Brexit, climate change, armed conflicts - are we really living in times of permanent crisis? And what does this imply for the way society should deal with crises? How can crises be used productively to learn in the long term? These questions and others were addressed at the online conference "Emerging from Emergencies". The conference opened up a perspective on a more proactive, more reflective and more open approach to crises.
Crises as the Normal Case
In politics, acting under the impression of threat and uncertainty, but above all under the influence of escalating, unpredictable cascades of events, has almost become the norm. But our experience of crisis is also shaped by what social science calls "performativity": We increasingly talk in crisis terms. "Tipping points" and "spirals of escalation" are common expressions in public debate. Crisis competence is attributed to politicians as a quality. Crises are deliberately proclaimed by actors with political agendas. Media attention cycles further contribute to focussing public discourse on a constant sequence of crises, or rather, to help create this sequence. Because crises are also this: temporary focal points of attention.
Added to this is the observation that crises today are typically no longer triggered by singular events, but emerge from the interaction of interwoven systems that are themselves in a state of dynamism. Thus, crises may "only" express the fundamental tectonic shifts of our time - ecological, technological, economic, global political. Seen in this light, they would call for a broader focus than that on crises and their situational management.
From 30 June to 2 July 2021, the IRS and the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz jointly organised the international online conference "Emerging from Emergencies. Exploring CRISIS as a Dynamic Opportunity Structure", where the common crisis-fixated diagnoses of our time were subjected to a critical examination, and ways of dealing with crisis dynamics in a meaningful way were discussed. The core question was how can society really cope with crises and learn from them so that it ends up better off than before? On the one hand, the conference was about exchange within social science crisis research. In addition, it also pursued the goal of connecting the knowledge of practitioners with academic discourse in a transdisciplinary way. The success of this was largely due to the extraordinary line-up, which included internationally renowned experts from the field of crisis research as well as representatives of aid and emergency organisations, the media and crisis management.
Dealing with Crises: high Professionalisation, little Learning
After almost four years of research, the conference marked the final phase of the project "Coping With Crises in a Resilient Manner: The Role of Expert Advice in the Creation and Use of ‘Opportunities’ in Crisis Situations", or "RESKIU" for short. In this project, Oliver Ibert, Tjorven Harmsen (both IRS) and Verena Brinks (University of Mainz) are researching crisis trajectories to understand how learning and expertise are mobilised in them. In the sense of the spatio-temporal research approach established and decisively co-developed at the IRS, they subsequently reconstruct exemplary crisis cases - specifically, an economic crisis, an environmental crisis and an administrative crisis - trace their spread and manifestation in space and time, and shed light on the contributions of certain actors to the respective course of the crisis. The focus of interest is on two types of persons or actor roles with specific knowledge resources: on the one hand, experts for crises, i.e. for crisis management, crisis communication and disaster control; on the other hand, experts in crises, which refers to all experts whose expertise is in demand in crises, but who are not familiar with the situational dynamics of crises and are typically overwhelmed by them.
Research in RESKIU showed that the handling of crises is highly professionalised today - in emergency organisations, consulting firms and the increasingly important knowledge domain of crisis management. However, the chance that fundamental lessons will be learned from crises is correspondingly low. The logic of increasingly sophisticated reactive and incremental action is too dominant. The project team has set itself the ambitious goal of providing those who have to contribute solution competence without themselves being part of the "crisis business" (the aforementioned experts in crises) with practical knowledge with which they can communicate effectively in different phases of crises and thus intervene in them. With this empowerment of knowledgeable crisis laypersons, the researchers want to contribute to long-term learning from crises.
Crises hard to Manage within Routines, Structures and Borders
However, before the question of learning was raised, the conference asked in the first of four content blocks, each consisting of a keynote lecture and a panel discussion, about the value of diagnosing "crisis-ridden times" ("Crisis Unbound" session). Arjen Boin, political scientist at Leiden University (Netherlands), kicked off the discussion with his keynote on the "Transboundary Crisis". With this term, he diagnosed today's crises as transboundary in character: the causes and effects of crises reach far into space and time, transgress the borders of nation states and are hardly definable in their beginning and end ("Creeping Crisis"). Today's crises therefore do not adhere much to man-made boundaries (as the COVID-19 pandemic shows particularly clearly) - and that is precisely why they are so difficult to manage. The following first panel supplemented the view of the one "transboundary crisis" with the idea of simultaneous, multiple crises. Whether crises actually have a new quality or only the form in which they are talked about could be critically discussed by the scholars gathered in the panel.
