Strengthening resilience: how digitalisation can help us cope with the current pandemic and future crises. By Karl-Heinz Streibich
Munich/Berlin, 12 May 2020
There is a fundamental dilemma at the heart of the exit strategy debate. If we relax the current restrictions too soon and there is a second wave of infections, we risk exacerbating the crisis. At the same time, however, the complete shutdown of economic and social life can obviously not be sustained for any length of time. The return to normality will be a long and cautious process that will only end when a vaccine becomes widely available throughout the world. In order to minimise the damage during this lengthy recovery period and ensure that we are better equipped to cope with future crises, we need to strengthen the resilience of our systems. We can achieve this by harnessing technology – in particular digital technology – and by adapting our systems intelligently.
Resilience denotes a system’s ability to withstand or cope with adverse events as successfully as possible and get better and better at adapting to them. In a nutshell, resilience can be described as “bending instead of breaking”. As long ago as 2012, acatech defined resilience as the security paradigm of the 21st century.
Crises can be triggered by diseases, as is currently the case, but also by natural disasters, (cyber-)crime, terrorism and many other factors. In addition to energy systems, infrastructure and public institutions, crises can also affect businesses and their logistics chains. In a complex, highly specialised world where adverse events are becoming both likelier and harder to predict, adaptable, resilient systems can enhance the effectiveness of static security strategies.
The Covid-19 crisis is affecting almost every area of private, public and economic life. We need more resilient systems in all of these areas, not just for the current crisis but also for the future.
Digitalisation strengthens resilience in every area
The value of digitalisation is more apparent than ever during these difficult times. Digital technology is helping us to cope with essential social distancing measures by allowing us to stay in touch with our friends and family and communicate with each other for work purposes. And there are many other things that we can keep doing thanks to digital solutions in areas such as government services, our national education and training systems – from schools to universities –, the media, communication systems, and of course the economy. Crises always force us to re-examine the way we do things, and there can be little doubt that even once the current pandemic is over we will cut down on our business trips, hold more meetings online and feel differently about working from home.
Even at this early stage in the Covid-19 crisis, it has become clear that digital and digitalised businesses are coping better with the current situation and will emerge from the crisis in significantly better shape. Companies that were quick to invest in digitalisation are now benefitting from greater resilience. They have already adopted and tested digital solutions that allow people in different locations to work together, whereas other companies are having to introduce these digital technologies on the fly. Because they have created a digital twin of their production and value creation processes, it is also much easier for them to adapt to the restrictions and changes required to combat the pandemic. Industrial enterprises are controlling their manufacturing systems automatically and carrying out remote maintenance, while food logistics companies are employing remote technologies to monitor their cold chains.
The current crisis has heightened awareness of the benefits of digitalisation. However, it has also shown that we still have a long way to go, as illustrated by the following examples:
- In some countries, the services provided to the public by government agencies have been almost completely digitalised, allowing the public administration to continue functioning as normal even during the Covid-19 crisis. This could be taken a step further by the introduction of secure online voting, an enhancement that would also make the electoral system at the heart of our democracy more resilient. In Germany, where such measures are guided by the Online Access Act (Online-Zugangsgesetz – OZG), there is still some way to go. Resilience in this area could be significantly strengthened by prioritising the introduction of digital applications, including the necessary amendments to the relevant legislation. A secure, widely accepted online identification system is key to the provision of digital services by government agencies. This would involve the establishment of a secure identity provider in Germany or the EU, or an interoperable standard that is compliant with EU data protection law.
- Germany has been rather tentative, half-hearted and slow to introduce digital solutions such as e-learning platforms or Massive Open Online Courses in its schools, universities and training institutions. Educational establishments are now scrambling to digitalise their classrooms, but they still have a lot to learn if they are to ensure that these solutions are effective.
- During the cautious return to normality, we will need transparency regarding potential new centres of infection so that infections can be traced back to their source and contained. Data about people’s movements will be key. While this data is in principle already available, the wrangling over the coronavirus tracking app in Germany highlights the lack of a governance system that sets out the actions that may be taken in an emergency scenario. We must reach a consensus as a society about how data can be used to protect public health without violating civil liberties.
- The current situation has brought home the extent to which platform and cloud providers already depend on countries outside the EU and the urgent need for Europe to establish sovereignty over the use of this infrastructure. By “sovereignty” we do not mean isolationism – we mean freedom of choice, the option of privacy, and the protection of users’ data and intellectual property.
Learning from the crisis
These examples reinforce the conclusion that crisis management is a learning system, as highlighted in the acatech IMPULSE paper on the coronavirus crisis, published on 27 March. We are currently discovering where our systems are well equipped to cope with disruption and where they are still vulnerable to it. Over the coming weeks and months, we will have to cope with and adjust to numerous setbacks. This learning process will make our systems stronger and more resilient. By addressing not only the coronavirus pandemic but other major risk factors such as climate change, we can also increase our resilience to future crises.
Karl-Heinz Streibich, acatech President