International crises and the value of Global System Dynamics

June 14, 2010


Lord Julian Hunt is a Visiting Professor at Delft University of Technology. The opinions expressed are his own.-

In their different ways, the disruption and damage caused by the ongoing Icelandic Volcano eruption, and the major oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, have underlined how low-probability events can wreak havoc locally and across the world.

Both events underline the continuing need for well-established crisis response by international bodies.  Risk assessments taking into account all the diverse scientific and social interactions should enable the public and private sector to prepare in advance.

•    Although international procedures by UN bodies for dealing simultaneously with volcanic eruptions, meteorology and aviation had been agreed and tested at a technical level since the 1990s, the disruption caused by the Icelandic volcano led EU Transport Ministers call for quicker and more coordinated reaction to such crisis situations.

•    In the Gulf of Mexico, the “unprecedented environmental disaster” from the oil spillage shows the need for environmental risk assessment as much as economic risks now being considered in the context of the volcano.

While the volcano and oil spills have causes and consequences that can be explained in terms of earth science, engineering, ecology and economics, other disruptive events with rapid global impacts can result simply from people’s actions — notably the fall of Lehman Brothers and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Taken as a whole, the growing global attention being paid to these types of urgent, international, complex and inter-connected problems have led a group of scientists, working with policymakers from the European Commission, and the private sector, to collaborate in new ways to explore how they could be dealt with more effectively in future.

Particular emphasis is being paid to Global System Dynamics when they are applied to making decisions, consulting with the public and identifying critical research problems for the future.

Essentially these systems involve data input and output, models, networking with other systems and decision making.  The role of feedback through public consultation is an essential but poorly understood part of the process.

From philosophical and multi–disciplinary beginnings in the 1920’s, applications of systems methods for industry and defence began in the 1940s.

With the emergence of regional and global environmental problems of pollution, concerns about the devastating effects of nuclear war, planning the future resources of the planet, and then dealing with climate change, the global systems dynamics approach with ever growing computer power has become the only method available for policy making, with of course a thorough going involvement of social sciences.

Systems analysis is not yet the accepted method for managing financial crises, but it is suggesting some of the instabilities that have contributed to the most recent international recession.  This could be a valuable tool for developing regulation policies for the highly computerised financial networks.

Can global systems science provide insights and quantitative methods to policy makers, beyond the usual, but essential, approaches of cost-benefit, political factors (which may be quite scientific such as the use of focus groups), historical example and crisis response planning?

One answer comes from several private sector entities which are employing dynamic, time varying computer models of present and future behaviour of the natural, technological and social components of activities or organisations.

For instance, the French utility company Veolia uses system models to discuss policy options with city authorities.  In this case, the requirement for integrated civic policies has meant that the system models had to be integrated.

These practical demonstrations provide lessons for how public organisations and politics can apply the systems approach in their domain.  Guide books and road maps are already being written to promote this development through a project funded by the European Commission.

Information technologies are playing a key role in establishing the enhanced interfaces and appropriate communication channels needed between science, policy and society. A recent development of highly focused data provision is the use of Twitter by environmental agencies to send out topical warning messages.

Technical advances in information science are going beyond software engineering, model specification and formal methods to address the inherent speed limits for man-machine interactions, which when exceeded can cause so-called ‘flash-crash’ disruptions in the financial markets.

There are also other limits to the complexity and size of the models that are used.  Firstly system models that  rely on the gathering and managing of large scale, heterogeneous sets of diverse data use ever larger and more energy consuming computing capacity.  Will the current requirements of 5-7 MW in the largest centres keep on increasing?

Secondly, as computer programmes become larger and more complex, their reliability can become questionable since the only evidence that they are correct is verified by the highly skilled, but unsystematic process of looking at the results of thousands of calculations and studying their patterns.  Computer science has not yet been able to find a fool-proof proof!

Social and political aspects in the gathering, analysis and dissemination of data also have to be recognised.  For social administration and security systems, intrusive searching for data must be minimised, which means that the most advanced ICT methods are needed for the most efficient use of data for analysis and decision making.

Political negotiations about climate change and the controversies about the scientific data have highlighted the need for wide communication of the policy process and about different sources and methods of analysis of data.  Without this openness and public trust, systems based decisions will always be suspect.

The challenge for science is therefore two-fold:   to advance modeling of global systemsand to engage with novel forms of interaction with policy, with regard to problems that span from local to global decision-making.

