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Towards a new enlightenment

– global scientists to develop new solutions for complex problems with ‘a Large Hadron Collider for the mind’

A group of scientists and other thinkers from around the world have been working together to help government, business and ordinary people face the problems of today

From the Encyclopédie to FuturIcT via Global System Dynamics


The famous Encyclopédie (1751-1765) of the Enlightenment was put together by a disparate group of writers, physicians, scientists, craftsmen and scholars. They believed that the unprecedented socio-political problems and the emergent ways of thinking of 18th-century Europe demanded a new taxonomy of human knowledge. With contributors including such notable figures as Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu, the 35-volume Encyclopédie was a vast compendium of knowledge. Informed by the technologies of the period, it became a vehicle for change, ushering in the shape of the modern world.


The financial, security, energy and environmental crises of recent times have once again provided compelling evidence of the need to find new ways of building resilience and sustainability across society. Everyone, from politicians and business people to citizens in all walks of life, is beginning to accept that we can no longer rely on the problem-solving methods that we grew up with. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can help us a great deal, but there also has to be – at all levels – a change of mind-set. 


Now a group of scientists who have developed a philosophy called Systems Thinking, have started to envisage how these ideas can be applied to global problems. Results can lead to improved information and advice for the World’s policy makers. Indeed far reaching plans are to extend this to create a large-scale ICT-based research endeavour called FuturIcT. Initially instigated by a group in Zurich, Switzerland, but now with contributions from all over the world, one observer has described the project as a ‘Large Hadron collider for the mind’.


‘Traditional methods of decision-making,’ says Professor Steven Bishop, one of the co-ordinators of the group, ‘needs to be rebased on sound scientific advice, backed by ICT: not old-fashioned science, where each practitioner is closed in the silo of his discipline, but a new type of integrated thinking which has the openness and flexibility to deal with the vast array of interconnected problems with which we are faced.’ 

Developing this new type of ‘systems thinking’ has been one of the concerns of Global System Dynamics, a project funded by the European Commission and co-ordinated by University College London (see 


Since May 2008, GSD partner institutions across Europe and experts from all over the world, working with Zoran Stančič, Ralph Dum and a team at the Commission’s Information Society and Media Directorate General, have found an astonishing amount of common ground. Developing new methods and insights, they have forged global connections with other networks of systems thinkers.  


‘We are now looking forward to taking systems thinking out to wider groups,’ adds Bishop, ‘including businesses, local government and engaged members of the public.’



Systems Thinking

Over the past two years, under GSD’s aegis and that of other networks, a large number of thinkers from different disciplines (see lists below) have been addressing worldwide problems in a revolutionary fashion. Applying Systems Thinking, an intellectual practice which involves an adaptable, often computer-enabled approach to problem-solving across different domains, they have addressed global issues such as financial crisis, pandemics and climate change. 


Systems Thinking is concerned with understanding and exploiting the behaviour of complex dynamic systems – their risks and predictabilities, their feedbacks and interactions, their evolutions over time and through space, the modes and motivations of the agents within them, and their integration or conflict with other systems. A key element of Systems Thinking is comprehending the role of instability in systems.


Above all, Systems Thinking involves taking a global perspective on problems, however local and particular they might at first appear. At the same time, systems modelling – the practical application of systems thinking – often involves employing a simplified decision model backed up by complex ICT operations on rich data. 


‘Policy makers,’ says Julian Hunt, a climate scientist who has led many GSD meetings and is also a member of the House of Lords in the UK Parliament, ‘are confronted with decisions that should take into account a multitude of highly interdependent processes in physical, biological, technical, social, economic and political systems. The implications of any decisions are increasingly difficult to evaluate and are often global in scale. There is an urgent need to augment the tools available for developing and assessing decision-making processes.’




At BIG-STEP, GSD’s most recent meeting in Brussels (April 14-15, 2010), members of the programme joined with scientists and experts from two other networks of experts and academics, Assyst, and Complexity.NET, and senior figures from the public and private sectors.


