Polycrisis – The Current State of the World

By |2024-02-01T09:11:32+00:00November 15th, 2023|2 Comments

“May you live in interesting times” is an English expression said to be a translation of a traditional Chinese curse. While seemingly a blessing, the expression is usually used ironically; life is better in “uninteresting times” of peace and tranquility than in “interesting” ones, which are traditionally times of trouble.

Today, we find ourselves…in interesting times.

A New Vocabulary

All our global uncertainty over the past few years has birthed several new or recently rediscovered words. The first word was “permacrisis,” the Collins Dictionary’s word of the year for 2022. The word succinctly sums up how awful 2022 had been for so many people. Permacrisis is a term that perfectly embodies the dizzying sense of lurching from one unprecedented event to another as we wonder bleakly what new horrors might be around the corner.

At the World Economic Forum 2023 in Davos, the world was abuzz with the latest new word – Polycrisis – and the world was asking, “Are We on the Brink of a Polycrisis?” This term was first coined by the French philosopher Edgar Morin, who introduced the word in the 1990s. It was given new life at Davos 2023 by the economic historian and Davos attendee Adam Tooze, who was beginning to speak and write about it. A polycrisis is when present and future risks interact with each other to form a ‘polycrisis.’ It is a cluster of related global risks with compounding effects such that the overall impact exceeds the sum of each part. Today, the world’s simultaneous and overlapping crises include a mounting climate crisis, wars in Europe and the Middle East, an inflation shock, democratic dysfunction, a health crisis, banking instabilities, and much more.

Global Risks Have Shifted with A Significant Focus on Three Issues

The World Economic Forum (WEF) publishes an annual Global Risks Report ahead of the Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Based on the work of the Global Risk Network, the report describes changes occurring in the global risk landscape from year to year. The report also explores the interconnectedness of risks and considers how the strategies for mitigating global risks might be structured.  Sources for the report include an assessment by several major insurance and reinsurance companies and focus workshops, interviews and a survey of internationally recognized experts.

This Global Risk Network was established in 2004 and tracks the evolution of a set of risks in five areas over ten years. The areas include Economics, Geopolitics, Environment, Society and Technology. The 2023 Global Risks Report (GRPS) shed light on the concerns and thoughts of many global leaders, with a marked pessimism among the respondents looking ten years out:

  • 20% believed the world was at progressive tipping points and persistent crises leading to catastrophic outcomes.
  • 34% expect consistent volatility across economies and industries with multiple shocks accentuating divergent trajectories.

The GRPS describes four potential futures centered around food, water, metals and mineral shortages, all of which could spark a humanitarian and ecological crisis – from water wars and famines to continued overexploitation of environmental resources and a slowdown in climate mitigation and adaption. In the coming years, concurrent crises will embed structural changes to the economic and geopolitical landscape and accelerate the other risks we face. More than four in five Global Risks Perception Survey (GRPS) respondents anticipate consistent volatility at a minimum over the next two years, with multiple shocks accentuating divergent trajectories. In other words – uncertain times.

Global risks have shifted, and there is a significant focus on three issues: Economic, Geopolitical and Societal. All three create more destabilization and unpredictable risks. A good example is the economic outlook. Inflation in many countries remains stubbornly high and some countries have slipped into a recession. The global banking community shuddered at the sudden collapse of Silicon Valley, Signature and First Republic banks in the United States. Those ultimately triggered concerns that led to the demise of Credit Suisse in Europe. As of this writing, many Central Bankers and financial regulators worldwide remain on edge, waiting for the next shoe to drop and are building plans to respond.

The geopolitical situation is tenuous at best. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has wide-ranging impacts far beyond either of those borders, including the destabilization of the region, famine and coups in Africa, fear of greater war in Europe, nuclear threats and the migration of millions of refugees.  China has become more belligerent toward Taiwan. India has embraced a virulent nationalism. Numerous countries in Africa and South America are experiencing significant uprisings, including the turmoil in Peru, Colombia and Brazil and the instability in Western Africa. Israel has formed the most extreme government in its history.

And then, on October 7, 2023, Hamas attacked Israel, launching thousands of missiles and publicly kidnapping and killing civilians. All these developments are signs that the world may have fallen into a new period of disarray. Countries — and political groups like Hamas — are willing to take significant risks rather than fearing the consequences would be too dire.

The third big wild card is the impact on society worldwide. Societal fissures run deep and wide and remain to this day. This was further worn down during the pandemic. The erosion of social cohesion and the growth of societal polarization is felt globally. There is a widening gap and polarization in values and equality on issues such as immigration, gender, reproductive rights, ethnicity, religion and climate. The economic and geopolitical issues have created a cost-of-living crisis, a profound impact on healthcare providers and systems, and a severe mental health deterioration in all ages, all fueled by misinformation and disinformation.

What Should We Be Doing in Our Profession?

