A systemic crisis?

Systems have the ability to evolve, and they do so to survive. Applying linear measures to a nonlinear crisis leads to a systemic crisis. Here's what that means for our future.

“For survival, evolution is enough,” Niklas Luhmann once quipped. The much-used term “crisis” was considered inadequate by the sociologist and systems theorist, who died in 1998. In his view, society doesn’t need to solve the problem of its own rationality to survive. The current crisis reminds me of Luhmann’s thinking. Is it a systemic crisis, as we often hear?

Luhmann’s theory sees systems as autopoietic, i.e. self-reproducing and self-referential. Once established, systems continuously reproduce themselves, and refer to themselves. Luhmann took the term autopoiesis from Humberto Maturana and Francesco Varela, and he wrote numerous, voluminous books about systems theory.

One of his key insights, and this brings me back to the quote above, is that systems have the ability to evolve. This means that systems change to ensure their continuity. Despite fast cycles of crises spelling the end of business as usual, systems are surprisingly resilient. They change, but only to the amount necessary to survive.

Now, we can apply this insight to the crises we are facing today. Why do we see a devastating fourth wave of the pandemic in Germany right now? Why didn’t we learn from earlier waves here and in other countries? There’s a seemingly perfect, scientific, economic, and social solution in the form of vaccination – however, the acceptance is too low.

Turns out that too few people in charge had even thought about this problem in advance. And that’s despite the fact that in Germany, the uptake of other vaccines, like against measles or the flu, is notoriously bad. And what’s more: because most people saw vaccination as the perfect solution, we neglected and even removed other public health measures, particularly non-pharmaceutical interventions.

The system evolved

To put it in terms of systems theory: under pandemic pressure, the system evolved to a certain degree, ensuring its own survival – but not the survival of as many people as possible. Now it’s time to introduce the concept within systems theory that people are part of the environment, not of the system. The system consists of communication, and communication reproduces itself and refers to itself.

So, is there a systemic crisis of communication? Maybe there is, but the larger crisis of public health is taking place in the environment of the social system. It is a crisis of the public health system. And it’s a crisis of the linear, industrial model of scientific management: the seemingly simple, single solution – the vaccine, a real triumph of science – is failing when it comes to deployment.

Too few people thought about the user and their motivations, thoughts, doubts, feelings, errors, misjudgements, or troubles. Now the public debate is resorting to making vaccination mandatory. While technically a possible resolution, it’s the equivalent of forcing your app upon a captive audience, instead of delighting and winning the users. It might be the lesser evil, but still…

Let’s take a look at another great crisis of our times, climate change. Again, we are talking about a crisis in the environment. Efficient and effective communication, not least by the Fridays for Future movement, helped to put it on the agenda. COP26 would have turned out differently without the public pressure. Again, the system changed to continue its operations – but not to solve the problem.

While there are steps in the right direction, still more needs to be done.

A systemic resilience approach

It’s a common misunderstanding that the political system should and could solve any systemic crisis, regardless of the system. In the case of the pandemic, there were early warnings that this is impossible and we rather need a systemic resilience approach:

The Covid pandemic for example provides an opportunity to address other emergencies such as climate change more effectively.


We cannot afford to be complacent about the other grave crisis we are facing: the climate emergency. In systemic terms, this is not a shock, with all that implies of a sudden, unexpected occurrence, but more like a stress. Systems analysis teaches us that stresses such as global warming are nonlinear.

Nonlinear implies that linear measures will probably fail to address the issue. During the pandemic, we’ve seen this pattern over and over again: cases are rising exponentially, but measures remain linear. Inevitably, this paves the way to the systemic failure we all know as lockdown. That’s large-scale disruption, and ironically, excluding a lockdown leads to a lockdown in the end. We’ll see this pattern again in Germany over the next few weeks.

A nonlinear crisis

Applying linear measures to a nonlinear crisis leads to a systemic crisis.

In terms of systems theory: functional differentiation declines, and thus the performance of the affected systems – healthcare, education, economy, supply chains, to name a few. A better approach would increase the resilience of our systems, and thus of the whole system of systems, as they are interconnected.

This would also mean change, but in a less disruptive and more innovative way. More resilient schools would not so much focus on a quick return to the already outdated status quo ante, but address the systemic weaknesses highlighted by the pandemic – or rather systemic – crisis. Many companies have been quicker to learn their pandemic lessons, and we’ve posted quite a lot about these changes over the past two years.

Before the pandemic hit, we spent some time writing about another failure to apply systems thinking:

Indeed, the simple act of interconnecting everything via the internet might demand more systems thinking from us. The digital worlds we live in, however walled off they may feel, are in fact deeply connected, and the impact of decisions made in one may well cause ripples that spread throughout the system to greater and greater impact.

The same is true about the pandemic and climate change. Everything is connected, and systemic crises are leading to disruption.

Photo by Charlie Firth on Unsplash