The purpose of the meeting was to engage policy makers and business leaders in a dialogue, showing them how systems thinking can help in the decision-making process. Issues such as risk, resilience, governance and ‘future scenarios’ were at the forefront of discussions around energy, the economy, and the environment. There were also panel discussions focussing on the modelling, societal and political challenges faced in developing a systems approach to policy making.


Highlights at BIG-STEP included contributions from:

  • Jacqueline McGlade (Exec. Director, European Environment Agency)
  • Chris Barrett (Director, Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory, Virginia Bioinformatics Institute)
  • Michel Morvan (Vice President for Strategic Intelligence and Innovation at Veolia)
  • Jean-Philippe Bouchaud (Chairman and Chief Scientist, Capital Fund Management) 
  • Sorin Solomon (Professor of Theoretical Physics, Hebrew University, Jerusalem)
  • Luciano Pietronoero (Professor of Condensed Matter Physics, University of Rome, La Sapienza)
  • Bas Eickhout (Dutch Member of the European Parliament)
  • Carlo Jaeger (Professor for Modelling Social Systems at Potsdam University)
  • Pedro Prieto (Director of Development for Alternative Energies, Grupo Avanzit)
  • Caroline Gover (BBC Continuity)


The meeting was also attended by representatives of Unilever, Hewlett Packard, University of New Brunswick, Canada, Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia, Dublin City University, Ireland, the Japan Govt Science and Technology Agency, and the UK Govt Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. 



The next ‘Big Step’

In the next phase of the systems thinking revolution, members of the GSD and the other groups plan to extend their ideas linked to risk and resilience as part of a soon to be funded EC coordination action programme called GSDP to lay down the way forward and highlight the new ICT tools that will be required to enable policy decisions to have scientific and popular support.


Furthermore, many will also work together with Professor Dirk Helbing, an expert in modelling and simulation at ETH Zurich, in the FuturIcT research endeavour, to develop large-scale, interactive computer models which will be able to examine multi-component problems with many interactions. Engaging with a wide range of domains, from the natural sciences to sociology, medicine and the humanities, FuturIcT will enable decision makers to understand systemic issues relating to the problems they encounter, whether these occur in the urban development, energy policy or environmental fields. 


Using agent-based modelling, simulations and other techniques, FuturIcT will develop computer applications to help decision-makers make better informed choices. Both global and local at once, their architecture will allow problems to be considered from many different levels and according to the needs of many different users. Ideally, they will eventually be used by individuals in their everyday lives as well as by policy-makers in government and business.


‘If FuturIcT comes off,’ says Giles Foden, a writer who has been attending the GSD meetings and chronicling the discussions held at them, ‘it will be like a Large Hadron Collider for the mind. Communication is going to be important, and it would be great to see other artists and writers involved. There is already increasing convergence between work in environmental sciences and work in the arts and humanities, and this is one aspect of systems thinking in practice, but it could go a lot further.’


Supported by universities and other institutions worldwide, GSD, GSDP FuturIcT and their many associates are all committed to the idea that unified knowledge can bring greater individual empowerment in a sustainable social context, galvanizing new ways of constructively engaging decision makers at all scales. As Denis Diderot, one of the editors of the Encyclopédie put it, our aim is ‘to change the way people think’.


Climate Change Research and Policies in China – Report of a visit to China May 11-16, 2009

by Lord Julian Hunt

UCL, Univ. Cambridge, House of Lords (vice president of Globe), Arizona State University

(Inst Plasma Physics, Hefei; Beijing Normal University and ASU funded this visit)



  1. Climate Research

(Based on a visit to China Meteorological Administration; the Beijing Climate Centre (BCC) and the Remote Sensing Centre)



(See BCC annual report for 2008;