The second session of the conference ("Collective Action in Crisis") was introduced with a keynote on collective modes of action in crisis situations by Martin Kornberger, organisational scientist at the University of Edinburgh (UK), and Renate Meyer, organisational scientist at the Vienna University of Economics and Business (Austria). According to Kornberger and Meyer, it is not rationally planned, as in highly formalised situations, nor instinctively experience-based, as in well-rehearsed emergencies (such as fire brigade operations), that action must be taken in a crisis, in which there is by definition no script. Instead, as Martin Kornberger showed using the example of administrative and civil society reactions to the "refugee crisis" in Vienna in 2015, what is needed is: physical presence at the locations of the events, distributed cognition, i.e. the eyes, ears, thinking and action capabilities of numerous active participants (as well as the capacities of technical systems, such as surveillance cameras), as well as a shared ethos that provides orientation for all participants. Building on this, the subsequent panel quickly came to the agreement that the traditional idea of crisis management - top-down, expertocratic, in a small circle of crisis teams - no longer does justice to today's reality. It is no longer (crisis) management, but governance that is becoming increasingly important: a concept of control that relies on the participation of many, is decentralised and is effective precisely in the spaces between organisations, between nation states, between social systems that tend to go unnoticed in everyday life. The invited practitioners and academics on the panel were able to report on their experiences and findings in an impressive way.
Expert Advice and Learning in Crises
Both the diagnosis of the cross-border crisis and the solution strategy of crisis governance provided a good basis for the third session of the conference on "Good Advice in Crisis". When decision-makers are confronted with the limits of their knowledge in a crisis, it becomes necessary to call in experts, as it is only possible to develop effective measures with the help of their expertise. In the introductory keynote by Verena Brinks and Oliver Ibert, project results from RESKIU were presented. Here, the distinction between types of experts was used: Brinks and Ibert presented a handout for practice that should help experts in crises to develop a deeper understanding of the patterns and dynamics of crises. Crisis experts, some of whom - from academia and practice - participated in the subsequent panel, have such a generic understanding of crises. With regard to the question of "good counselling", the panel discussed the importance of trust, among other things. A relationship of trust between the decision-maker and the counsellor that already existed before the crisis can quickly provide the basis for good cooperation in the acute crisis, but at the same time it can become a "psychological trap": if the advice given is based more on personal assessment and opinion than on reliable knowledge. The danger of political actors misusing the knowledge gained in this way to pursue their own interests was also reflected upon.
These crisis communication-related topics in turn provided the basis for the fourth, concluding session of the conference on the topic of learning from crises ("Learning in and from Crisis"). The keynote address was given by communication scientist Shari Veil from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (USA). She argued that organisations that are generally oriented towards a "mindfulness-based" - that is, process-oriented rather than outcome-oriented - practice of learning find it much easier to recognise and exploit the opportunities of a crisis. Similar to Verena Brinks and Oliver Ibert before, the communication expert had numerous practical lessons for organisations in crisis, especially for proactive and transparent communication. In the subsequent panel, the topic was critically discussed and connections to crisis governance were made. Here, too, project results from RESKIU were able to flow in. On the basis of three "learning trajectories" (process trajectories of learning in crises) discovered in the project, it could be shown that social learning in, from and for crises is not directly associated with a solution to structural problems. Thus, the development of highly efficient and increasingly effective crisis management structures can lead to the confidence to deal with major crises - without, however, dealing with the structural effects that cause them to occur. This fourth panel concluded the conference.
A good conference has numerous effects: inspiring encounters, aha-moments, further developed concepts and exchanged ideas. All this was true for the conference "Emerging from Emergencies", which was confirmed by the feedback of the participants. The RESKIU team also experienced a strong confirmation of its concern to translate generic crisis expertise beyond the domain of crisis management, to make it connectable and to disseminate it. Crises are a phenomenon that characterises our time. Today, they are increasingly understood as culmination points and visible signs of longer-term change processes. As such, however, they also offer opportunities for shaping change. The communicative and cognitive closure that often takes place around crises hinders the unfolding of this potential. Society as a whole needs to be more reflective in dealing with its own structural effects that manifest themselves in crises. The conference revealed a deep scepticism among the participants towards today's established, often defensive or reactive ways of dealing with crises. At the same time, new ways were pointed out: Governance instead of management; proactive transparency; involvement of many decentrally distributed actors who can contribute evidence and the ability to act; communicative mobilisation of different expertise; and an open view for the spaces between delimited areas of responsibility.
The project "Coping With Crises in a Resilient Manner: The Role of Expert Advice in the Creation and Use of ‘Opportunities’ in Crisis Situations" (RESKIU) is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Video recordings of the four keynote lectures at the conference will be published in due course. The RESKIU team will also publish its handout for experts in crises in autumn 2021.