Crisis Management and Business Resilience professionals are truly front and center at this challenging moment. We need to focus and hone our skills in three distinct areas:

  • Situational Awareness – How to get it and what to do with it
  • Effective Crisis Management Program – Teams and Process
  • Crisis Communication – What you say to all your key identified stakeholders

Situational Awareness

Understanding what is going on around you is the first step. Situational awareness is the ability to identify, process and comprehend the critical elements of information regarding an incident and then apply that knowledge to your organization. Simple right? Not always. If you are a global company with many locations, given the instability of the world, this can be quite a challenge.

Situational awareness requires two distinct activities:

  1. Collect: Observe, acquire and compile the information
  2. Process: Assess and validate the information and orient yourself to the possible impacts

Of course, given what is happening worldwide, this can be like drinking out of a fire hose! How do you not only get the information but then manage it all? This takes careful planning and tools that have been thought out and practiced in advance.  You will need to consider these questions:

  • Who are your information sources, where do you find them and who do you trust?
  • How do you assess the information?
  • How can you validate the information?
  • How do you display it meaningfully so that decision-makers can take in the information, make decisions and act?

Effective Crisis Management Program: Teams and Process

Once you know you have a problem, you must have an effective crisis management process, plan and team to manage the response.

This involves several activities:

  • Have you mapped your organization and have an effective crisis management process in every location? This includes smaller sites. At a minimum, every one of your locations must have designated individuals who know who to call and what constitutes a possible crisis.
  • A set of predetermined criteria is used to evaluate all incidents and a written crisis management plan that details roles and responsibilities at all levels, from the executives to smaller locations.
  • An identified headquarters incident assessment team that knows its role and can be assembled 24 x 7 to review an incident and decide if the crisis management team needs to be activated.
  • Identified crisis management team members who are trained and exercised regularly and have sufficient backups.
  • To avoid burnout and to ensure coverage in all critical areas, each position must have at least one backup, ideally two.

Crisis Communications

Effective crisis communications require an established team and process that brings all company communicators together to ensure:

  • Coordinated and
  • Accurate communications to all the
  • Identified key stakeholders in a
  • Timely manner

Simply stated, the communication goal during an incident is to get the:

  • Right information to the
  • Right people at the
  • Right time so they can make the
  • Right decisions and issue
  • Right communications

That is easier said than done. An effective communication response involves solid communication plans, templates and processes, and a team that involves and engages all company communicators, not just the corporate communications team.

The Impact of Chronic and Persistent Crises

Lastly, you must understand and embrace the impacts of living in a world with chronic and persistent crises – especially for those of us who do it for a living. Since 2020 and the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have seen many friends, clients and colleagues burn out. This is a serious threat to all of us in this field. What does burnout look like? It can cause:

  • Mental and emotional exhaustion
  • Mental and physical health challenges
  • Desensitize to stress – you and others
  • Reduced ability to be empathic and sympathetic
  • Anger or irritability
  • Increased use of alcohol and drugs
  • Disconnect from family and friends
  • Employee turnover
  • Poorer quality of life

We are all in this for the long haul. Please don’t forget to take care of yourself and your team. We all need you to still be standing at the end of this long race.

What’s Next for You?

So now what? Begin by working to continue to educate yourself and those around you about these world changes and critical issues that we are facing. Many people hope or pray that we will return to a better time. I don’t think that will happen for some time. Be flexible and agile and roll with the punches as things unfold. And lastly, take good care of yourself. Remember that burnout is real. Take time now to build a solid bench so that we will all be standing at the end of this.

Recommended1 recommendationsPublished in Enterprise Resilience

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About the Author:

Regina Phelps is an internationally recognized thought leader and expert in crisis management, pandemic and continuity planning, and exercise design.  She is the founder of EMS Solutions Inc. (EMSS), headquartered in San Francisco, CA. Since 1982, EMSS has provided consultation and speaking services to clients on five continents.

Ms. Phelps is a frequent speaker at international continuity conferences and is consistently rated one of the top-rated speakers in her field. She is known for her approachable and entertaining speaking style and ability to break complex topics into easily digestible and understandable nuggets.

She is the author of four books, all available on Amazon:

Crisis Management: How to Develop a Powerful Program
Cyberbreach: What if your defenses fail? Designing an exercise to map a ready strategy
Emergency Management Exercises: From Response to Recovery
Emergency Management Exercises: From Response to Recovery Instructors Guide.

She can be reached at [email protected] or www.ems-solutionsinc.com.


  1. KevinDineen.ca November 15, 2023 at 7:20 pm

    As always Regina, excellent summary of our crisis state, and the tools to manage. When I saw “orient” in your situational awareness description, I thought of the OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act).

    As for CM team members, make sure you have people that can handle a crisis. It’s not for everyone, and can impede a recovery.

    Kevin Dineen.

    • Regina Phelps May 5, 2024 at 10:20 pm

      Thanks Kevin! I am a big fan of the OODA loop and include that in our Situational Awareness training and totally agree about your comments about crisis team members. Not everyone is cut out for it when an event really happens.

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