  • The temperature over China has increased steadily, by more than 1deg C, since it began its steady rise after 1980 (p13). This is more than 40% greater than the global average over land areas. Note that this figure might be higher (by up to 1C according to the report) if the air pollution over China was absent.
  • The average  depth of the winter frozen soil over the Tibetan Plateau decreased suddenly in 1985; but over 30 years it has decreased by 10% (p28).
  • Recent climate events have been severe but not unprecedented; e.g. 1970’s drought was worse.
  • There has been a 10% increase in frequency in tropical cyclone reaching China (Hong Kong informed me in Dec that the strength is increasing too)



  • Recent seasonal predictions over China for 3 months ahead have agreed with observed trends - more precipitation over south/east China and less over India. This gives BCC some confidence about longer range seasonal and climate predictions.
  • I was informed that when seasonal predictions are issued by BCC (with some indication of probability like that of the UK Met Office), they are based on a combination of statistical and deterministic methods. The results of their statistical studies of tele-connections with El-Nino-La Nina, and Indian monsoon are taken into account.
  • In this annual report (for wide distribution inside and outside China, presumably including UNFCCC?) two scenarios beyond 2100 of a stabilisation of future green house gas concentrations  are emphasised, namely a doubling of GHG to 550ppm CO2(equivalent?) (x2 pre-industrial emissions) and 720ppm  (x2.5).                  


[Comment: Note that IPCC and others recommend that these are too high to avoid irreversible changes to significant elements of the global environment – ice caps, mountain snows, ecology, desertification etc - a point that is not mentioned here or in general discussions. These tipping points or bifurcations in regional climate appear to be of greater concern to European and US scientists and policy makers – a valid point made by the UK Embassy. I was reminded that one of the lead authors of the recent IPCC report is from CMA; I had the impression that he did not agree with everything in it.]


  There is a small mention of the significant change in the atmospheric ‘Walker’ circulation over the Pacific in the 1970’s that may have been associated with a drought in N China.


Different IPCC emission scenarios are considered about reaching these concentration levels. It is concluded that over China (not the global average over land and sea) the temperature will rise in the range 3 to 5 deg., but after stabilisation (at the above levels) the temperature would continue to rise by a smaller amount of 0.4 deg per 100years - which is still serious. These figures could well be an underestimate since the models do not allow for the release of methane from the melting permafrost and rapid loss of arctic sea ice.


    Average precipitation is predicted to rise by about 10%, which will ensure the major Eastern Rivers continue to flow even with loss of Tibetan plateau snow, which the report does not refer to. Its eventual melting over 300 (?) years, as Chinese experts on rivers have commented, will lead to the loss of the rivers emptying into the western deserts, with very adverse consequences for that region.


   The report also gives estimates of the reduction in temperature caused by aerosols, in the range 0.1 to 1 degree. This would imply that, if air pollution is reduced, the temperature rise over this century would be larger than the previous estimates?


  1. Policy discussions

These were held, in a very open spirit, with policy experts at Normal University as part of an EU-China seminar on risk and global system dynamics for policy, with Chinese, Russian and US nuclear fusion scientists at Prof Jiangang Li’s Academy of Science Institute for Plasma Physics at Hefei, and at CMA with Prof Xu Jianmin (XJ) and some of his younger technical staff - who are very interested in China’s climate policy. [XJ is also a member of the National People’s Congress, an expert on weather satellites and the technical member of the China team, which comes to meetings of international legislators organised by GLOBE (http://www.globe/].


Both groups emphasised that China’s policy over the next 40 years is to improve the efficiency of fossil fuel power generation (per unit of power produced), while increasing the total amount of power. This is China’s only significant target in relation to energy and climate change. They are not it appears committed in any way to agreeing to have policies based on limiting emissions so as not to exceed a target value for the global level of concentration. Even if China’s efficiency target is met, it is estimated that emissions will increase by a factor of 2 by 2050. If not, the emissions will increase by a factor of 3. The cost of this increase in efficiency is estimated as about equal to the whole of China’s GDP in 2006 (which implies a cost of significantly less than 2% per year over the next 40 years). XJ commented that the efficiency improvement will be achieved more readily if there is a substantial transfer to China  of technology for clean power and Carbon Capture and Storage. But there are difficulties for foreign companies to maintain ownership of IPR at the same time as helping the new technologies develop in China, as the UK embassy explained.


