Coronavirus: what we can learn for the future

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

Interview with Dr. Florian Roth

Dr. Florian Roth
© Fraunhofer / Philipp Horak
Dr. Florian Roth wrote his doctorate on risk-based policymaking in complex situations. At Fraunhofer ISI, he is investigating processes of social transformation and the development of socio-technical resilience.

Mr. Roth, how resilient is someone who studies resilience?

Roth: Well, I certainly keep a close eye on my own level of resilience. I look at my strategies for coping, I check my inner resources. I think about the things that give me strength. I ask myself if I really do want everything to go back to how it was before. Or whether I’m ready for something new. And I try to stay as adaptable and flexible as possible – with regard to new technology and tools, for example.

You wrote your doctorate on risk-based policymaking in complex situations. What can this work tell us about the current situation?

I looked explicitly at the interaction between parliamentary politics, the media and public opinion – that’s pretty much the interplay that we’ve been experiencing over the past few months. Risk-based decisions are always made under enormous time pressure. Bad decisions generally have serious consequences for society and for the decision makers themselves. There’s also the effect of so-called sunk costs: if you’re committed to a path of action in which you’ve already invested a lot, then it’s difficult to change course, even if that makes more sense. Interdisciplinary experts should always be involved in the decision-making process. They can assess the situation from a variety of perspectives. Take the compulsory wearing of face masks: a virologist can tell us how the virus spreads when people talk to one another, but a social scientist will also help us understand the psychological, political and social impacts of such a regulation – and explain why it is, for example, that mandatory mask-wearing can result in some people feeling safer and therefore no longer maintaining the required distance to other people. That’s what we call risk compensation.

What’s the secret of successful communication in a crisis situation?

It has to be transparent and based on partnership. What’s counterproductive is the use of so-called nudging, whereby you try and manipulate people to behave in a particular way. As we’ve seen, it’s also vital to know what you want to achieve, and not just what you want to avoid or prevent. In other words, a positive argument in favor of something helps increase its acceptance.

What kind of system is more suitable in a time of crisis: a centralized or a decentralized one?

In our society, knowledge is spread very widely. That’s an advantage. We can learn from the field of ecology here: research into coral reefs has shown that complex ecosystems that are rich in species turn out to be more resilient. That isn’t completely applicable to our situation, but it tells us that systems that avoid centralizing knowledge and resources are better able to deal with crises. They can utilize the ability of individual elements within the system to detect signals or changes that remain below the perception threshold of the system as a whole. A system is therefore able to react more quickly and prevent an information overload. It’s therefore vital to institute proper decision-making powers right across the entire system. This means giving not only central bodies but also smaller units the power to make decisions. Empowerment is very important here.

In Germany, what do we need more of in the future: a strong state or more individual responsibility?

We see both tendencies here, but that isn’t necessarily a contradiction. It’s important to have an effective, fully functional state to navigate through a crisis. And it’s certainly the case, as studies show, that a full-blown crisis tends to reinforce people’s trust in state institutions, at least in the short term. But over the past few months, we’ve also seen a lot of grassroots initiatives, ranging from neighborhood help on the local level to the creation of digital platforms for scientists and private groups. This participation generates greater self-confidence, a sense of self-efficacy and also a greater willingness to be involved in decision-making. This is an opportunity to strengthen an active civil society, which will then help us deal with future crises.

How can we ensure that we move forward after a crisis rather than backwards?

Basically, we need to recognize the opportunities rather than just falling back into our old ways. We’re at a critical juncture right now. Before, it was already pretty clear that things needed to change. Now, the question is how to create a system that is sustainable and successful over the long term. We must also bear in mind that such processes of transformation can also create losers. It’s the task of politics to create the requisite compensatory mechanisms to ensure that this disruptive transition remains socially acceptable.

Is the coronavirus crisis a catalyst?

All the big challenges have been around for quite a while: digitalization, a realignment of education, health and care, transport, decarbonization, structural change in economically deprived areas, adapting to climate change. The pandemic has also intensified some of the structural crises that existed before – in aviation, for example. Right now, a lot of airlines are only surviving because of state intervention. At the same time, they’re also a key factor in the climate discussion. Now’s the right time to think about how we can steer this process of change in the right direction. In the long run, structural change can also give rise to new opportunities in the areas affected, provided these periods of upheaval are used in the right way.