The Corona Crisis is a Network Governance Crisis

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Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

The Corona pandemic is a field experiment that no researcher could have designed. It tests our global connected infrastructure and shows us where the weak points are. We should use this opportunity to improve the structure of global connectivity. As Henry Petroski has so eloquently pointed out, if we want to predict the effect of our designs, we need to understand design successes and failures [1].

The primary lesson that we can draw from our experience so far with the Corona pandemic is that it is a network governance crisis. Networks of transport, travel and communication carry not only people and goods but also ideas and viruses. This has enabled the pandemic, but it also enables our responses to it. Information must be communicated to a population, hospitals must coordinate actions, medical supplies must be bought and delivered through value chains. Both the pandemic and our responses exploit the structure of global networks.

The successes and failures that appear in this process must be used to improve the governance of these networks. Governing a network is making decisions about its survival and well-being. The redesign of global network governance structures is taking place right at this moment, while professionals and decision-makers are struggling under great pressure to manage the pandemic. What can we learn from the decisions that have been made so far? And what should we do after the pandemic is contained?

To gauge the extent and severity of the problem, I list a number of network governance problems that we have encountered so far. Next, I will propose a way to structure the governance design problem and suggest a direction forward.

Governance problems when combating the pandemic

Due to the exponential rise of serious cases, hospitals run against the boundary of their intensive care capacity and they have to coordinate the uptake of serious Corona patients across cities, regions and even countries. Some of this is coordinated bottom-up, by the hospitals themselves. Some of it is coordinated by national governments.

National governments have decreed draconian measures such as social distancing. Some governments monitor this by tracking location data from cell phones. Others use drones to monitor compliance. These technology-based measures violate the right to privacy.

Many countries have closed schools, which violates the right to education and reveals a painful divide between digital haves and have-nots.

To reduce human contact, economic networks have been closed down, depriving companies and individuals of income. Governments attempt to reduce the negative impact on the economy by helicopter money and easy credit.

At the supranational level, the EU has not been able so far to design an adequate response and the G20 has failed to reach agreement on any action. The World Health Organization (WHO), on the other hand, is doing a great job informing governments and the public.

In the meantime, marketplaces Amazon and eBay attempted but failed so far to stop profiteers to sell hand sanitizers and cleaning products at inflated prices. Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Reddit have attempted but failed to stop misinformation about the virus. In Iran, 300 people died because they believed misinformation that methanol would protect against infection. Social network companies have met with the WHO to align first ideas on how to jointly combat misinformation but the companies are careful to hide confidential information, because they are competitors.

At the same time, Amazon is hiring 100 000 additional warehouse and delivery employees to deal with the expected rise of online business. And they are actively lobbying for storing all information about patients world-wide, because this will speed up the search for new medicines.

This is an arbitrary list of events but it suffices to get a sense of the network governance problems the world is facing.

Perspective

To put this in perspective, contrast the abov developments with the physical problem that triggered all of these events: The spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This physical problem will be dealt with. Health care professionals and researchers work round the clock to treat patients, develop tests and develop a vaccine. They will succeed, perhaps in a few months, but surely within 18 months.

But when that problem is dealt with, we need to think about the changes in network governance that have taken place, and that should still take place. The persistent problem is not the virus but the governance of networks that facilitated its spread and enabled our responses.

Which networks?

Networks

Following the global policy advisor Parag Khanna, I start with a simple division according to geographic region: Cities, countries, regional commonwealths such as the EU and global organizations like the WHO [2]. Each of these entities is itself a network, usually with central governance. And each of them except the global institutions is governed by a node in a higher-level network. Cities are governed by countries, which are nodes in regional commonwealths. Countries and commonwealths are nodes in networks of global institutions. Governance at the lower levels is centralized, at the higher levels it is decentralized with weak or absent central authority.

Some of the governance problems listed above can be placed in this hierarchy of region-defined networks. To place the remaining problems, we need to consider two more kinds of networks: that of companies and non-profit institutions, and that of digital communities.

Companies and non-profit institutions such as hospitals are themselves networks of actors governed centrally, and they are part of larger networks variously called supply chains, value networks or extended enterprises.

Digital communities such as online marketplaces and social networks are facilitated by some of the largest companies in the world in terms of market capitalization. Some of these companies are stateless in the sense that they choose where to be located and where (not) to pay tax. And they operate like centrally governed states in the sense that they have centrally defined their own normative systems that regulates behavior of employees and customers. They are more powerful than most countries, even if they have no army.

Value networks and digital communities crosscut the hierarchy of region-defined networks. All the governance problems listed above can be located in one of these networks. The redesign of governance in these networks is taking place now and will continue some time in the future, if not forever.

Redesigning network governance

Governance of value networks needs an update in terms of tools and techniques used, but this is doable. There are already techniques to make a map of a value network and to asses its benefits, costs and vulnerabilities [3]. Resilience of the network can be improved if there are no hidden dependencies and processes are flexible [4]. We can expect value networks to be reconfigured to reduce dependence on a single source. Moving to computer-supported governance of value networks is part of the digital transformation that many companies are involved in.

Governance of the other networks listed above is much harder. Fake news, misinformation and political manipulation have turned out to be uncontrollable by the companies that operate social networks. The Corona crisis provides evidence that this is not going to change. China’s control of the social networks on the other hand shows that powerful states are able to exercise control — at the price of accepting political monitoring and manipulation by the state. Given these extremes, we need to think harder about control of social networks that complies with the basic rights of citizens and consumers.

The regionally defined networks of cities, countries and commonwealths have gravitated to nationalistic decision-making to combat the crisis, even though the problem is global. Grass-roots initiatives to help each other and to show our appreciation to medical personnel have been heart-warming, but relations among countries show no trace of altruism. Like governance in digital communities, power differences, astronomic numbers of stakeholders, and conflicting interests make the design of governance structures in these networks a messy and interminable process.

For example, national governments have been quick to brush aside human rights such as the right on privacy for a higher and more urgent goal. These emergency measures must be rolled back when the epidemic is under control. However, history shows that rolling back these measures is a lot more difficult for governments than rolling them out.

These changes in network governance structures could embody nothing less than a new social contract. All of us are responsible for this redesign and we cannot ignore this problem. The world will remain connected. The Corona virus will not go away. New viruses will come. Now is the time to translate our global connectivity into adequate global governance structures.

[1] H. Petroski, To Engineer is Human. The Role of Failure in Successful Design, Vintage Books, 1992.

[2] P. Khanna, Connectography. Mapping the Future of Global Civilization, Random House, 2016.

[3] J. Gordijn and H. Akkermans, “Value Webs — Understanding e-business innovation,” The Value Engineers, https://www.thevalueengineers.nl/, 2018.

[4] C. Perrow, Normal Accidents. Living with High-Risk Technologies, Princeton University Press, 1999 (first edition 1984).

This story was first published on www.thevalueengineers.nl on March 3, 2020.

Written by

Professor emeritus Information Systems, University of Twente, The Netherlands. Co-founder and Director, The Value Engineers (www.thevalueengineers.nl).

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