    During this period the GDP is expected to increase by a further factor of 8 (by comparison for western countries of a factor of 3?). The population will increase by 40 % and level out by 2050 at about 1.4bn. It was emphasised that the one child policy will continue, which is a major contribution to holding down the consumption of food and demand for electrical power.


     Other measures of conservation do not have the same emphasis as they do in the West. The Chinese comment that western countries have huge opportunities for energy saving through changes in power used in housing and buildings. In China most housing South of the Yangtze has no heating - which makes them very cold in winter! Energy in the form of methane is produced extensively in villages from individual biomass reactors using human, vegetable and animal waste. It was also explained that a further significant contribution to reducing GHGs, is the massive planting of trees which are not cut down by villagers because of their new access to biomass energy. Tree coverage is now back to the levels in the 1960s. These aspects need to be considered when assessing China’s net contribution to global GHG concentrations.

       Over the next 40 years various new non-fossil technologies are being introduced. But it is expected that their net contribution will be small; with renewable energy for electrical power at about 1% (though in Hefei almost every house has a solar water heater), and nuclear power rising to 10% at most.

           However by the end of the century, nuclear power may contribute so significantly that the current predictions of GHG emissions can be reduced. This planning scenario could be factored into current negotiations on national emissions, given that China has an exceptional track record in delivering on nuclear and other technology projects, and in sticking to international agreements over the past 10 years. For example in the post-Kyoto negotiations developed countries could agree with China that its future reductions will occur and then make their own reductions in emissions on the shorter time scale of 20-30 years. This could maintain global warming below the dangerous levels defined by the global geophysical and biological systems (eg Schellenhuber et al 2003-conference at Exeter).


       But a massive expansion of China’s nuclear energy programme to achieve its future objective would require more fuel than is available for conventional fission power plant, and more waste processing than can be accommodated. Prof Li and the China’s commercial nuclear industry are now planning a new technology demonstrator of a combined system using fission and current fusion technology to overcome these problems. It is planned for the next 10-15 years. Similar technological plans are being developed in the USA at the University of Texas and elsewhere.


         This development could change the future and thereby change the present!


         The confidence in China about its future is unparalleled in my experience. It is based on security that the state will provide, especially food. Risks associated with climate change, extreme climatic events or untried technologies are not central to discussions about the future of their country (say unlike the Netherlands), although following the earthquake in Szechuan in 2008 there is now more interest by central and regional governments. 


A perspective on the GSD conference: Dynamics for Policy, by UCL CASA researcher Basak Demires Ozkul


The House of Lords played host to an international gathering of the Global System Dynamics and Policies Group (GSD) on July 2nd 2009. The historical setting provided a dramatic backdrop for discussions on the future trajectory of advanced modelling techniques, the integration of modelling and policy and the importance of effective communication and dissemination methods. The day was split into three main sessions. A set of talks on current modelling techniques was given in the morning followed by lunch. After lunch the session started with three presentations on the structure of GSD and on modelling techniques and was finalised with a panel discussing the intersection of modelling and policy.


The morning talks started with a welcome speech by Prof. Steven Bishop, GSD Project Co-ordinator, who gave an overview of the GSD Project. This was followed by Prof. Kristian Lindgren and Prof. Mike Batty’s presentations. The first presentation focused on interpreting future global energy use through a multi-parameter interactive model and the second one on interpreting historic urban population distributions through a rank-size model. Both speakers focused on the importance of the use of these models for policy makers in understanding difficult processes. Prof. Lindgren pointed out the effects of small parameter changes on the overall model and Prof. Batty remarked on the pervasiveness of macro stability and micro volatility in rank-size models for urban populations in the US and the UK. The speakers also demonstrated the use of innovative modelling tools; the web interface for the energy use model GETOnline that can be accessed at and the rank clocks that can be viewed and downloaded at


