News & Trends

A Crisis Is the Beginning of Something New

CRISES — THERE ARE SO MANY. The term is currently appearing at an inflationary rate. Some crises threaten us all, others affect smaller groups, some just one individual.

By Dr Christoph-Friedrich von Braun

Crises are not easy to handle. They always involve complex systems (companies, families, transport networks, economic structures, value hierarchies, arms races). Simple systems do not have crises. My car radio, for example, or my left knee have never had a crisis, but do occasionally have a malfunction or develop some condition. Crises have four main characteristics: they are unexpected (Enron), create uncertainty (transport collapse), pose a serious threat (Lehman Brothers), and signal that the existing system (CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere) is approaching its stress limits. Even though there are crises of natural origin (air traffic after volcanic eruption), the majority by far are man-made.

Why a Crisis Arises

Crises arise when subtle warning signs are not seen or are misinterpreted. The actual reason may be quite innocuous. The Arab Spring, for example, came down to a Tunisian market trader’s kiosk being seized by a policeman. Or there are wrong reactions or no response at all to the signs. A painfully contemporary example would be the recent European, in particular German, view of Russia as a trustworthy energy supplier.

Despite their complexity, we are not helpless in the face of crises. In principle, most of them can be overcome with the correct action. The term “crisis intervention” is used quite often in these contexts, especially in psychological emergencies (loss of a relative, experiences of violence), but also in numerous other areas (NATO Response Force). The intervention aims to rapidly contain the crisis and differs from therapy, which is usually a long-term solution.

In individual cases it is often difficult to do the right thing. You may do something wrong, panic or even freeze and not be able to act. Feeling helpless is common. There are three conceivable scenarios when people find themselves confronted by crises:

  1. Disaster is averted by successfully resolving the crisis (a compromised dyke is reinforced and/or raised).
  2. You fail in your efforts (Prime Minister Chamberlain’s futile attempt to avert world war in 1938: “Peace for our time”) and disaster occurs.
  3. You do nothing (“Repent! The end is nigh.”) or can’t do anything (imminent asteroid impact) and prepare yourself, as best you can, for the disaster and the time afterwards (panic buying, fleeing, resignation, fatalism, calculated optimism).

Which intervention you opt for or can opt for depends on the circumstances. One important trait all crises share is the speed in which they progress. Some impending disasters have a long lead time that can span decades (climate collapse) and therefore give you the time to make corrections. The most important thing is to use this time. Other crises leave just a few months (famine) for a solution. And others are measured in microseconds, so you can at best react instinctively (the tyre you’ve been driving bald over the last year or so bursts in a bend at 90 km/h). There is no time to think about it.

You can’t prepare for everything, but you have to be prepared for anything.


Some Crises Have a Long Lead Time

A successful intervention is one that keeps what is already there and strengthens instead of changing it. That can often be sufficient and work well, depending on the situation. It is also easier for people to accept because it allows you to adapt to the new situation with small changes (additional staff, budget cuts, austerity appeals, subsidies, product improvements …), but nothing has to be fundamentally questioned. Almost all COVID-19 measures by Western governments, for example, were aimed at socio-economic preservation, i.e. to continue normal life for their citizens, the economy and the country as best they could. Special assistance, appeals, vaccinations and the various guidelines issued were to at least maintain the appearance of normality. This suits the instinctive preferences of most of the population. Very few people like fundamental change. As far as the existing structures, freedoms, basic assumptions and values are concerned, they prefer that everything stay the same.

If We Must change, Then as Little as Possible, Please

One major hurdle for any crisis management is the backlash from those people expected to be affected against preventive measures. They often refuse any action to protect them, even though the extent of this would be far less painful than if the disaster were to be allowed to run rampant (“No new power line over my property!”).

Is There a Flip Side to the Crisis?

On a positive note, it must be acknowledged that a crisis also creates new freedom. Gradual decline very rarely does. Only the crisis, the impending disaster, the collapse of the known and established allows for fundamental reflection (impending bankruptcy, invasion of Ukraine, the decisive school exam) and opens up perspectives for new opportunities. It releases tremendous forces, frees the mind and actions from the outdated and entrenched, allows the old to be shelved away in the annals of history and allows new and more progressive approaches to be tackled instead. For example, only when the COVID-19 pandemic made it unviable for millions of people to go to the office, did we open our eyes to new ways of organising work. Such transformations rarely happen on their own.

In fact, we could even ask ourselves whether a large part of human progress may not have been and will not continue to be due to the regular occurrence of such “liberating” crises. It may well be that without the crises that hit our Stone Age ancestors, we would never have left our caves. Maybe without the disasters (the ice ages) we wouldn’t even have got into those caves. The question of whether we have to live with crises is therefore easy to answer: Yes, we have to. We cannot do without them.

Member of the Board of Directors of Globalance Bank AG

What technologies does society need? What do companies need? These are questions that Dr Christoph-Friedrich von Braun deals with on a daily basis as a consultant for companies, organisations and governments in the field of innovation, research and technology management and as a lecturer at various universities, including MIT in Boston. The father of seven children is the author of various publications such as “The Innovation War”.  

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