigate the consequences of a crisis; the latter indicate the changes in trends or processes (social, environmental, systemic, etc) that serve to detect new situations or anomalies. Safety and security risk assessments are relevant to preparedness also, as they support the necessary decision-making.
Preparedness involves using knowledge and obtaining strategic foresight, as well as the human component in the shape of training. Strategic foresight explores possible future scenarios (with the challenge of ascertaining the true level of completeness and representativeness of such scenarios). Training is done to increase preparedness, not just of the professional responders but also of the policymakers and members of the wider society, using tools that can be augmented through digital approaches.
International standards for defining hazards are needed for harmonised and comparable data collection that can be shared between all affected actors in a crisis.
Taking as an example COVID-19, a health crisis that also led to a social and economic crisis, we see that cascading, multi-hazard, systemic failures can rapidly affect large areas and multiple sectors.
A multidimensional value/criteria system is necessary for managing these types of crisis well. In the past, the objective has been to reduce the dimensionality of a crisis to a single factor (health risk, environmental risk, etc). Such a unidirectional approach is not appropriate in the face of complexity; many other factors have to be assessed in order to appreciate if a policy is adequate or not. International standards from organisations such as World Bank, UN, and European Commission are needed for harmonised and comparable data collection to measure indicators for the Sendai targets, amongst other things. The Sendai framework for disaster risk reduction 2015-2030 (2015) aims to: “strengthen technical and scientific capacity to capitalise on and consolidate existing knowledge and to develop and apply methodologies and models to assess disaster risks, vulnerabilities and exposure to all hazards.” Following technical reports, the UNDRR/ISC Hazard definition and classification review technical report (2020) and its supplement Hazard information profiles supplement (2021), tried to identify complex hazards and group them into clusters. By producing a complete dataset compliant with the Sendai Framework, as well as the SDGs and the Paris Agreement on Climate, they provide a common set of hazard definitions for monitoring and reviewing implementation. This, in turn, helps in how early warning and early actions systems function. The latter have been appealed for by the UN (2022) and a global programme is at work on this. In an environment of cascading and permacrises, it is more important than ever to have similar definitions so that the exchange of information is done effectively. It is a collaboration that requires a national perspective, governmental and beyond, but also a global one.
The ethics of behaviour during a crisis is part of a long educational process that is needed at the transnational level. It establishes an ethical base of values upon which political decisions on forecasting and responding to crises are made, which are scientifically informed, but not scientifically decided.
When approaching new technologies, scientific understanding must be accompanied by a perspective on ethics and governance. Diverse scientific advices and views are an asset, and a unifying assessment and reflection on these different views will lead to better decision-making as a whole. Scientists have a duty to provide political options for action, but not the answers. The political decision-makers are the ones who have to choose, considering the trade-offs of certain policies. What is important is that scientists and journalists make sure that everyone understands these trade-offs, that the process is transparent, and does not fall into false narratives. As citizens, we need to make sure that there is a democratic process when deciding how to make these trade-offs, not just by majority vote; minorities must also be heard, and there have to be checks and balances throughout.
Forecasting and managing crises needs to be inclusive of the major players in society, not limited to only experts; a key factor in public participation is the prevention of misinformation and the loss of trust.
Not knowing all factors involved in complex crises means that experiential knowledge is needed; major players in society can help with topics in which systematic knowledge lacks the necessary understanding. This experiential/local knowledge is extremely important to effectiveness and resilience in crises. In a crisis, there is a need to act promptly; it is not possible to have an open, public and comprehensive discussion. Before a crisis takes place, an inclusive and effective contingency plan must be put into place.
In handling data during a crisis, there is a need for data governance so that it is transmitted in a trustworthy, reliable, and harmonised way. This process has to be protected from misinformation; risk communication must build trust with the official channels, or the public will not follow otherwise. To that end, UK Health Security Agency is beginning to work with other partners (including UNESCO) on data policy at times of crisis; pulling these organisations together is a worthy endeavour since it helps when assessing and managing risks. An element of this trust building exercise covers open science: the UNESCO Recommendations on Open Science talk at length about trust and principles.
The next crisis cannot be predicted, but there are common features that are generalisable. We can learn from past crises and apply the learning to the ones yet to come.
During a crisis, there is not enough time to reflect on which strategy is best for the given situation; there needs to be a balance between giving a prompt answer and dedicating enough time to go through knowledge, information and data before a decision is reached. Pre-crisis preparedness can address this problem; shared patterns between crises allow for the preparatory work to be based on past experience. If this is done in advance, it removes the necessity for reflection during the actual crisis itself. The great majority of relevant decisions can be taken pre-emptively, based on preparedness.
- Professor Maarja Kruusmaa, Professor of Biorobotics and Vice-Rector for Research, Tallinn University of Technology; Member of the European Group of Chief Scientific Advisors
- Professor Virginia Murray, Head of Global Disaster Risk Reduction, UK Health Security Agency
- Professor Enrico Zio, Centre for Research on Risk and Crises (CRC), Mines Paris, PSL University, and Energy Deepartment, Politecnico di Milano; Member of the SAPEA Working Group on Strategic Crisis Management in the EU
- Professor Ortwin Renn, Member of the SAPEA Working Group on Strategic Crisis Management in the EU
This was a joint event between SAPEA, the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors and the European Group on Ethics. It was hosted by Academia Europaea.