Zoom on

Reacting to the crisis: lessons from the past

In these past few weeks we have been facing an emergency of epic proportions. Our society is battling a pandemic caused by an unknown, highly-contagious virus with potentially devastating effects on the country and the economy. The situation, neither new nor unexpected, lays bare all our fragility, and finds governments, institutions, and businesses the world over totally unprepared. This leads us to reflect on the very nature of a crisis, and to consider the appropriate approach for building a better society when the emergency is over.


Past civilizations, with their respective political institutions and economic organizations, have periodically found themselves facing crises large and small. Indeed, all civilizations, societies, and organizations experience moments of difficulty; they are part of life and can’t always be avoided. And since various kinds of calamities or disasters are unavoidable and no one has the secret formula for eradicating these events, there are times when we simply have to face them, even exploit them to mobilize the power of society, of organizations, and of individuals.


The changing climate and the ravaging of natural resources around the globe, the use of weapons of mass destruction and the intolerable proliferation of inequality and hunger in the world, environmental catastrophes and the pandemic propagation of disease, as we are experiencing right now: we no longer have the luxury of considering such scenarios improbable or random. When these events are dependent on our choices, we have to prevent them; when they are independent of our choices, we need to learn to deal with them.


Crises, as negative and at times even as dramatic as they may be, also bring about something positive, the seed of a change that can be beneficial, that can open the way to a better society. When in fact we face a serious problem or an unexpected contingency, a challenge without precedent or a terrifying danger, often these situations unleash an energy that not only empowers us to rise to the challenge, but also to set the process of change in motion that can lead to better things, momentous improvements.


This is the theory put forward by the historian Arnold Toynbee, who believed that when a civilization finds itself facing a serious threat, it can succumb or overcome. In the latter case, that moment can represent a turning point in its destiny. The civilization may then soar to the highest levels of achievement in culture, art, economy and technology, laying the groundwork for new growth. Consider the Greeks, for example. When in the 5th century BC they faced the threat of destruction from the Persian Empire, the Greeks summoned all their forces and succeeded in defeating their enemy. Even more, they built a civilization that flourished in the fields of art, architecture and philosophy, all of which still forms the foundations of the Western World. And similar examples in the history of humanity are countless.


This is true not only for the crises that struck the great civilizations of the past, but also for the minor emergencies that we regularly experience today. Research conducted by Ipsos, with the participation of members of the Assolombarda entrepreneurial association, investigated reactions to the economic crisis that our country experienced in 2012, a situation that was certainly not dramatic, but still significant. When asked if this crisis represented an opportunity, the entrepreneurs were eloquent: more than half said that their companies were able to find growth opportunities generated by the crisis; only 10% saw no benefits at all.


So even big problems can have a positive side too, as long as we look at challenges with the proper perspective and adopt the right attitude. Now let’s take a very quick, point-by-point look at what we can learn from the major calamities of the past, and what approaches we should take to face crises, today’s and tomorrow’s, with the aim above all else of building a better society.


  • We human beings and the organizations we form do not have control over every event; on the contrary, we are extremely vulnerable and fragile. One of the causes of crises is precisely this: the sense of omnipotence that leads us to underestimate dangers and trust only in our own power, in the power of control we presume to have.
  • Many capabilities, circumstances and events that are important before a crisis hits lose their importance afterwards, and new situations, competencies, resources and organizations become far more relevant. Se we cannot assume that what was valuable, useful or important before will continue to be afterward too.
  • Every crisis escalates complexity and brings with it the need for profound changes in the structure and behaviors of institutions, organizations and individuals. Attempts to preserve the status quo at all costs, to maintain to positions of power after the crisis has abated, would be a serious mistake.
  • Solutions that were wholly appropriate pre-crisis often do not function post-crisis. We need to find new solutions, by using innovative approaches which are not always readily apparent. When complexity is high, what works best is an experimental method. This calls for a completely different decision-making method than usual.
  • Experimentation is effective when we as a society are willing to accept mistakes and false starts. It would be wrong to think that the only way forward is to follow one’s own infallible formula, refusing to risk embarking on new paths, rejecting the cost of inevitable errors. Whoever pursues such a strategy is bound to come out of this crisis far weaker than before.
  • A sense of community is essential to contend with problems and to build a new future. A major crisis cannot be confronted by individuals or single institutions alone; it takes a massive collective effort. Finding a positive way out of a serious crisis would be extremely difficult without collective action.
  • What makes a community is the fact that its members take care of one another, not only the strongest or most powerful, but above all the weakest and the powerless. This outlook gives a sense of what a community really is, and what it’s willing to face, overcoming obstacles, fighting every battle, finding unhoped-for strength to start again, to grow once more.


We must use every tool at our disposal and implement every measure necessary to face this emergency, without ever forgetting that we will eventually come out on the other side. In what condition? That’s entirely up to us.