01. July | 2021

"Without Pressure there is no Learning" – an IRS Discussion about Crises, Learning Opportunities and Learning Blocks

Numerous research teams at the IRS deal directly or indirectly with the topic of crises. In the future, this thematic focus will be further expanded. The Corona crisis gave rise to an exchange on the question of whether and how we can learn from crises. In summer 2020, Tjorven Harmsen, Wolfgang Haupt, Oliver Ibert, Kristine Kern and Elisa Kochskämper discussed this via video conference. The conversation is summarised here.

In your research, you all deal with crises or crisis-like events from different perspectives. What actually is a crisis? And what interests you about it?
Oliver Ibert: In our crisis research, we work with three features that characterise a crisis: fundamental uncertainty, urgency of decisions and threatening nature - all things that we see in the Corona crisis, for example. I started to get interested in crises in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008/09 because we as economic geographers were not asked for our expertise at that time, again. I thought: We need a universally valid understanding of crises and how they happen. That was one reason why I got involved in the Leibniz Research Alliance "Crises of a Globalised World". I have also spent my entire career working on innovation, i.e. on the question: How does something new come into the world? From this perspective, I find the ambivalence of crises interesting. They are turning points for the better or for the worse. They are threatening, but they can also be opportunities for innovation.

Tjorven Harmsen: I study the question how resilience potentials are activated in crises, i.e. how actors can deal with crises and also learn from them. In the team, we also deal with the role of consulting and expertise in crises. In doing so, we look at very different types of crises: The refugee crisis of 2015 is an example of administrative crises, the crisis in the porcelain industry is an example of economic crises, and as an example of environmental crises we are looking at complex shipping accidents. In doing so, we refer to the three characteristics that Oliver Ibert has already mentioned.
Wolfgang Haupt: I am working on urban climate adaptation strategies. We don't work explicitly with the term "crisis" in our project team, but of course we look at disruptive events that could trigger a crisis. Specifically, we are looking at how cities prepare for potentially destructive heavy rainfall events, which are becoming more frequent as climate change progresses. So it's more about the strategic perspective, anticipation and how to prevent a crisis.

Elisa Kochskämper: My perspective is similar. I am interested in the role that preparation plays in dealing with crises, in the new routines that emerge in crises. The Corona crisis came unexpectedly, climate change, on the other hand, has been known for a long time, and in the context of climate adaptation many actors are actively preparing for crisis-like conditions. What difference does it make whether one was warned or not? What is the impact of more theoretical preparation compared to practical experience? What is learning in the moment, what is rather the application of existing experience?
Kristine Kern: I'm an economist by training and have always dealt with crises - the Great Depression, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the oil crisis; environmental crises have also been around for a long time, just think of Chernobyl, later Fukushima. More recently, there was the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, Corona. The impression is that the crises are never-ending. But the Cold War was also a time of permanent crisis. I am mainly interested in how crises influence each other. For example, the Corona crisis and the climate crisis. But it is also interesting to see the events that steer politics in new directions, such as how the reactor accident in Fukushima changed energy policy. Such events also occur in climate adaptation, albeit at a different level. In crisis, institutions are created to prevent the next crisis, for example in flood events.

Crisis, disaster, uncertainty, disruptive event, how do you tell them apart?
Tjorven Harmsen: We often look at crisis cases with a triggering event that we call disruptive. For example, an explosion on a large merchant ship that threatens people and the environment. In the financial crisis of 2008, the analogous event would be, for example, the bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers bank. Uncertainty exists with regard to the question of how to proceed after the triggering event, what to do, what consequences are imminent. A disruptive event is followed by reaction mechanisms, some of which are professionalised. There are organisations that specialise in limiting the consequences of such events.

Elisa Kochskämper: A disaster has long-term effects. With a disruptive event, it's not so clear. It depends on how well the respective system can deal with it, how resilient it is.
Oliver Ibert: Yes, a disaster is a loss that has occurred. A crisis, on the other hand, is open to the future; the greatest damage can still be averted if the right decisions are made. Disruptive events, on the other hand, do not necessarily have to trigger a crisis. Many organisations deal with emergency situations that occur regularly, the "normal emergencies". Floods happen almost every year, there is also damage, but there are routines of dealing with it and most of the time it does not turn into a crisis. Only when the routines fail, when the uncertainty increases, is it a crisis that can grow into a disaster.

