What sorts of policy and practice do we need to address the polycrisis?

While global risks are currently understood and addressed separately, in different institutional silos, almost all argue that the polycrisis requires much more cross-disciplinary thinking to address interconnections across crises and systems. Putting it bluntly, Policy Tensor Blog depicts “polycrisis as a wake-up call for siloed technocratic elites to peer out of the silos at the interaction term.”

The UNDP report “Polycrisis and Long-Term Thinking” (p. 17) observes that in complex global systems efforts to reduce “risk in one area might cause an increase in risk in another. For example, efforts to reduce poverty and inequality by fostering economic growth in countries with low levels of industrialization might result in increased carbon emissions thereby contributing to increasing climate change. Managing these trade-offs requires a holistic understanding of these interconnections that can only come with a cross-disciplinary approach.” Making similar observations, Seth D. Baum and Anthony M. Barrett call for an “integrated assessment” that considers the whole collection of global risks to prevent actions that mitigate one from worsening others. Crises must be addressed together, in a holistic fashion, but it is not entirely clear how practitioners can best do so.

Authors on polycrisis often recommend the following sorts of strategies:

Resilience Building: Perhaps the most common recommendation is for societies to build greater resilience so they can better contend with the increasing complexity, uncertainty, and severity of global challenges. In engineering, resilience refers to the ability of a system to “bounce back” to its normal state after a shock. Polycrisis requires instead “ecological resilience,” referring to a system’s ability to adapt and change when disturbed while still maintaining its fundamental structure, functions, and identity (see: Walker et al., 2004). Several general principles can help realize this sort of “resilience as adaptability”:

  • Diversity and redundancy: fostering multiple different ways of performing key system functions so that if one way fails others are available.
  • Experimentation: actively trying out different approaches to find new ways of operating amidst changing conditions.
  • Self-organization: giving actors the autonomy and flexibility to adjust their roles and relationships according to the problems they seek to address, rather than restricting them with rigid hierarchies and top-down management.
  • Buffers: creating modules, compartments, and “circuit-breakers” that can stop problems from cascading throughout a system, alongside stockpiles of key resources to prepare for supply disruptions.

Adaptive governance and robust decision-making provide more specific guidance for building resilience in a world of polycrisis.

Adaptive Governance: This model of governance (sometimes referred to as adaptive management) promotes flexibility and constant learning when grappling with change and uncertainty. Rules, procedures, policies, and the range of actors involved in governance are mutable and designed to co-evolve with the changing problems they seek to address. Adaptive governance often takes the form of a decentralized network of diverse stakeholders and authorities located at different scales of action (sometimes called “polycentric governance”). The network can reconfigure itself (self-organize) according to the nature, context, and scale of the problem. It is also designed to promote constant learning by experimenting with different possible solutions, translating promising experiments into policy, closely monitoring the effects, making adjustments, and developing alternative measures. Brian C. Chaffin and colleagues provide further details in their review of “A decade of adaptive governance scholarship”.

Robust Decision-Making: When the future is highly uncertain, robust decision-making offers a tool (often using thousands of computer simulations) for identifying options that may not be optimal by traditional calculations of expected utility but will lead to acceptable outcomes across the widest range of scenarios. It seeks near-term actions that can enhance long-term resilience by keeping future options open, and thereby strives to minimize regret rather than bet solely on the most attractive option. Robust decision-making can be used alongside the iterative approach of adaptive management by constantly monitoring, evaluating, and revising robust options.

Long-Term Thinking, Foresight, and Anticipatory Governance: The UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific advocates a trio of related strategies to address polycrisis. Long-term thinking involves “an intentional consideration of what might happen in the future, the choices for influencing it and the consequences of those choices” (p. 10). Foresight consists of tools such as scenario planning that help policymakers to think through different possible futures. Anticipatory governance institutionalizes foresight and long-term thinking in government practice. The latter may require changes in decision-making processes, accountability mechanisms, and organizational cultures to ensure that long-term thinking and foresight receive due consideration in all phases of policymaking, from planning to implementation to evaluation.

Leverage Points: The same dynamics that make complex systems so unruly and unpredictable—such as tipping points and positive feedbacks—may also create potential “leverage points,” first described by systems theorist Donella Meadows (1999, p. 1) as places in complex systems where “a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” Meadows lists twelve “Places to Intervene in a System” that can change system behavior using a better understanding of a system’s key features. These include: the structure of material and informational flows, the length of delays, the strength of negative feedback loops, the gains of positive feedback loops, the rules and goals of the system, and the paradigm (or “worldview”) in which the system is based.

As the UNDP (2022, p. 17) explains, “a policy intervention to reduce a risk in one area that is a root cause of a number of other risks could – with its impact being magnified by feedback loops – also reduce risks in a large number of other areas.” Actions that have a wide range of desirable auxiliary effects on related risks and crises (such as greenhouse gas reductions) thus constitute a particularly important leverage point in the context of polycrisis.

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