How to increase the systemic resilience of the economy and society in the long term?

In the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, the concept of resilience has become an important guiding principle. Voices from politics, business and society are calling for strategies to increase systemic robustness and adaptability in these areas. A new policy brief by Fraunhofer ISI shows that innovation research offers many tried and tested approaches that can help when developing resilience strategies. This policy brief provides a basic framework for recommendations on how to strengthen systemic resilience.

The COVID 19 pandemic has pushed many societies to the limits of their ability to continue functioning, especially healthcare infrastructures, but has also revealed the fragility of global supply chains. In order to be better prepared for future crises, the concept of resilience is attracting a high degree of interest in politics, business and society, because it should help to make societal systems more robust and adaptable.   

However, the corresponding measures often only aim at restoring system functionality (bounce back). In order to be equipped to deal with crises in the long term, we need to learn from the experiences gained and even fundamentally change some system properties (bounce forward). Since, so far, there are hardly any practical recommendations for how to strengthen adaptive and transformative resilience, the authors from Fraunhofer ISI have compiled findings from innovation research in a new policy brief, and derived initial criteria for long-term resilience strategies from this. After all, innovation research has been addressing the question of how complex socio-technical systems evolve under dynamic environmental conditions for some time now, and which instruments they use to strengthen their innovation and transformation capacity. This can be applied to the concept of resilience in a very similar way.

Five findings from innovation research for the concept of resilience

A first finding of the policy brief is that developing local resources is not only a decisive factor for strengthening innovation capacity, but also the resilience of systems. These are more effective and responsive if their competencies are distributed and can react to local developments. Innovative companies, for example, form the core of local innovation systems. Second, strong networks and close relationships between key actors, ideally characterized by a high degree of diversity, help to strengthen the innovative capacity of systems and create trust in institutions.

Third, strategic intelligence is required so that important decisions can be made in the context of transformation processes and all those involved are aware of them. Shared strategic knowledge and the resulting trust in a system‘s decision-making ability also improves the basis for decisions as a response to crises.

Exploring different »futures« and the importance of initial research

Resilience can also be strengthened if – as the fourth finding shows – the actors of an innovation system explore different »futures« together using foresight processes. The aim here is not to make predictions, but to become aware of one’s own expectations about the future, to recognize »weak signals«, to be open to change and to develop common goals. One example is the German government’s Commission on the Future of Agriculture. This brought together representatives of the most important associations from agriculture, industry and consumers as well as environmental protection and animal welfare, who were able to agree on targets for sustainable agriculture in spite of their very different positions and interests.  

A fifth criterion, which also has the effect of promoting resilience, is the support of basic and initial research, often in the form of investments. This type of research reveals fundamental insights without direct, immediate links to a concrete application. The knowledge generated in this way frequently pays off, but often only after a longer period. A good example is the rapid development of the Covid vaccines, which is based on initial research into the immune system’s reaction to cancer cells, and could not have been realized in such a short time without this.

Dr. Florian Roth, co-author of the policy brief and a researcher into resilience at Fraunhofer ISI, summarizes the most important findings: »For systems to become more resilient, it is crucial to build up local resources and interconnect them via strong networks. This applies to companies and other organizations, but also to entire regions and societies. Systemic resilience can be supported in a targeted manner, for example by strengthening foresight processes and promoting basic research and experimental learning.«

On the question of how innovations and resilience can complement each other, Prof. Jakob Edler, executive director of Fraunhofer ISI and co-author of the policy brief, explains: »The findings from innovation research help to strengthen our long-term ability to adapt in times of crises and disruptions and to actively shape transformation processes. At the same time, research into resilience provides important impulses for the further development of innovation systems, especially with regard to the complexity and predictability of major technical, environmental and social trends. In phases of decision-making under high levels of uncertainty and complexity, it is important to develop and expand the relevant system properties. Innovations and resilience should therefore go hand in hand and be given strategic support.«

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzes the origins and impacts of innovations. We research the short- and long-term developments of innovation processes and the impacts of new technologies and services on society. On this basis, we are able to provide our clients from industry, politics and science with recommendations for action and perspectives for key decisions. Our expertise is founded on our scientific competence as well as an interdisciplinary and systemic research approach.

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