Certain crises can be linked to a single moment. Ask a Swede where they were when they heard that the Prime Minister had been shot, when Norway suffered a racist terror attack or when the Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea – and there is a high likelihood they will know the answer. There followed years of reflection, investigations and attempts to learn from what happened, but it's still the actual event that’s remembered.
With the pandemic it's different. For most of us, no crisis in our lifetime has changed our way of life as fundamentally as the virus has. But the crisis just crept in. First there were reports of events in China, then came the outbreak in Italy and the worry over here, after which the world shut down, and there were restrictions and changes to the way we meet, work and live. Many of us have memories connected with something we’ve had to do without or someone we’ve lost to covid, but few of us remember precisely when life changed.
For most universities, authorities and institutions the pandemic meant replacement of face-to-face work by digital encounters. It is of course a big change calling for innovations, new technologies and an altered mindset. But for the Swedish research institute RISE the change was so much bigger. RISE had contact networks and expertise that was needed for the handling of the pandemic, and the adjustment was quick.
Gathered collective knowledge
The website was restructured so as to reach those able to contribute and wanting to do so, the institute introduced a guarantee that anyone getting in touch regarding pandemic-related needs would be contacted within 24 hours, and the entire organisation was rationalised in order to help with society's crisis management. All employees were asked what they saw around the corner, what they thought society would need next and what problems RISE could help resolve. The collective skills and knowledge of the institute's researchers and staff were thus made use of.
– “I think the reason RISE was able to contribute in so many ways was the fact that we’re so used to being on our toes. We were able to act as events occurred, and to see what the problems were and what we could contribute, because in the normal course of our work we also head up or take part in collaborations and base our approach on challenges that need resolving," RISE’s CEO Pia Sandvik explains.
RISE are experts in collaboration – we know how interfaces are established and are used to interacting with many different players
From vacuum cleaner bags to mouth guards
RISE works both with technology companies and with life-science organisations, and the certification work in several areas makes RISE a crucial player when it comes to testing and quality assurance. Well into the pandemic, extensive quality assurance of things such as testing was necessary in order to detect antibodies. But that's not where it started.
– “One of the contacts resulting from the adjustment necessitated by the pandemic was that with Electrolux. There was a widespread lack of masks that pretty much everyone will remember, and Electrolux discovered that their vacuum bags could be used as substitutes. There was of course concern, as they had in no way been tested as regards their suitability as masks. At the same time Electrolux realised they could help by adapting their production. They did so, and we at RISE helped with the testing of the new masks made on the lines that had previously produced vacuum bags," says Pia Sandvik.
Collaboration at a higher speed
For RISE, much of the new work in connection with the pandemic involved doing things they were already familiar with: collaborating, carrying out quality assurance, and developing and disseminating expertise. But in one regard the work deviated from the norm: RISE needed to work at a completely different speed.
Various players with whom they have often been in contact in other contexts in the past now got in touch with them regarding problems or ideas about how they might contribute. Things needed to be quick, but the contacts came from all over the place. Some had experience working in the sectors where they were now needed, whilst others had until now never worked in fields such as personal protective equipment. Experiences needed to be shared.
– “The pandemic led to the need for many different structures to interact. Healthcare, the labour market, value chains – they all involved complicated infrastructure, necessitating simultaneous adaptation on the part of many different parts of society so everything would function when borders were closed, demand drastically changed and the pressure on healthcare increased. RISE are experts in collaboration – we know how interfaces are established and are used to interacting with many different players. It was thus no wonder that we ended up in the middle of crisis management," Pia Sandvik recalls.
This time we were able to contribute our detailed knowledge of production and testing. In the next crisis we will be able to contribute something else.
Lessons for the next crisis
Another area in which RISE became active was investigating the possibility of restoring some production in Sweden, e.g. of vaccines, when imports couldn’t be relied on as usual.
– We became a clear part of the task of total defence in the event of a crisis, and this created insight for us and many of those who collaborating with us," says Pia Sandvik.
The next crisis won't look like this one. But there are lessons to be learnt. Pia Sandvik thinks it is above all a matter of society's resilience in various types of crisis.
– A crisis is after all by definition is a situation we’ve not previously experienced. Humanity has experienced pandemics before, but in modern times no pandemic has had as much impact on Sweden and internationally as COVID-19. The next crisis will be something else, and we need to understand how we can then act quickly, follow and understand events, use our creativity and existing collaborative interfaces, and have the courage to do something new.
Cyberattack can create the next crisis
Pia Sandvik points out that the next crisis may be in the field of cybersecurity. Our current dependence on ICT services is huge. Both the energy supply and infrastructure as a whole are governed by various digital and technically complex services. They can both be affected by technical problems, or be targets in the event of unrest. We similarly depend on importation of food and medicines, which is based on contemporary society’s value chains. Access to clean water may also change, for climatic reasons or as a result of war.
– This time we were able to contribute our detailed knowledge of production and testing. In the next crisis we will be able to contribute something else. It’s not possible to plan for all crises, but one can understand how to adapt quickly in a new situation. And we of course need to be better prepared than is now the case. It is clear that Sweden is characterised by our having had peace for so long and at the same time having been relatively spared from serious protracted crises," says Pia Sandvik.
She points out that an important insight is that everyone must act on the basis of what they can do. The division of responsibilities in Sweden may be clear, but that does not have to mean you should only do what you are strictly responsible for. New problems arising would then be kicked to and fro between various players or would fall between two stools.
– It's a matter of thinking "What can we do?" at least as much as we think "Who’s responsible for this?", says Pia Sandvik.
RISE role in total-defence
After a crisis such as this, which cannot be linked to a single dramatic event, it may be easier to remain focused on the resultant lessons and insights. RISE's work has shown how things that have long seemed obvious no longer are. The pandemic has shown that it is not possible to have the same confidence in free trade as was previously the case. In several countries the independent status of research is being challenged. At the same time, of course, more and in many ways bigger crises are in progress for which Sweden's preparedness needs to improve. Geopolitical situations are less certain, the climate is less stable and more and more people are being forced to flee. RISE is now drawing conclusions that are to provide assistance in this work, and are to consolidate the role that research and innovation must play in crisis management.
– “It should now be obvious to everyone that RISE plays a role in the total-defence work. Within RISE work is in progress on analysis of exactly how that role should be defined, and on identification of the needs within the social structure, so RISE can step in and fill a gap,” Pia Sandvik concludes.