How is it that some events become a crisis and others do not?
Elisa Kochskämper: A crisis can arise due to a lack of coordination or because existing structures are simply inadequate. The 2013 floods in southern Germany are an example of this. Just because you know what happens during a flood does not mean that you have well-rehearsed, established ways of responding. In smaller municipalities, the volunteer fire brigades are responsible for disaster control. Formally, they have to have a crisis plan. In reality, however, it is often a DIN A4 sheet with three bullet points that the fire chief keeps. When he is on holiday, nobody knows what to do. Especially in the case of floods, there is also the time factor. In the past, floods were primarily river floods. They develop relatively slowly. For some time now, however, floods have increasingly been the result of heavy rains that come very quickly. The speed influences how well the existing routines work.

Oliver Ibert: It is basically impossible to predict when a crisis will occur. If a problem is ignored for a long time, however, the probability increases that it will force itself onto the agenda as a crisis without being asked. You always have to think of crises from the perspective of the social actors who are affected by them. In the case of a flood, it is not the river that is in crisis, but possibly the flood protection authority. Initially, organisations that are directly involved in averting dangers - security authorities or central banks, for example - are very close to the action. They work with probabilities of occurrence, threshold values, etc. They live with the danger. They live with the danger. But I find the ramifications of crises in other systems much more interesting. The Corona pandemic not only affects the health system, it also affects aviation, the meat industry and cruise operators in a completely unforeseen way. They find themselves in an existential crisis overnight, without having dealt with it beforehand.
But there is also a communicative aspect. When someone uses the word "crisis", they are signalling: "I am dealing with a very urgent problem!" The word "education crisis" makes a problem in the education system look twice as big. We see throughout that you cannot pin down a crisis to objective factors. Economic data like unemployment can develop badly over a long period of time, and then all of a sudden there is a crisis discourse. We say that crises are socially constructed and performatively produced. That does not make them any less real. There are actors who proclaim crises. Some organisations have taken to plunging others into reputational crises - for example, when Greenpeace specifically denounces the environmental sins of a very specific company that is in the spotlight. For the latter, the three crisis characteristics of insecurity, threat and pressure to act are very real and cannot be ignored.

Kristine Kern: It's true that crises are socially constructed. The media and organisations like Greenpeace play a role in turning an event into a crisis in the public perception. But there are also objectively different frequencies of events. Take nuclear energy: we know that an accident like Chernobyl or Fukushima will happen again, but we don't know if it will happen now or in 1000 years. Floods occur more frequently, there is an established way of dealing with them. Nevertheless, there are always disasters like the storm surge in 1962, the Oder flood in 1997 or the Elbe flood in 2002.

What does it mean to learn from crises? What happens there?
Kristine Kern: Crises lead to institutionalisation: New institutions, i.e. rules, are introduced to prevent similar crises or the occurrence of damage in the future. The question is, however, who can learn and at what level is learning taking place. A flood is relatively local. It also happens relatively often, so there is a long history of institutionalisation. For example, the local fire brigade can learn from flood events. In the case of Corona, citizens can at least participate; in the case of a reactor accident, hardly at all. The more far-reaching the possible consequences of an event are, the more centralised preventive and reactive measures are controlled, for example by national authorities or even international organisations.

Oliver Ibert: However, the learning effects mentioned here all take place in the organisations that are responsible for damage prevention. But there are also other variants of learning. In shipping, for example, there has been a professionalisation of crisis management, a whole new domain of knowledge has emerged. People accept that crises occur because they cannot be completely prevented anyway. Instead, there are crisis management companies that have even specialised in individual phases or partial aspects of crises and whose task it is to prevent a crisis from turning into a disaster. Some organisations specialise in learning ex-post lessons from each crisis, which are then applied again in crisis management.
Then there are learning processes that don't directly have anything to do with security, for example digital collaboration. At the beginning of the Corona crisis, we were all in the home office at once, trying to maintain our work routines. We replaced meetings with video conferencing and started doing research online. This mix of urgency and uncertainty created learning opportunities. We were forced to try things, improvise and also show a higher tolerance for mistakes. In online teaching, for example, no one expected everything to work out perfectly. Increased fault tolerance can be liberating, can help to try things and allow experiences beyond the routine. These are then consolidated, for example in lesson plans that combine online and face-to-face formats as a matter of course. And in research proposals, online survey phases are now planned as a matter of course. These are innovations for which a crisis has provided the impetus.

