Planning in times of disruptions

July 2021

Policy making aims at shaping the future. The future however is uncertain and cannot be predicted. Following up on an earlier text on resilience, this text puts the focus on policy making and policy learning in times of uncertainty.

Successful policy making requires the capacity to imagine the general shape of the future in a way that allows for decision making in the present. Still even the most future-wise policy can be challenged by sudden incidents and disruptive events that change the game rapidly or even entirely plough up the playing field. Disruptions are characterised as unexpected and self-enforcing developments.

The COVID-19 pandemic and extreme weather events like droughts, wildfires, heat waves and flooding have made it clear, that the twenty-first century is about to become an era of global disruptions. These disruptions are seemingly disconnected one-time events. However, they are embedded in a long-term process, from which modern societies cannot escape.

When such disruptions call, one can hardly anticipate the extent of the challenge, what needs to be done, what implications related policy responses will have and whether any of today’s certainties will still be valid tomorrow. The handling of disruptive events requires swift and rapid responses, taken in the context of huge uncertainty. This puts aside the logic of the standard long-term policy cycle of problem definition, agenda setting, policy formulation, implementation and evaluation. Instead, we enter uncharted territory, need to adjust constantly, improvise and experiment. Decision making needs to be far more flexible and adaptive than usually to bring about suitable policy responses.

Policy learning and related capacities play a crucial role in developing suitable policy responses and increasing the robustness and agility of policies in disruptive times. Specific conditions characterise such disruptive times and environments. They need to be sufficiently reflected for policy making and policy learning:

  • Disruptions come as a surprise. If at all, only small and distinct communities or experts have discussed the possible incident and its potential impact. Most societal groups, however, do not expect the disruption. Consequently, they are not prepared to respond adequately to its immediate impact.
  • Disruptions cannot be solved as discrete or tame problems in an epistemic way. They are wicked problems, for which not even a shared understanding or definition exist. Solutions developed for wicked problems are often not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but rather relative, i.e. ‘good enough’ or ‘better/worse’.
  • Disruptions as wicked problems have a strong cross-sectoral dimension. They can be considered as events with hybrid impacts on all fields of society, their related structures, patterns and processes. Consequently, the development of related solutions requires skills and expertise from a broad range of players and disciplines.
  • Disruptions bring about an environment of deep uncertainty. This includes uncertainties about adequate options for action, about intended and unintended side effects of action and in-action alike, about the reliability of information, and about our values.

To be more responsive to future changes, policy making has to become more flexible so that it can adjust to changing contexts more easily. This calls for (a) more experimentation, (b) a framework to ensure that experimentation does not mean randomness, and (c) a more future-wise and forward-thinking approach informing decision making.

Dare experimentation

Disruptive and unpredictable events make visible that we live in a world of considerable mismatches between ideal-type rational and evidence-based decision making, on the one side, and the actual unstable and uncertain realities, on the other side. In such a world – our actual world – ‘learning by doing’ is necessary to enlarge and improve our knowledge base and gain new experience. This requires also testing different alternatives so as to identify the most promising pathway. By constantly monitoring whether decisions meet their intended objectives, broadening the evidence base and incorporating lessons learnt, policies can be adjusted and further developed. Testing new ideas and experimenting always include the risk of failure. Therefore, it is important to create an environment in which ‘trial and error’ approaches are perceived as drivers of innovation, creativity and learning. What starts as ad-hoc improvisation should then shift towards experimentation and be embedded in a more comprehensive process of policy learning and policy adaptation – closely related to ‘perspective incrementalism’. (See also earlier blog contribution on the New European Bauhaus initiative)

Shared future vision

Experimentation must not be an excuse for random decision making. Indeed, for experimentation to lead forward, it needs to be embedded in a broad and shared vision about the future. A vision – in form of a common reference framework – provides the basic principles to be respected and guidance on the general and desired direction of travel. Before encouraging excessive experimentation, Europe needs to sketch out this broadly shared vision for its future.


Experimentation and a shared vision need to be informed by insights about the status quo and possible future developments. Broadly this means strengthening the foresight dimension in policy making and increased work with scenarios on possibly future developments, going beyond understanding the current situation and trend extrapolations. Strengthening critical and lateral forward thinking in a structured and constructive way can help improving the preparedness and agility of policy making.

We need to rethink the way we do policies in Europe. Guided by a shared vision, we need to allow for flexibility and experimentation to make sure we can react to ever more frequent disruptive events and become more resilient.

by Kai Böhme & Christian Lüer

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