What’s in a Polycrisis?

A new term has been circulating in policy circles that reflects a changing way of viewing conflict, crisis, and complexity: polycrisis. Let’s look at what it might mean for people looking to plan, evaluate, and act in a world filled with turmoil.

Polycrisis is not a term that inspires much hope. I’m not one for being alarmist, but when I heard that term for the first time last year, I knew we had crossed some kind of strategic evaluative Rubicon. Let’s first break down the term. Poly means many and crisis — we know all too well what that means.

A global polycrisis occurs when crises in multiple global systems become causally entangled in ways that significantly degrade humanity’s prospects. These interacting crises produce harms greater than the sum of those the crises would produce in isolation, were their host systems not so deeply interconnected.

Cascade Institute (bold added)

When I hear the words “greater than the sum of the parts” I immediately think of complexity. Complexity is increasingly becoming a standard phrase when we talk about human systems. With decades of deep globalized integration and movement, our social, economic, and political systems are so entwined that even small things at a policy level can have enormous implications beyond borders.

Michael Lawrence from the University of Waterloo uses the example of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a point of departure for illustrating polycrisis:

This is an essential feature of our times. The impact of recent shocks to the world energy market stemming from Russia’s war on Ukraine are multiplied by shortcomings in global food production — some linked to climate change — and by growing inflation generated in part by government spending to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michael Lawrence, University of Waterloo

War, geopolitics, food, climate change, inflation, COVID-19, and related government spending are all tied together.

How do we understand polycrisis and what do we do with it?

Origins and Destinations

A polycrisis doesn’t have a clear beginning or end; it just exists and (hopefully) fades. What makes polycrisis situations so tricky is that there is no clear design strategy for them. We are left asking: which of the crises should I try and address first? Should I try and tackle them all at once? What are the implications of addressing one crisis on our ability or the influence of the others?

The Cascade Institute has developed a research program looking at The Global Polycrisis (their term) and has mapped out some central concepts:

This includes the experience of the Russia-Ukraine War, which has its own special treatment:

Systemic Design and Polycrisis

Polycrisis is a systems issue at its core. Looking at the maps above helps us to understand the system dynamics of what is going on and how each affects the others. Mapping our system is the first step towards taking systemic action and engaging in systemic design. I can better determine where to go if I know where I am. I am also better at knowing what could happen if I know how things are related. Systems maps can help us to do this.

Systemic Design seeks to employ systems maps and inquiry to understand how a system is put together, what it does, who it serves, and how it could do or serve different things. The latter part is what design is all about. When I engage in systemic design, I ultimately seek to design a system.

With a polycrisis, this becomes more challenging. Systems have boundaries and (usually) a purpose that unifies things (which is how we can tell what goes into a system). What are the boundaries and purposes of polycrisis systems?

How do we design such systems? Conventional Systemic Design would begin with developing a map (like above). The problem I have is that the above map provides little insight on where to intervene in the system, what such intervention could look like, and what potential efficacy should be expected.

Mapping is a lengthy process, involves many resources, and is temporally limited. It’s descriptive, not strategic. This is a criticism that I have of systemic design approaches. There is a real risk — one I’ve seen many times — that people will conflate the energy, time, and output of a map for a strategy to act. The map is not the destination.

The map — in many cases — isn’t even that effective in helping us to deal with the polycrisis. Rather, it’s more description.

Thinking Systemic, Acting Local

The evidence from global (singular) crises suggests that we can cooperate on big issues, yet the ability to address these issues is almost always local. The COVID-19 pandemic showed that there were no universal measures that worked consistently across countries and contexts. We have evidence that indicates mask wearing, reduced exposure, isolation, and distancing all contributed to success in mitigating and preventing COVID-19 spread, but the means in which this happened and scope of impact was varied.

This variation contributed to many of the doubts, frustrations, and lack of adherence to guidelines because — in a globalized media landscape — people were looking to other places for answers. This created enormous debate and confusion about what to trust, when, and how to implement measures for addressing COVID-19. We know many things contributed to the prevention and reduction of COVID-19, but we don’t know whether there is a universal mix that works. What we do know is that there are a lot of ways to make a positive difference and that these are highly situation-dependent.

Maps are a small part of the story. With COVID-19, we largely knew where it was and in what measure. We could map where people were and where resources were deployed. Did it help? Locally? Somewhat. Globally? Not as much.

Imagine scaling this up to a polycrisis? Local actions are where we can connect what we know to what we do and what we produce. This is the evaluative chain that allows us to determine efficacy and effectiveness of decisions and actions. The adage: think global, act local isn’t just a aphorism, it’s wise advice for dealing with complex situations. It helps us to see what’s in a polycrisis and guides us toward some kind of wise action.

So map systems if you want — they can help us with bearings — but remember that the map is not the destination.

Image Credits: Generated through DALL-E

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