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Prof. Maarja Kruusmaa: Nowadays crises are complex, spread quickly and come in cascades

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Interview with the European Commission’s Chief Scientific Advisor Prof. Maarja Kruusmaa of Tallinn University (Estonia), about lessons and challenges for future strategic crisis management.

For years, the EU has been rushing from crisis to crisis. The European Commission has asked the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors to the European Commission (GCSA) to write a scientific opinion report on how Europe can better manage crises. The scientific opinion report is, to a great extent, based on an evidence review report (ERR) by the consortium of the European Science Academies (SAPEA) and independent experts in crisis management.

Can you already tell us what the next crisis will look like?

Maarja Kruusmaa: Not really, but we can draw important lessons from past crises. All experts agree that crises are becoming increasingly complex and widespread, often coming in cascades. This is due to global mobility, technological advancements and the involvement of many interconnected stake holders and factors. These connections were most recently evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, and their socio-economic and humanitarian consequences can now also be seen in the war in Ukraine.

What has changed compared to previous crises?

Maarja Kruusmaa: The picture has changed due to the speed and dynamics with which crises spread. Even though we cannot predict the next crisis, it will always be accompanied by numerous uncertainties. The evidence review report highlights these uncertainties and points out that we must live with them and be reasonably prepared. Nevertheless, all crises have standard features, with cycles of ups and downs, and responses with prompt support, supplies and logistics will always be similar.

As a professor of biorobotics, we would like to know how your discipline can contribute to managing future crises.

Maarja Kruusmaa: I must keep my expertise out of the scientific opinion-forming process. This way, I avoid bias. We are all influenced by our theories, connections, and communities of colleagues and peers. If you stay away from your area of expertise, you ensure independence and openness.

The Group of Chief Scientific Advisors addresses all phases of a crisis from preparedness to recovery and provides recommendations. What are the most crucial parts of this approach?

Maarja Kruusmaa: Our joint scientific opinion on the evidence review pays more attention to resilience management, marking a paradigm shift from risk or crisis management towards better uncertainty management. Since we cannot know what will happen, we must tolerate unknown threats. But we can design more resilient systems, that is, systems that are more responsive, stress-resistant and future-proof. These are the lessons for the future.

On page 17 of your report there is a chart showing the hubs and nodes of crisis management on an EU level including the legal framework. This overview shows a breakdown of responsibilities that implies the need for an enormous amount of coordination effort. Should more centralised crisis management replace the multi-level EU governance?

Maarja Kruusmaa: Overcentralisation is far from desirable when responding to a crisis. Chains of command will become long, and hierarchies and specialisations encourage silo thinking, which is not good in crises. In moments of crisis, quick and effective responses are needed to best protect citizens on the ground.

The optimal mechanisms are therefore based on autonomous units that are part of a wider network. This means that responses can be tailored to local circumstances. Of course, the different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds within the EU play a role here.

We can paraphrase the different cultural perceptions with an anecdote, for example. When citizens were advised to keep two-metre distance between themselves and others during the COVID-19 pandemic, Italians believed two metres was an unbearably large distance, whereas Finns were complaining about being so close to each other. While this distance is too small for Finns, it may be too large for Italians. Local crisis managers thus need different ways of communicating the guidelines to local people.

Could harmonised data and better data sharing fill the gaps in cooperation that are always seen during crises?

Maarja Kruusmaa: The lack of data sharing and accessible knowledge platforms are major bottlenecks at all levels. Good data facilitates evidence-based decisions and prevents people from acting on gut instinct in emergencies. Speed and preparedness gained through knowledge and data are critical in any crisis.

What can scientists do to promote the optimal spread and use of data?

Maarja Kruusmaa: The presentation of scientific data is a fundamental issue. Imagine an emergency where decision-makers are under enormous cognitive strain to react correctly and quickly against a backdrop of uncertainty. Providing a stressed decision-maker with an Excel spreadsheet with 200 columns of raw data will overwhelm their cognitive abilities.

We therefore recommend that comprehensive data and knowledge is made available quickly during disastrous events as one of the fundamental components of the crisis response. It is also important for decision-makers to understand the limits of the data because depending on how certain they are about the evidence, they might make different decisions.

Are European societies prepared for complex crisis scenarios? Do they need more training, education and risk research?

Maarja Kruusmaa: There is no single approach; this should be the basic principle. System diversity and mutual learning will provide the best lessons that we need to take forward to tackle the next crisis.

In any case, the COVID-19 pandemic taught us that we need to learn from each other much more frequently and using better methods. Ultimately, no one model proved to be the best during the pandemic, and no one should be arrogant and claim that they had the best results. During the pandemic, everyone made mistakes. A more humble approach would be the more appropriate attitude.

During the pandemic, we saw that many governments preferred a communication style that focused on fear sensitisation. Is that good crisis communication?

Maarja Kruusmaa: Fear has its limits; it can trigger panic. That is why risk experts advise against creating fear because it blocks rationality. Another group of EU advisors, the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies, has produced a value statement on the subject of values in times of crisis as part of their overall research into strategic crises management. This value statement focuses on trust among other relevant concepts.

The idea of trust should be carefully considered in relation to future crisis management and communication. Trust can be lost, but it can also be restored. Trust building is most effective when it takes place before a crisis. Consolidating efforts will pay off. Smart politicians will always think about confidence building.

IT and social media now play a central role in crisis communication and crisis management. Are there equivalent alternatives that crisis managers can use in the event of a total grid collapse or power outage?

Maarja Kruusmaa: Disaster management today is no longer just about the flashing blue lights of ambulances and rescue vehicles. It is always about cybersecurity as well. Crisis managers must prepare for cyberattacks and integrate cybersecurity into education and training like a first aid course.

Should the role of social media in today’s crisis management be emphasised more and should people be trained in how best to use it in emergencies?

Maarja Kruusmaa: Social media can be used for good or bad. It plays a crucial role in disaster management. Training should be given on how to use social media positively during a crisis and on how citizens can recognise disinformation.

Do experts notice resentment in European societies towards emergency exercises, which certain groups sometimes label as paramilitary or anti-pacifist?

Maarja Kruusmaa: It should be clear that preparatory and up-to-date crisis management training for citizens is a must. As one crisis expert we talked to put it: ‘It’s time to take the gloves off’, meaning there is nothing wrong, anti-pacifist, or even paramilitary about better preparing citizens for the next crisis. After all, preparation can usually mitigate the consequences of the crisis, protect social cohesion and save lives.

What are the best examples of civil protection in EU countries?

Maarja Kruusmaa: There are many good practices that different countries use to cope with different disasters, such as earthquakes or forest fires for example. And it is, to a great extent, tacit knowledge. Researchers and decision-makers should both look into this more and be aware that much of the local knowledge that is crucial for crisis management is already available among crisis responders. Crisis responders know their people and regions. Again, learning from each other and networking can help improve the management of the next crisis.

Useful links
Teaser: Crisis Management in the EU – YouTube
Strategic crisis management in the EU: Improving EU crisis prevention, preparedness, response and resilience

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