Blog 06/20 – Ulrich Schnabel

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About our Blog 2020

After receiving very positive feedback on our blog contributions in the last years, we would like to continue this still young tradition of the Liechtenstein Academy Blog also this year.

Also in 2020, it is important for us to consider very different perspectives in order to offer you the most stimulating possible offer. This year, we have been able to attract six well-known guest authors, who, with no editorial filters, write about their personal thoughts. Look forward to new and surprising insights from Michael Bursik, complex issues, simply explained by Ulrich Schnabel, philosophical insights from Dr. Ina Schmidt, astute thoughts by our language and legal expert Carlos A. Gebauer, exciting topics around the many topics of working in the digital era by Sibylle Mäder as well as constructive considerations of our health expert Christoph von Oldershausen.

We wish you a stimulating read.

Your Liechtenstein Academy team

Direction Terra Incognita - Why we must learn to live with uncertainty

There is hardly anything we are currently longing for more than the end of the corona restrictions and the return to «good old» normality. But if there is one thing that can be said about the future, it is this: the «new normal» will definitely be different from the previous one. Those who hope to get their accustomed life back will hope in vain. Seldom has the insight of the ancient philosopher Heraclitus – «You don't get into the same river twice» – been conveyed to us as radically as by the coronavirus.

The future is still only vaguely assessable. Even if the economy picks up, airplanes start flying again and the engine of globalization gets going, the world will be a different place. Firstly, we will continue to be preoccupied with the economic and political upheavals of the corona crisis for a long time to come. Secondly, we will have to get used to a deep sense of insecurity, for the pandemic has drastically demonstrated to us how fragile our supposedly secure order is and how quickly familiar self-evident things can be shaken. We have learned that virtually overnight borders can be closed and civil rights suspended, that entire branches of the economy can be shut down and that all our plans and prospects can be ruined. This also means that the cherished idea of economic growth and increasing prosperity going on like this forever is now a thing of the past. The corona crisis is not just a temporary incident that only leaves a dent in the development curve, but a fundamental break. It shows that unexpected events – «black swans,» as the statistics philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb called them – occur more frequently than expected. These «black swans» have a lasting influence on world history, as happened, for example, in New York on 9/11, over Christmas 2004 with the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, in 2008 with the global financial crisis or in March 2011 with the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. Crisis and rescue teams were confronted with shock events that triggered questions they had never asked themselves before. Unfortunately, lessons can only be drawn from each of these catastrophes to a limited extent, because unlikely individual events such as 9/11 or Fukushima will not happen again in exactly the same way. Instead, other unexpected things will happen, as risk research teaches us. «There are probably a million extremely rare events with a probability of one in a million,» says risk researcher Ortwin Renn, «that means that at least one of them will happen every year». We just don't know which one.

All we know is that we must be prepared to be constantly surprised by new events, because the corona crisis – and this is its third episode – is increasing global vulnerability to future crises. The pandemic is already putting enormous pressure on our economy and political institutions. If one puts this in relation to all the other global challenges – Trump’s «America first,» China's growing pressure, the trend towards populism and fake news, climate change and environmental problems, etc. – it is easy to foresee that we are heading for a period of instability and crisis, which will confront us again and again with completely new and unexpected situations in the future.

In view of this prospect, mental agility is required above all. Rather than hoping for lasting security, we need to adapt to the unstoppable changes. What is needed is not the long-term establishment of detailed contingency plans (because it is difficult to plan for the unforeseen), but rather the ability to cope with uncertain situations and the flexibility to set completely new priorities in the short term.

We must «embrace uncertainty,» recommends sociologist Helga Nowotny, who has taught at ten different universities around the world during her professional life and was President of the European Research Council (ERC). «Instead of sticking to old rules, it is a question of being open to new situations and non-linear developments,» says the now emeritus professor at ETH Zurich. But this is particularly difficult for the citizens of Western societies. After all, «we carry too much baggage from the past when things worked in a different way,» says Nowotny, «and our institutions were created for the problems of another time».

Now that many assumptions believed to be certainties are proving fragile, we must practice – both as individuals and as a society – to ignore the rules of the past for once, to put aside supposed constraints and venture into something new, without knowing exactly what is coming. The best way to do this is to cultivate the attitude of mind that the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan demonstrated in 1519 when he set off on his first circumnavigation of the world: «It is no longer a question of ensuring that the sea remains calm, but of preparing to sail into stormy, unknown waters».

Right now, we're all headed for terra incognita.

About the author: Ulrich Schnabel