This article was co authored by Luis Cisternas & Katie Cashman


The media has referred to COVID-19 as ‘the worst crisis in 100 years’. However, little has been said about the characteristics of a crisis and what can be done to ensure a better individual and community response to crises in general. This article seeks to understand the characteristics of a crisis and how we can improve our resilience in the face of future crises such as that of climate change.

What is a crisis?

In the 1970s, a group of Canadian psychiatrists wrote an article synthesising existing literature on the definition of a crisis. Their effort applies to the current situation that we as humankind are currently facing. Trends at that time agreed that a crisis was mainly characterised by a disruptive stimulus — a surprise, a shock — which causes individuals or a system to re-adapt its behaviour. Such ‘shocks’ may have permanent consequences, such as chronic stress or malnutrition. We’ve been told that the COVID-19 crisis will not just be a one-off shock but rather that it has a waveform; it will come and go, let go and then squeeze again.

Under a crisis stimulus, individuals suffer from a tension that pushes them to adopt a problem-solving attitude. However, if they are not successful in solving the problem, they may permanently lose confidence in their ability to solve future challenges. In this way, a crisis can also be seen as a turning point in life, in which a person either expands their repertoire of tools to solve problems or ends up with techniques that are not adapted to or applicable to reality (Eastham, K., 1970). In this sense, crises represent a risk or an opportunity for individuals, communities and organisational growth.

Another characteristic of crises that Caplan (1964) emphasises is that they are necessarily temporary; they have a beginning and an end. However, as an affected individual’s perception changes, it is not possible to perceive a clear or defined end. What remains is an element of physical or psychological trauma and adaptive behaviour that improves our ability to solve other crises.

How do we identify a crisis situation?

– The stressful event poses a problem that, by definition, is considered unsolvable in the immediate future.

– The problem puts an individual’s or family’s resources at risk, as it is beyond their traditional problem-solving methods.

– The situation is considered a threat to the goals of the individual or group.

– There is a generalised physical tension that is symptomatic of anxiety, with this tension rising to a peak and then falling.

– The crisis situation illuminates unsolved problems from the near and distant past.

The link between COVID-19 and the Climate Crisis

Regarding the COVID-19 and climate crises, the people set to suffer the most are those in the most vulnerable contexts, either because of their age, illness or because of a state that fails to protect them. This is the case in countries with poor health systems—especially poor mental health care—corruption, and high levels of mistrust and division. The UN delegate for disaster risk reduction for the Asia-Pacific region, Loretta Hieber, declared on April 22, ‘the most marginalised are most severely impacted by both crises’. The COVID-19 crisis affects all individuals, but at the same time exacerbates their vulnerability.

The global health crisis around the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the fragility of our systems and our lack of a coordinated crisis response. The fight to safeguard the economy versus protecting people’s lives has been established internationally as the foundation on which a range of governmental actions has been determined. This is similar to the orientation of responses to global warming and the climate crisis. Many consider a healthy response to ecosystem protection and climate action to be in contrast to a growing economy. The similarity between how both crises are tackled both individually and socially is unquestionable, and while the crisis caused by COVID-19 will hopefully end soon, the same cannot be said for the climate crisis.

Social Innovation for Improved Resilience

A key characteristic of a crisis is the perceived lack of tools for resolving it and the subsequent stimulus to change behaviour. Therefore, we can take this crisis as an opportunity to adopt new behaviours, expand our set of available tools and improve our problem-solving abilities, consequently creating a positive impact on our resilience capacity. Social Innovation, as a set of tools for the creation of social value, has the role of creating a utopia, an imaginary future that can help us to transit this crisis.

Check out the Young Innovators unit from EIT Climate-KIC, the European programme for training the future generation on problem-solving and innovation skills for climate action.

And don’t forget to also check out the Social Innovation Academy – the first fully online management training programme focusing exclusively on social innovation. Subscribe to our newsletter, join our private LinkedIn group, become one of our friends or follow us on social media (LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook). We welcome all requests for collaboration here. Let us co-create our desirable future.


(Reference: Teachers’ training on ‘Social innovation for climate action’. November 2019, Linares, Chile. Source: 2811 Social Change Platform)


Waldo Soto

Waldo Soto

MSc Urban Management Director at 2811 Ashoka Consultant

Luis Cisternas

Luis Cisternas

Psychologist Resident at 2811

Katie Cashman

Katie Cashman

MSc Urban Management Climate Action Director at 2811 UN Habitat Consultant

The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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