Coronavirus: what we can learn for the future

Toward a more resilient society

Dr. Alexander Stolz
© Fraunhofer / Philipp Horak
Dr. Alexander Stolz knows how to make systems resilient. He is head of safety technology at the Fraunhofer Institute for High-Speed Dynamics, Ernst-Mach-Institut, EMI.

Web special of the cover story of Fraunhofer magazine 2.2020

After months of lockdown and anxiety, there’s growing optimism that the world’s current vulnerability might develop into a new source of strength. In our connected world, it no longer suffices merely to overcome a crisis. We must also learn to grow from the experience.

Seldom has a single event had such a direct impact on so many people. Recent months have brought substantial curbs on both working and private life, appreciable changes in the way we associate with our fellow citizens, and predictably severe damage to the global economy. Even experts have been taken aback by the force and scale of the global disruption caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. “The speed with which the crisis moved from the local to the global level has underlined just how vulnerable the world has become in all its complexity and connectivity,” says Dr. Alexander Stolz from the Fraunhofer Institute for High-Speed Dynamics, Ernst-Mach-Institut, EMI, in Efringen-Kirchen, a town in Baden-Württemberg. For the past ten years, he has been investigating the resilience of various systems to all kinds of disaster and catastrophe. Stolz believes that the past few months of the pandemic have underlined a key lesson: when it comes to an emergency situation that impacts everyone with predictable consequences on so many levels, it is vital to have a resilience strategy. For Stolz, this means that resilience must be measurable.


The status quo. Within a few weeks, the coronavirus had spread around the globe, bringing public and economic life to a standstill in many countries. In April 2020, a total of 178 countries introduced travel restrictions, 157 closed schools, and 145 imposed quarantine and lockdown measures. Management consultants McKinsey calculated that the German economy was losing 15 billion euros a week during lockdown in April. At a loss of 4 billion euros, a substantial portion of this was borne by manufacturing industry, particularly the automotive, mechanical engineering and plant engineering sectors. Next came health care and the social services (1.6 billion euros), wholesale trade (1.1 billion euros), the hotel and catering trade (900 million euros) and arts and entertainment (800 million euros). For 2020, the European Commission is forecasting a fall in GDP of 7.4 percent for the EU as a whole, with Germany (-6.5%) less seriously affected than France or Italy. The EU is providing record funds in order to overcome the impact.

According to McKinsey, it will take until 2028 for Germany to rejoin the path of growth that it would have been on without the pandemic – under one condition: Germany must seize the opportunity to press ahead with digital transformation. Conditions are favorable right now. In response to COVID- 19, a lot of companies have fast-forwarded the process of digitalization. Companies that had procrastinated for years have suddenly gone ahead and done it. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella sums it up: “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digitalization in the space of just two months.”

Yet this is not the only aspect of social and economic transformation that can now gain added momentum. More clearly than ever, the coronavirus pandemic has uncovered the vulnerabilities of our system – but also revealed the opportunities we face. “The measures to stabilize and stimulate the German economy need to be geared first and foremost toward achieving greater sustainability,” says Fraunhofer President Prof. Reimund Neugebauer. “And this must be done in a way that also substantially strengthens our competitiveness.” For Chancellor Merkel, the key lesson of recent months has been the need for Europe to acquire “greater strategic sovereignty.” Neugebauer also calls for a rethinking of Germany’s current dependences: “The goal is not to achieve total self-sufficiency but rather to have sovereign freedom of choice. And sovereignty depends on smart policy and on a community’s scientific, economic and social strength.”

Resilience is the measure of whether societies and organizations are able to overcome critical situations and whether they possess the technological, social and economic means to do this. “What resilient systems and organizations all have in common is that they invest in redundancy, spread their resources widely, and are able to organize themselves; they factor in the possibility of unforeseen events, focus on their own capabilities and strengths, and have flexible processes,” explains Florian Roth, innovation and resilience researcher at the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI in Karlsruhe (see Interview, p. 32). For Roth, it is not enough merely to rebound when adversity strikes or, as the original sense of the word suggests (from the Latin resilire), to “jump back.” If we want to make our system more resilient, we must also exploit this momentum and venture a leap forward or, as Roth calls it, a “bounce forward.”

For many years now, resilience has been a topic of research in the fields of psychology and the social sciences, engineering and the material sciences, and in economics and ecology. Given the complexity of this subject, the analytical approach of engineering science may well offer certain advantages. “Resilience doesn’t come about by accident; you can plan for it strategically,” Stolz explains. “Resilience engineering is all about developing the measures and methods required to make optimal decisions before, during and after a crisis. A major emergency event is divided into five phases, all with fluid boundaries: prepare, prevent, protect, respond and recover.”

resilience performance
© Fraunhofer EMI
The resilience of a company or system can be easured by plotting its performance against time. Following the occurrence of a crisis, a resilient ystem is able to minimize the drop in performance over time.

Resilience safeguards modern societies

Resilience engineering is all about being able to develop the measures and methods required to make optimal decisions before, during and after a crisis. An emergency event is divided into five phases. Before an emergency, it is wise to make necessary preparations (Prepare) and take precautionary measures (Prevent). When an emergency occurs, the priority is to shield and shelter (Protect)) and to mitigate severe consequences and maintain critical supplies (Respond). Once the crisis has passed, it is vital to get things up and running again (Recover) and to systematically learn key lessons from the experience of the crisis.

Interviews with Fraunhofer researchers

“We should see this crisis as a wake-up call!”

Dr. Florian Roth is a researcher at the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI in Karlsruhe. We discussed with him the opportunities and risks presented by the current crisis.

“It’s about money and life!”

When major decisions have to be made on the basis of complicated data, that’s when mathematics comes into its own. Prof. Anita Schöbel, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Mathematics ITWM, is delighted about the growing popularity of her subject.

For climate’s sake!

We’ve forgotten the art of doing nothing. Yet researchers say that only a slowdown will bring greater sustainability.