Elisa Kochskämper: Perhaps, however, new routines do not necessarily have to emerge in the crisis for one to speak of a learning effect. Crises can reveal systemic weaknesses. Things can come to the fore that have not been dealt with for a long time. For example, the fact that digitalisation has been insufficiently implemented in everyday work has been on the table for a long time, but it was not considered so dramatic, so nothing was done. The Corona crisis has shown that this is a vulnerability. This is now being taken seriously.

Are there certain factors that determine whether or not lessons are learned from a crisis?
Tjorven Harmsen: Crises do offer learning opportunities, but especially in highly professionalised problem-solving, crises also have a momentum of their own, which at least slows down deeper learning processes again. In organisations dealing with a disruptive event, the acute crisis moves to the top of the priority list. It acts as an attention grabber, like a stress impulse that causes muscles to be supplied with more blood. However, as soon as the acute crisis is over, resources are again diverted from the respective issue. The organisation would then have to actively decide to learn from the crisis. That is a hurdle.

Elisa Kochskämper: What we know from research on policy learning in the context of floods is that learning only really happens under pressure. Learning through experience leads to more results than learning through theoretical examination of a topic. Learning across spatial and professional boundaries of responsibility or across policy fields also tends to work poorly. This means that for the organisations that are directly affected, crises offer windows of opportunity for learning. The question remains, however, whether new knowledge is really transferred into new routines. Exactly which consequences are drawn ultimately depends heavily on the prevailing discourse, as well as on the interests and agendas of the actors involved.
Members of a community of practice learn most intensively from each other, i.e. people who deal with the same kind of problems in their everyday lives. This also works across distance and regardless of whether someone is personally affected by a crisis. So, in a crisis that takes place in a particular place, the question is how the local community might overlap with communities of practice that can carry important experiences further.
Wolfgang Haupt: There was a storm in Münster in 2014 that caused severe damage. This generated attention. Münster is considered very progressive in climate adaptation, i.e. in preparing for events like this. If severe damage can occur there, then other municipalities see that it can also happen in their area. This is an essential point: for actors to learn from an event that happens elsewhere, they need to have a connection to the place. There must be reference points that convey: "This can also happen to us". Chernobyl was in the Soviet Union, which felt - economically, politically - very far away. It was possible to say, "Something like that can't happen here." Japan is closer to our self-image as an industrial nation, so the reactor accident in Fukushima had more direct consequences for our energy policy. The smoky sky over San Francisco also affects us more directly than fires in the Amazon or in Siberia..

Oliver Ibert: Certainly, the decisive factor is whether an organisational unit is prepared to learn new lessons, for example if it has already dealt with the respective topic. The crisis then confirms the preparation. But the question of readiness also has a normative, institutional component. In France, for example, nuclear energy is a symbol of modernity. The country gets about 70% of its electricity from nuclear energy. If you are positioned in this way, you will not be shaken by an event like Fukushima. How a crisis is explained is also important. Are internal or external explanatory factors used? The more a crisis is explained by external factors, the less is learned from it. If others are to blame or even no one is to blame, I cannot draw any conclusions. But the more I see a crisis as a consequence of internal inadequacies, the more I am prepared to learn.
But there is also the opposite danger that crises completely dominate the logic of political governance, that nothing can be worked through strategically and according to plan any more, and that in learning from crises, individual events are inflated and general conclusions are wrongly drawn from them. I find the question exciting whether it is really true that we are slipping from one crisis into the next and that we only govern in crisis mode. What is the relationship between everyday political understanding and crisis management? How can I successfully use crises as learning opportunities and at the same time not lose the ability to manage politics in everyday life? This is a research topic for the future.

