Crisis Mode

The new UZH Center for Crisis Competence (CCC) opened its doors this week with a public launch event. Alexander Wagner, professor of finance and co-head of the CCC, tells us about the center’s purpose and how it will contribute to improved crisis competence.

Alice Werner

Covid-19, climate change, heatwaves, forest fires, crises of democracy, war, inflation, energy shortages, food shortages - in recent years a state of crisis seems to have become the modus operandi...
Alexander Wagner: It’s true, globally we’re in crisis mode. The number of crises occurring concurrently poses a threat to our societal and political systems. Dealing with such a range of crises requires unswerving political commitment alongside investments in sustainability to improve our society’s resilience. In this context, the question of what universities can contribute to crisis competence is more pressing than ever.

What can UZH contribute?
The Covid-19 pandemic showed how important it is that experts from various disciplines work together to tackle complex threats in order to understand how they’re all connected. It’s also crucial that research findings feed into policies and practice. In my opinion, the University of Zurich, as the leading comprehensive university in Switzerland, is in the perfect position to collate and disseminate existing and new findings around a topic as multifaceted as "crises". That’s why Frank Rühli, director of the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine and dean of the Faculty of Medicine, and I last year decided to found the UZH Center for Crisis Competence (CCC).

It’s the first center of its kind in Switzerland...
Yes - in the past, the bigger picture within which crises always exist was not taken seriously enough. To an extent we saw this during the financial crisis, but it was really the coronavirus pandemic that hammered it home: cross-disciplinary cooperation improves our defenses against all kinds of risks and leads to efficient and coordinated responses to real or anticipated crises.

How is the Center for Crisis Competence organized, and what are its core tasks?

We are an interdisciplinary center. I share the leadership with Frank Rühli and with Christiane Tietz of the Institute of Hermeneutics and Philosophy of Religion. Our membership currently comprises almost 30 researchers from all seven UZH faculties. We also call in other experts depending on the topic. The center will serve as a contact point for external and internal inquiries about crisis-related topics, a networking hub for researchers in the field, and a central repository of knowledge about crisis management and crisis responses.

The timing of the center’s establishment coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. Does that mean the center will focus on medical or pandemic-related crises?
No. We want to explore all kinds of crises, small and large - whether they’re individual, interpersonal or societal, regional, national, international or global, predictable or unpredictable, expected or unexpected. The range and variety of potential crises is huge. But one thing they all have in common is that they cause some damage which requires action to be taken in the midst of an uncertain situation.

You are a professor of finance and one of your areas of research is the effects of crises on the economy and the financial markets - for example, the strategies used by businesses to get through crises. Can you explain your research in more detail?
The financial markets are like a crystal ball with which you can see into the future. Share prices, for example, go up or down as investors try to predict developments in industries or companies and trade their shares accordingly. Comparing share price performance is thus a kind of early warning system. In the Covid crisis, for example, we were able to see very early on that not only the obvious sectors such as restaurants and hotels would suffer, but also that the markets were anticipating difficulties for poorly financed companies in other less-affected branches. So the financial markets alerted us that the health crisis could transform into an economic and financial crisis. These sorts of findings mean economic policies can be implemented to tackle problems early.

Has the center already begun operations? How will you spread the word?
Yes. This year we’ve already held five Crisis Conference Calls, which are 45-minute online events featuring conversations between UZH experts. They were all met with great public interest in Switzerland, and in some cases international participants joined too. At the beginning of February, we organized an event about Russia and Ukraine. Our first in-person event was our official launch event, which took place this November, with lively discussions between researchers moderated by Barbara Bleisch.

There is talk of an energy crisis this coming winter. What kind of support can your center offer UZH?
The center acts as a point of contact and scientific advisory group for the UZH energy shortage management team. This is another issue in which complex connections must be taken into account. The center can serve as a sounding board and ideas generator for possible university initiatives. We will develop our activities in this area in the coming weeks and months.

What are the long-term goals for the center?
As an academic think tank, the center aims to take a leading role in promoting interdisciplinary crisis research. We are therefore currently assessing possibilities for collaboration with companies and foundations. In addition, we want to contribute to the dissemination of scientific know-how through courses, workshops and webinars for UZH staff and students as well as for members of the public.

Alice Werner, UZH Communications; Translation by Caitlin Stephens, UZH Communications