These were followed by two further talks; the first one by Prof. Saskia Sassen and the second one by Prof. Mike Kelly both of whom also focused on how invisible processes and cultural norms could be made visible through analytical and visualization techniques and provide us with better ways of interpreting real world phenomena. Prof. Sassen demonstrated that decentralized sustainable urban density models could be far from ideal in the real world due to socio-economic conditions as in the case of Mexico City and in contrast unsustainable highly mono-centric business districts such as London can prove to be success stories thanks to the accumulation of specialised knowledge.  She pointed out the challenges of fully modelling such complex phenomena mathematically due to difficult complex structures and the need to identify feedback loops. Prof. Kelly outlined the strong effects of unquantifiable model parameters such as personal behaviour and lifestyle choices in energy consumption patterns.


The lunch break allowed me to catch some of the attendees and pose them the question ‘how do you think models can advance the idea of sustainability?’ The answers mainly centred on the possibility of defining a complex phenomenon such as sustainability in a more coherent and tangible form through models and the opportunity of interpreting future scenarios.


The afternoon session was kicked off by Dr. Ralph Dum, the Scientific Officer for the European Commission who outlined GSD’s agenda as achieving a new scientific paradigm for highly interdependent systems for sustainability. He also stressed the importance of transparency and communication/interaction with the general public. The next two presentations were given by Prof. Sir Alan Wilson and Prof. Carlo Jaeger who were looking at the potential and shortcomings of major modelling cultures; Prof. Wilson in the hard sciences and Prof. Jaeger in economics. Prof. Wilson demonstrated the effectiveness of combining well-known static spatial interaction models with nonlinear dynamics as in the Lotka-Volterra model and linking these to existing information systems and tools such as GIS to create intelligent modelling systems. He used the growth of Chicago in the 19th century to demonstrate how such combined systems can provide clues for past geographic and urban processes and thus offer a scientific basis for future scenarios.  Prof. Jaeger was more cautious in his approach to prevalent economic models pointing out the general failure of such models in the banking industry. He concentrated on the risks and benefits associated with conventions in modelling and public policy.


The presentations were capped by a lively panel discussion, composed of academics working in the policy field, which straddle the theoretical and real worlds. The panel was led by Prof. Lord Julian Hunt from UCL and composed of Vicky Pryce, the Department for Trade and Industry's Chief Economic Adviser and Director General, also Deputy Head of the UK's Government Economic Service; Prof. Paul Wiles, the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Home Office, Prof. Lord Meghnad Desai, LSE; Michael Oborne, Director of Multi-Disciplinary Issues, OECD and Dr. Ralph Dum, Scientific Officer, European Commission. The initial presentations by the panellists provided a glimpse of the challenges and demands in conducting research in national and international political organisations. Panellists pointed to the necessity of providing hard and fast answers to politicians based on research that incorporates a measure of uncertainty, the difficulties of conducting cross disciplinary research in the rigid and often outdated confines of government and academic departments, the gap between the more common deterministic models and the uncertainty and unpredictability of real life and the effect of competing sources of information such as popular media. Prof. Desai summarised the policy makers position in his statement “It may be that the citizen is right and you are wrong”, thus defining the fine line that politicians and policy makers tread in their interactions with the public.


The day was interspersed with discussions on a wide range of subtexts thanks to the diverse academic fields and cultures represented. Some key questions can be summarised as: How to bridge the gap between the hard and the social sciences to bring together the various skills and knowledge that both possess? How to expand and advance modelling to incorporate real world conditions such as uncertainty, multi-dimensionality, dynamic equilibrium etc.? How to design models that are open, easy to interpret and flexible? How to communicate effectively the results of complex models? How to account for the difference in skill knowledge level between the modeller and user? How to actively involve the wide range of stakeholders? How to access the ever-expanding trove of data that is available and make use of it?


The conference ended with a general tour of the House of Lords led by our host Prof. Lord Julian Hunt where the attendees were able to witness the long and fascinating history of British politics while discussing the many topics that were raised throughout the day with many promising ideas for the future of modelling.