Kristine Kern: You can certainly see differences between national cultures in the way risks are assessed. In Germany, dikes are higher than in the Netherlands. There is no rational explanation for this. The discourse about forest dieback in the 1980s did not exist in France either.
But one also has to look specifically at the nature of the crisis. If we are talking about an administrative crisis, then the question is how an administrative organisation can look like that promotes learning. There are discussions about the concept of "agile administration", which envisages completely different structures than we have. But here, too, there are differences between countries. City administrations in Finland, for example, learn faster than in Germany. This may also be due to the fact that digitalisation is more advanced there. In the Corona crisis, new things were learned very quickly. The more difficult part, however, is unlearning old routines.

Before Corona, there was a lot of talk about the climate crisis. Does it even make sense to talk about a "crisis" here?
Kristine Kern: I think that there are also crises that run longer. We have known since the 1980s that climate change is a global problem. Since then, there have always been disruptive events, recently there have been more and more of them. One can argue about whether one should speak of a climate crisis, but it is being done more and more lately. And it is always events that give rise to it. It doesn't have to be weather events like droughts or floods. It can also be the publication of the latest IPCC report, the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit, the conclusion of the Paris Agreement. However, political agenda-setting works in such a way that only one crisis discourse can be on everyone’s mind at a time and the previous one is suppressed. Already in 2008 there was a lot of talk about climate, then came the financial crisis. Currently, the corona crisis has displaced the climate crisis. But it will come back, just like the refugee crisis of 2015.

Oliver Ibert: I think it is misleading to call long-term global warming a crisis. Climate change favours disruptive events like droughts and hurricanes. But the term "crisis" should be limited to social systems that are challenged by and respond to an event coming from outside or even inside. A crisis is always a temporally compressed attention-grabbing event that is characterised by the three features mentioned at the beginning. Climate change, however, is a field in which crises arise frequently. This can be a good criterion for learning in a crisis: If crises keep arising in a particular field, then it is worth learning from these crises. And it is true that the global migration issue is not nearly solved. We will still experience many crises here. Although it can't really surprise anyone, situations will arise again and again that no one anticipated, that escalate quickly, and in which improvisation and learning have to be done quickly.

Elisa Kochskämper: I can understand the separation between crises as individual events on the one hand and a triggering problem area or a longer-term development on the other, but I am not sure if it is really reasonable. After all, what has made climate change so crisis-like is the decade-long lack of meaningful action, i.e. the absence of learning. There are models of experiential learning that distinguish several strengths of behavioural change, from "simple" to "system-changing". These models could actually be well linked to the crisis definition we have already discussed. Then learning could no longer be understood only as a result of crises, but also as an influencing factor on whether developments escalate more and more crisis-like in the long run.

Is the Corona crisis also an opportunity for climate protection, for example if financial resources for economic recovery are consistently channelled into climate-friendly projects?
Oliver Ibert: Rhetorically, this point is made quite strongly. I have my doubts. As has been said here, we always learn from crises what we are willing to learn. A crisis is also an opportunity to push through an agenda that one has always had, such as expanded "emergency" powers for governments and authorities. In this respect, the Corona crisis can provide an impetus for a slow reorientation, which is already taking place anyway, but it will not trigger a fundamental rethink among actors who have so far shown no interest in climate protection.

Kristine Kern: The Corona crisis certainly offers opportunities for climate protection, but they must be used consistently: This crisis has meant that Germany will most likely meet its 2020 reduction target for greenhouse gas emissions, which would otherwise not have been possible. The Corona crisis has also influenced the mobility behaviour of the population. Public transport has been negatively affected, many have switched to cars, but many have also switched to bicycles. In Berlin, pop-up cycle paths have emerged that have already become the subject of court decisions. How this battle for public space will end is open. But the crisis has shown that changes in favour of walking and cycling are possible. Berlin's mobility law must now be implemented more consistently and quickly. Especially in the transport sector, CO2 emissions are not decreasing, but rather tending to increase. New challenges are arising in the relationship between city and country: If more city dwellers move to the countryside, this can reduce the pressure for more densification, which endangers inner-city green spaces - which we urgently need for climate adaptation. On the other hand, new commuter traffic is created that must be avoided or at least organised in a climate-neutral way. And more land is being consumed overall. It depends on the political design whether the opportunity that lies in this crisis is used.