The growing interconnections among societies have facilitated the emergence of systemic crises, i.e., shocks that rapidly spread around the world and cause major disruptions. Advances in the interdisciplinary field of complexity can help understand the mechanisms underpinning systemic crises. This article reviews the most important concepts and findings from the pertinent literature. It demonstrates that an understanding of the nature of disruptions of globally interconnected systems and their implications is critical to prevent, react to, and recover from systemic crises. The resulting analytical framework is applied to two prominent examples of global systemic crises: the 2008 global financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. The article provides evidence that relying on reactive and recovery capacities to face systemic crises is not sustainable because of the extraordinary costs they impose on societies. Efforts are needed to develop a multipronged strategy to strengthen our capacities to face systemic crises and address fundamental mismatches between the nature of global challenges and the necessary collective action to address these challenges.
- Relying exclusively on the reactive and recovery capacities of individual countries to face systemic crises is not sustainable because of the extraordinary costs they impose on societies. Efforts are needed at the local, national, regional, and international levels to develop a multipronged strategy to strengthen our capacities to face systemic crises and address fundamental mismatches between the nature of global challenges and the collective action that human societies can achieve.
- The most effective long-term strategy to prevent systemic crises is to address their root causes and thereby reduce global vulnerabilities while accelerating global change towards the achievement of the sustainable development goals. A high-level United Nations panel supported by a transdisciplinary scientific commission is needed to (i) evaluate systemic risks and (ii) develop transformative actions aiming at minimizing such risks. Trade-offs between goals and actions in different sectors need to be transparently assessed, communicated, and addressed.
- The second most effective line of defense against systemic crises is to prepare for a timely implementation of interventions before localized events spiral out of control and develop into systemic crises. A United Nations global action plan for preventing, reacting to, and recovering from systemic crises is needed as a common foundation that informs actions across different sectors of the economy. A first step would be the adoption of a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly in 2023.
- Governments should work together to improve systemic risks monitoring, timely information sharing, and the provision of rapid guidance in case of a developing systemic crisis. As multiple binding and non-binding international institutions already exist in several sectors, reforming existing institutions to make them both more effective and agile should be preferred. Proper human and financial resources are needed to accomplish these objectives.
- More attention should be given to the study of complex systems in education and research but also in policy circles. All higher education institutions worldwide should introduce teaching modules on global systems science to improve literacy in resilience and sustainability. Policymakers and researchers need to work more closely together to strengthen the capacities to face global systemic crises, increase learning from past and current events, and improve complexity-informed governance design.
- To make resilience and the broader capacities to prevent and mitigate systemic crises a core concern of societies, a multistakeholder approach is needed. Many public and private actors have knowledge and capacities that can enhance societal resilience while contributing to the sustainability transformation. Participatory processes are needed at all governance levels to allow different actors both to prepare themselves for systemic crises and contribute to a reduction of global vulnerabilities.
Photo by Lara Jameson