Written by Bart Cambré, Hugo Marynissen & Geert Van Hootegem
(Read the Dutch blog post here)
No doubt you will also see them, the numerous memes, photos, GIF’s, or movies where the Corona virus and its effects on our lives are portrayed in a playful way. At the same time, we are all anxiously following the numbers of hospital admissions, filled intensive care beds and deaths. This seems contradictory, but it is not at all.
If we look at the current crisis from a sociological perspective, we can describe the Corona pandemic as a ‘wicked problem’. Literally translated, it is a tricky, thorny, common problem. It is a very complex problem, it is unique, the full extent nor the exact solution are known. Other wicked problems include poverty, the housing and care situation of our ageing population, social exclusion or climate change. Typical of the societal complexities associated with such a wicked problem are that each person involved can look at it differently, all with a little bit of value and a little bit of non-value. Do you have to go for group immunity or not, schools should open again or not, will there be a second wave that will be worse or not, are you allowed to joke or not …? All experts with an opinion on the subject are right and simultaneously wrong.
How do we deal with this as individuals within a society?
So much uncertainty and ambiguity is not beneficial on a man’s social well-being. The complexity inherent in such a crisis often leads to stress, which in turn is causes various factors. For example, getting unclear or contradictory information is an activator for stress. The result is a feeling of loss of control and subsequent helplessness. Because we can no longer regulate our own emotions and those of friends and family due to all kinds of negative reporting, a wicked problem is often experienced as a personal threat. So we look for solutions to make it manageable, to make it known and recognizable.
At the level of society, in such a crisis there is a rapid tendency to gaze towards a ‘dominant logic’; at the moment this is the medical , especially virological, view of public health. This has gratifying side-effects, such as loud applause for the health care workers (but less for, say, dockers, shelf stockers and IT workers), creating a ‘we versus them’ feeling (the Chinese virus) or giving only one group of experts the dominant platform (the new influencers are virologists and medical specialists by association). Can you imagine listening under different circumstances to a virologist who speaks out about your summer holiday plans or who thinks that music festivals are not a good idea right now?
The unpleasant side effects are that tunnel vision is created, confusing individuals and society. As an individual it is of course perfectly justified to drive from your own garage in the (rich) suburbs to the garage of your seaside country house or to play basketball outside. If we are all going to do that, there is a potential problem of social gatherings and pressure on the local health care system. Another side-effect is that we are going to place everything that happens in a preconceived notion of the situation while this does not always match reality. This phenomenon, which is called ‘confirmation bias’, causes us to look for information that is fully in line with the beliefs we have about a certain phenomenon. We do this all the time.
We got up this morning with a slight pain in our back and then we had a big sneeze. The cause of this is not necessarily a COVID-19 infection, but it is rather from the fact that we worked in the garden yesterday and reacted to the Spring pollen, is not immediately the reflex of many (especially in our environment). We like to immediately paint our own mental picture. There’s nothing we can do about that, we owe that to the often irrational working of our brains. Our brain also has difficulty dealing with complexity. It is a sequential machine that can only pay attention to one problem at a time. Reducing complexity then works, while the problem is much more complex and has many aspects that therefore receive less attention.
What should we do as a society?
If we approach the Corona crisis as a wicked problem and not merely as a (transient) problem within public health, we admit that you cannot tackle it like other crises we have had in the past, in which you know what works and what does not. Then we urgently need to tackle the problem more broadly, not just as a medical problem but as a social problem.
We can do this in many ways, let’s focus here on the interaction between how far-sighted (anticipative) we need to be in a crisis and whether we need multiple and collaborating parties (disciplines).
Within crisis management as we know it to this day, an intervention is carried out depending on the problem at hand. This intervention can consist, for example, of the fire brigade extinguishing a kitchen fire. In that case, you are dealing with a simple problem that one aid discipline can fight reactively quite easily. As soon as the problem becomes more complex and consists of different elements, such as a fire in an apartment building where there are victims and as a result the entire apartment building has to be evacuated, we speak of a compound problem. In that case, in addition to the fire brigade, you also need a medical team and also the police to evacuate the neighbourhood.
As soon as we want to approach a certain problem in a forward-looking way, this is done with different parties, each with their own knowledge and skills. An example of such a complicated problem is the issue of a safety permit for a company; various bodies such as the fire brigade, environmental department, urban planning department and provincial government (to name just a few) then each look at the possible risks from their own expertise and what measures have been taken to control them and prevent possible disasters. This Corona crisis, however, painfully demonstrates that these crisis management methods do not work to combat wicked problems, because they do not have to work side by side but with each other, and that with foresight.