Thoughts on the GSD Venice Workshop: Agent-Based Modeling for Sustainable Development

The first day of the workshop was largely dedicated to discussion of the main variables and determinants of the multi-agent models. In particular, it was emphasised that it is very difficult to take into account the learning curve of each agent and their corresponding behaviour, which results from such an iterative learning process.

Some experts emphasised (in particular those who develop programming code for such models) that it is difficult even to define “agent”.

The second day was largely dedicated to presenting examples of multi-agent models and explaining their key assumptions and limitations.

The third day was the most interesting for me. Dr John Finnigan, Director of the CSIRO Centre for Complex Systems Science, Canberra, Australia, delivered one of the best talks. He presented a systems’ view on key problems and drivers in our society. In particular, he linked key social, economic and environmental problems with demographic factors and climate change. Though, most of these interconnections are known to scientists and policy-makers, presenting such an integrated view was of particular interest and had a profound impact on the workshop’s participants.

Another talk, which presented particularly interesting examples on climate change implications for business, was given by Prof. Peter Hoeppe, Head of Munich Re's Geo Risks Research.

There are major challenges in defining not only key factors to be included in multi-agent models, but also in defining key agents themselves. These are the major challenges that need to be overcome to allow successful applications of multi-agents models for sustainable development.

There was little discussion on why this kind of model is better than other instruments in order to identify policy options for sustainable development and/or to decision-making process.

As for me, this workshop helped to understand key characteristics of multi-agent models. So far my research has been based mostly on systems’ approach for environmental policy-making. I am interested to learn more about agent-based models’ applications for my field.

At the immediate practical level, the workshop helped in two areas. First, I have an on-going research collaboration with Julian Hunt and Steven Bishop, and this workshop helped me to get better understanding of some of their research interests and projects. In particular, I have some inputs and new thoughts for the paper that we are working on at the moment. Second, the third day of the workshop allowed me to get a more integrated view on interlinks on business, food, growing population and climate change. I have already started to use some of these ideas in my immediate research (in collaboration with Julian Hunt) on sustainable water management and climate change policies in Ghana and Uganda.

Yulia Timoshkina
Cambridge University, UK

The GSD Venice Workshop: Agent-Based Modeling for Sustainable Development, took place from 2-4 April 2009. Full details of the workshop agenda and downloadable documents are available here.


Science Beyond Fiction: Thoughts from Prague on FET09

This event celebrated 20 years of funding through the EU Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) programmes. 500 people attended the meeting: they enjoyed plenary lectures, specialised lectures, posters and a large exhibition with many working demonstrations.

The main emphasis was directed towards FET funded projects in computer science and robotics, but there were also plenty of talks and discussions on the wider issues of modelling and in particular how to approach inter/multi/trans-disciplinary research.

Relating to the GSD project, I had the pleasure to meet a number of delegates to discuss GSD objectives and I was glad to spread the word about future GSD activities.

Of particular scientific interest, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi gave a talk on network models and levy flights, which is of direct relevance to the work of Alan Wilson and others on Networks. It also touched on issues of social networking, which could also be a strong contender for follow on work from the GSD project, since any policy models must take into account how social interactions can help to promote the success of alternative policies.
GSD is keen to see how simulations can be utilised to assist policy makers. In this respect the conference was extremely useful in showing some of the results that can be achieved with modern technology.

In particular Henry Markham showed how visualisations were being used in health and safety training, allowing the user to vary parameters. There were several informal discussions about the use of modelling concepts similar to those proposed in GSD for use in problems of social interaction, especially conflict modelling.

One of the most enjoyable talks was given by Philip Ball on music, particularly addressing the problem of which combination of sounds do we find appealing and why. While not specifically relevant to GSD, I have never experienced a more carefully thought out and well delivered argument.

Prof. Steven Bishop
GSD Project Coordinator
24th April 2009

FET09 took place in Prague from 21-23 April 2009 full details of the speakers and the conference programme.

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