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How shall we manage future crises?

Our way of life has been shaken to the core by the coronavirus pandemic. But it has also brought to light the failings and challenges facing Sweden’s contingency planning in the event of crisis or war. We do not know what form the crises of the future will take, but there is one thing we can be sure of – that they will come.

It was in March 2020 that the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic. Aside from Sweden initially being one of the countries that was hardest hit by COVID­-­19, the pandemic also immediately raised the issue of how well prepared the country really is for this type of crisis. The fact that Sweden’s contingency stores had long-since been decommissioned and replaced by care providers’ just-in-time strategy quickly led to an acute shortage of protective equipment. Sweden also, for example, found it difficult to protect its oldest citizens and residents of care homes, and certain parts of the country lacked the sufficient laboratory capacity to be able to scale up the testing process for corona. 

Kerstin Eriksson is a researcher at RISE who specialises in crisis management, and her studies have examined how municipalities managed crises in conjunction with Storm Gudrun in 2005 and the forest fires in Västmanland in 2014. 

One thing that these studies have in common is that it had not been possible to foresee the extent of the crises in advance. Kerstin has not yet completed her research into the after-effects of the coronavirus pandemic, but it is already possible to identify a common tendency.

– “It is clear that this is not something for which we were prepared. Generally speaking, we are not very good at planning for surprises and the unknown”, she explains. 

‘Possibilities’ instead of ‘probabilities’

A similar approach is shared by Lee Clarke, author of the book ‘Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination’. In this book, he asserts that we should not only think of ‘probabilities’, but also of ‘possibilities’.

– “The point he makes is that we need to work more with ‘worst case scenarios’, but that we often focus solely on probable outcomes. The greatest challenge is that we find it extremely difficult to plan for the unknown.”

In all types of crisis events, there is much that is required – the ability to communicate and provide guidance, and to lead and manage voluntary behaviour

Hard to predict the future

The kinds of crises that will constitute the challenges of the future are difficult to predict in any detail. But climate change has brought a range of weather-related events into focus, such as more fires or floods similar to those experienced in Gävle in late summer 2021.

The changes that will be demanded of us and our society in the future, such as combatting the impact of a changed climate on towns and cities, will require both new ways of working and new ways of thinking. There will also be a need for a helicopter view – to be able to distil research, new technical solutions and wide-ranging knowledge. RISE brings together exactly the range of skills necessary to be a multidisciplinary force, such as supporting and synchronising municipalities’ climate adaptation work, or driving more tangible initiatives – for example, for securing the access to clean water in the towns and cities of tomorrow.

However, it is not only the climate emergency that demands greater crisis-awareness today; with regards to security, the political situation is also different. According to Kerstin Eriksson, the key is to make preparations on a broad basis, rather than focusing on specific scenarios. 

– “Of course, if it involves an area that always experiences flooding, then plan for that. Otherwise, we should engage in broader, more general planning that can be applied in a great number of different events. We can think about how surprising situations can be managed in the best way. In all types of crisis events, there is much that is required – the ability to communicate and provide guidance, and to lead and manage voluntary behaviour, and the ability to create a sense of engagement among people in the municipality, to get everyone involved and to create awareness.”

There are benefits to be gained from experiences of a crisis, but we perhaps need to think more broadly instead of focusing on specific details

Strengthened contingencies in the wake of the pandemic

With regard to the level of awareness among the population, Kerstin believes that the coronavirus pandemic may contribute to a strengthening of the country’s contingencies for crisis management. Higher levels of popular engagement could make it easier in the future for those who work with contingency planning to attract attention to important issues. 

– “Crisis management is perhaps not something that everybody prioritises. You are planning for something that you’ll hopefully never need to use, in contrast to other parts of the municipality’s work that always need to be done. Crisis management is an area that often only attracts attention when things go drastically wrong – then it’s expected that a plan has been put in place, and that it will work”, says Kerstin Eriksson. 

Although every crisis often brings about new challenges, there are also many other examples where experiences can make us better prepared – at least when we look at specific events. One example is how the major forest fire in Västmanland in 2014 gave us new insights, which Kerstin Eriksson believes resulted in the municipalities affected being better prepared for the forest fires in the summer of 2018. 

In one of her current projects, she and her colleagues are looking at one of the municipalities that was affected, which itself claims that it is now better equipped to cope with future crises. 

– “In this municipality, they have developed and made major changes to every aspect of their crisis management. They describe insights that they are now using in conjunction with the coronavirus pandemic, as well as for other events. There are benefits to be gained from experiences of a crisis, but we perhaps need to think more broadly instead of focusing on specific details”, explains Kerstin Eriksson. 

Published: 2021-10-19

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Kerstin Eriksson

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