Didier Wernli, on Governance in the Age of Complexity

This is an onsite edited excerpt of the G|O Briefing newsletter of March, 25, 2021

The Geneva Science-Policy Interface (GSPI) has a new policy brief out. We read it and talked to its lead author.

The first virtue of the latest policy brief out of the Geneva Science-Policy Interface Governance in the age of complexity:building resilience to Covid-19 and future pandemics is to act as a bit of a fear-buster. Just released online, it provides us with a jargon-free mapping of the scale of the pandemic universe and its impact on the world.

Didier Wernli is a Senior Researcher at the Global Studies Institute of the University of Geneva and the Director of the Geneva Transformative Governance Lab. Under his guidance as the head author, the transdisciplinary team use the "syndemics" concept developed by the medical anthropologist Merill Singer. The pandemic, they write in their opening explanatory pages, is “in fact a ‘sindemic,’ where the virus interacts with pre-existing vulnerabilities that are ultimately driven by large political, economic, social, and environmental processes, many of which transcend sectoral and national boundaries.”

The G|O: Didier Wernly, are you saying it took the COVID-19 pandemic to realize that everything is interdependent and connected and that only a transdisciplinary approach is needed to approach, understand and solve such crises?

Didier Wernli: I think that currently, our societies have not fully understood how complex such crises are and have not fully integrated the need for a transdisciplinary approach to solving such complex problems. There is a lot of talk about it, but in reality, education, research, academia or governments are still fragmented. Silos are still too often the norm. For example, a lot has been written about public health and other disciplines since COVID-19, but so far transdisciplinary research is still rare. The same is true for our governments, with their different ministries, all the way down to their administration.

But we knew this was coming, we had been warned. Were we just in denial? Your paper can be read as an indictment, it points to a total failure of the system.

DW: This is at the core of the problem: how do we organise and share knowledge to produce informed and sound public policies? The pandemic has demonstrated that it has not worked and that we must approach it differently. The final responsibility of devising and implementing public policy rests with the politicians, but these policies must be the result of a systemic, transdisciplinary approach, not a segmented one. Obviously, I am not thinking of a single ministry or department, but we need to put in place new mechanisms that foster a transdisciplinary culture. We need new forms of governance. That requires a new mindset.

Is it realistic to think that you can develop a new mindset and invent these new forms of governance in the midst of the crisis?

DW: There is a tension between the need to manage the crisis on a day-to-day basis and the need to be creative in developing new models. But the pandemic forces us to confront the issues and thus creates opportunities. It is also the only moment when all energies are mobilized by and for the system and that is a driver for change.