Global research initiatives are underway leading to data, with new ICT and remote sensing methods, and development of  models in diverse global contexts such as city systems, conflicts between societies and nations, water and food security, climate change impact, and the dynamics and regulation of  financial systems.

As global systems science becomes more directed towards policy making, research and practice it is focusing on:

•    Understanding and explaining better how the ways that individuals and organisations deal with issues that can be described by the methods of systems analysis.  The next step is to use the basic steps of data, modeling, and communication/consultation to make improvements noting that there are many levels of complexity and cost and consultation.  These steps can be effective from giving conceptual and qualitative advice to providing massive quantitative policy recommendations derived from extensive computation.

•    Developing techniques and concepts for systems approaches to:  (a) assist integrated policy making such as managing complex crises or the connected  energy, environmental and resource aspects of sustainable development strategies; and (b) to predict the dynamical behaviour of  different types of organisation, which for example can depend on how its parts are connected, or how events in the system develop in time; sometimes chaotic fluctuations are followed by  sudden changes,  as occurs in organisational as well as volcanic eruptions and in the pattern of communications chatter before critical events.

Arguably, the world of science and decision making should be encouraged by the growing and open collaboration between different disciplines from economists to engineers and biologists in exploring new policies for dealing with natural disasters and societal failures with their global impacts.

Many international organisations, both public and private, are constructively involved.  Serious disruption has resulted, but long term physical and social disaster has been generally been averted.

In dealing with the multi-decadal problem of global warming and wholesale destruction of biodiversity, global systems analysis is even more relevant as a framework for considering all the scientific, technological and social interactions.

In addition it is accepted as a framework for specialists in countries with differing policies and scientific understanding to discuss controversial issues, as was evident at an EU-China seminar last May when China presented its policy position very clearly.

Hopefully, if this approach is adopted more widely, international scientific and political understanding will improve and practical climate change measures will be agreed before it is too late.

Picture Credit: Stray horses cross a road in Eyjafjoll May 16, 2010, as the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland continued to erupt with an ash plume reaching heights of 25,000 feet. REUTERS/Ingolfur Juliusson


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Three cheers for global systems dynamics! Systems thinking is really needed for a serious effort at resolving multiple interconnected global problems. Looking back, we can see that the efforts of past decades, using fragmented bit-at-a-time thinking, never stood a chance at turning things around.

The language of complex systems can be, well, complex. If it helps, I think of systems dynamics as what’s actually happening in the real world systems that we’re all part of. Systems thinking is a conscious attempt to perceive and understand what’s happening as a whole, without carving it up into the usual ‘manageable’ chunks. Systems modelling comes when we try to track what’s happening either at the level of systemic patterns or of quantitative data. All of this can be aimed at any point along the policy-making ‘river’ from upstream paradigm-defining worldviews to downstream ‘gosh, not another crisis!’.

Systems analysis (a general term for all of the above) has traditionally been arcane, involving brilliant minds, white coats and ever-more-powerful computers. The language didn’t fit within departmental attention spans and the funding didn’t include public dialogue. So of course no-one ever heard about it and, not coincidentally, the world’s problems worsened. It’s a joy to see some policy people (on the European stage) talking about systems and groups such as Lord Hunt’s Global Systems Dynamics coalescing.

This is a vital initiative. It offers a mindset that can get us all out of ‘the age of austerity’, so society should take care not to throw this baby out with the budgeting bath-water. For its part, the systems community can endeavour to remember that:
• models can make sense both on the back of an envelope and on-screen.
• we need policies that look upstream at patterns as well as downstream at complexity.
• we must rely firstly on our mental ‘wet-ware’ and only then on high-tech hardware.
• there must be genuine rich dialogue not just ticked-the-box consultation.

Together we can do more than map the future, we can invent it and make it happen!

Posted by jamesgreyson | Report as abusive

Hear, hear, James Greyson! I enjoyed your point regarding “wet-ware” first. You reminded me of a story Dr. Thomas Hunt Morgan told when he explained why he banned the use of Friden Calculators (early computers) from the Biology Department at Caltech. He said, “Well, I am like a guy who is prospecting for gold along the banks of the Sacramento River in 1849. With a little intelligence, I can reach down and pick up big nuggets of gold. And as long as I can do that, I’m not going to let any people in my department waste scarce resources in placer mining.” System Dynamics seems to be in the same fortunate position today.

Three cheers for System Dynamics indeed!

Posted by KevinPorter | Report as abusive

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