Embrace the crisatunity, business-as-usual is complacency

19 November 2021

Just-in-Time seemed so efficient, so obvious, so unquestionably right that it’s only when things went wrong we realised the value of holding inventory of key components.

In troubled times I like to turn to the great philosophers, to see how the wisdom of ages can inform the here-and-now. It was, I think, Homer who coined the word “crisatunity” when informed by his daughter Lisa that the Chinese word for “crisis” was also its word for “opportunity”.

This notion, apt as it is, derives from a mistranslation. The Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of two characters which, translated literally, would give us the rather less punchy “danger change point”. 

The mistranslation first gained traction in 1959-60, through the campaign speeches of John F. Kennedy and has since been repeated ad nauseum by business leaders, motivational gurus and prominent politicians – so we can hardly blame Lisa Simpson, who is only eight years old after all, for repeating it. I say “mistranslation” rather than “falsehood” because at its heart “crisatunity” is a genuinely useful concept that can wake us from the complacency that comes from considering “normal” the natural state of business.

Blame it on the pandemic, blame it on the unmentionable B-word, blame it on the semiconductor crisis, the HGV drivers (or lack of), the flooding, the heatwaves, the regulatory uncertainty, the students adhered to asphalt, you can blame all and any of these factors for the difficulties we are now facing. And yet every one of these factors was entirely predictable. We knew a pandemic of a respiratory disease was not just possible but likely. We knew efforts to stop the spread of any such disease would cause major disruption. We knew changes to regulatory frameworks were inevitable, no matter who was deciding them. We knew all these things. We just hadn’t prepared for the impact of them all happening at once.

Crisatunity allows us to interrogate the accepted norms of business and the prevailing consensus within society. Just-in-Time seemed so efficient, so obvious, so unquestionably right that it’s only when things went wrong we realised the value of holding inventory of key components. And when environmental campaigners, just a few years ago, were calling for an outright ban on single-use plastics, it didn’t sound too radical, even to the ears of tabloid columnists. But where would we be now without the billions of single-use masks made of nonwoven polymers or the billions of single-use pre-filled syringes made of sterile plastics?

Did you notice the change?

Change, or “impermanence”, is one of the three essential doctrines of Buddhism. Change is inevitable, it is natural and it is continuous. And, on that seamless link, you may have noticed a little change here at IP&E. If my name and face are unfamiliar, that’s because this is my first issue as editor. If they are familiar, it’s because I have previously worked on titles covering industrial design and plastics processing.

I was brought up with industry. My dad had a small profile extrusion business and the smell of molten polymer, the hiss of compressors, and the sight of boxes stacked ready for shipping, are my madeleines. Our business was a casualty of 2009’s recession but the decline started earlier. We didn’t anticipate losing a major contract or consider the impact of the loss. We took it for granted that people would always need semi-permeable membranes for disposable face masks. Which proves an assumption can both be true and false, depending on the direction from which you view it.

James Snodgrass
Industrial Plant & Equipment