A former Minister of Health in France, Roselyne Bachelot, had at an emotional time in 2009 and ordered no less than one billion surgical mouth masks and 700 million FFP2 masks at the time of the Mexican flu outbreak. Very anticipative, but also mono-disciplinary. The result can be guessed at: accusations of profligacy and the stock was destroyed in 2016. You can anticipate, but if the measures are not supported by a network of parties involved, the effectiveness will be very low. That doesn’t work when tackling a wicked problem.
The current Corona crisis is mainly triggered by a monodisciplinary and reactive reflex. The virologists and by extension medical scientists currently form the ‘dominant logic’ and try to contain the further spread of the virus with the known measures. ‘Staying in your own room’ sounds good, but ignores the social, economic and psychological needs of the individual. That doesn’t work when tackling a wicked problem.
The working group GEES (Group of Experts in charge of the Exit-Strategy) of the Wilmès government (Belgium) is already an attempt to build in transdisciplinary measures. In addition to medical experts, there are also economists, two statisticians, a lawyer and ‘someone representing the social sector’. The dominant logic is still reflected in the overrepresentation of medical professionals. Several important sciences or domains of science are not present (psychology, sociology, public administration, organisational science, crisis communication, ICT, logistics, ethics…). It remains to be seen how this group will work together.
There is an important difference between multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary. Involving a sufficient number of different disciplines (multidisciplinary) is one thing, letting them work together (transdisciplinary) is another. There is a danger that we will take several fresh looks at the matter, but that they will only look within their own framework. Just as we now look at a virologist list the infection figures every evening, are we also going to have an economist add up the number of bankruptcies in the evening news, a psychologist the number of mental problems and a sociologist the number of homeworkers? Multiple visions are not going to help us if they don’t work together in an integrated way. Each discipline already knows a lot, now it is important to build connections between disciplines. That doesn’t even require a lot of new research, but it does require listening to each other’s results and working with them together. Furthermore, GEES’s field of work is reactive, within the current crisis. You can tell from the communication that there is no framework for working anticipatively. We, and they, don’t know when schools will open, or when festivals will take place, or whether there will still be competitive football or cycling. We don’t know, simply because with a wicked problem like the Corona crisis, you don’t know if you are in the middle of it and you have neither the framework nor the structure to work in a forward-looking way. At best it becomes an educated guess. In short, a compound approach does not work when tackling a wicked problem.
Today we have to start with the answers for tomorrow. A network of specialists and organizations are working anticipatively on a roadmap and an infrastructure needed to tackle future pandemics. That is what we are missing today. Operationally, the (very painful) choices may lie in determining who will or will not receive intensive care, but strategically and socially we will have to weigh up values. Health, welfare, well-being, what weighs most heavily? Or how can we combine them? No virologist can do that, not even eleven million self-proclaimed Belgian virologists can do that, no minister can do that with a little parliamentary support. If it were simple, there would already be a script. We must now dare to ask questions about where we have to go in the medium and long term. How much money do we have to manage this crisis? How are we going to restart all businesses? In the meantime, how can we support spontaneous citizens’ initiatives and maximise the return on their efforts? How will we ensure that we can live and work together again without fear? How many organisations or partners do we need, how are we going to get them to work together and who is going to manage this network? What are the social, financial, human and economic consequences and challenges of this wicked problem, and how can we anticipate them now? This requires true transdisciplinary, transcending partitions between sectors and disciplines. The many billions of losses and state aid may even pay off one day if we succeed in building such an infrastructure in the wake of this crisis. The necessary separation between sectors or industries on the one hand and between disciplines in education and research on the other will not happen on its own. The external coercion is there now. Immensely. Now it is still hoping for, or working on, the urge that we all want it. Shared charismatic and visionary leadership that shakes up our rusty structures and procedures. No more monodisciplinary, reactive policies from all kinds of poorly coupled silos. This means an enrichment of tasks, jobs and insights, releasing energy that allows even the most difficult wicked problems to be tackled with a new dominant logic that is open, focused on multiple values and on the uncertain future.
The current Corona crisis will become a new benchmark, a ‘landmark’. We will soon refer to a pre-Corona and a post-Corona era. Bringing together knowledge to think about this and recommending strategic steps can only lead to a better post-Corona era. Only together can we deal with the ‘common’ problems. Maybe it will be a better life than in the pre-Corona era. After all, let’s not forget that the Renaissance also started after the plague had raged over Europe.
Bart Cambré, Antwerp Management School & University of Antwerp
Hugo Marynissen, PM – Risk Crisis Change & Antwerp Management School
Geert Van Hootegem, HIVA-KU Leuven & Antwerp Management School