A comment on the agenda for a Global Systems Science

As I stated at one of the Berlin workshops in December, my favored methodological approach when confronted with a set of interacting complex systems is to try to break them apart, and create SCENARIOS from plausible ways in which the systems might interact.  To somewhat oversimplify the approach to Global Systems Science described in this agenda, I don’t think one can have any realistic hope of creating one big model to represent the likely interactions among several complex systems such as the economy, the energy system, the ecological system, the food and agriculture system, the global patterns of land-use, etc.  It is even hard for me to conceive of developing a successful model to simulate the future of even one such system.  So the reason I would propose to focus Global Systems Science around the creation of interesting future scenarios (like the four the Tellus Institute has recently updated) is that the components of these scenarios are not overly “hard-wired” together in ways that we can not really justify.  Also, the scenario methodology will inherently come with the types of narratives which the agenda correctly describes as quite useful.

Another reason for supporting a scenario creation approach to global systems science is because the global data by region for almost all the key parameters needed to support creation of one big simulation model (agent-based or otherwise) is terrible.  The poor quality of most data does not make it amenable, in my view, to the kind of intensive analysis described in the agenda, so I would also drop that approach.  When one creates complex scenarios for interacting complex systems, our experience is that a lot of data for various regions of the world has to be made up, based on comparisons to other regions.

To me, the key requirement for creating interesting scenarios for the future of our planet is intelligent and creative analysts who can actively consider futures that others dismiss.  Anyway, the key goal of Global Systems Science in my view, is to lay out a plausible set of scenarios that can be used to guide the world to a better future.  So to me, trying to simulate the future based on a set of equations in a model is somewhat besides the point.  The key set of questions we need to ask and answer is how we can change human behavior and both the individual and collective level to change the relevant set of complex sub-systems in the ways we want to change them.

Comments on my perspective above will be much appreciated.

— Rich Rosen, Senior Fellow, Tellus Institute, Boston

2 thoughts on “A comment on the agenda for a Global Systems Science”

  1. Indeed the whole idea of GSS is to ‘answer how we can change human behavior on both the individual and collective level’ by use of ,among others, models of systerms and of behaviour.
    If this important aspect is not clearly coming out of the orientation paper it is urgent to correct that.
    GSS is about construction the future (and the use of science as a help) not about predicting it.
    GSS is about using science to help society engage in the right type of dialogues, not imposing on society a science view of the world.

    But GSS is also about ensuring that such dialogues are based on facts not hearsay. This is why models and data are of the essence.

  2. First of all, thank you Rich, for your thoughtful post! For the convenience of the readers, let me indicate a link to one of the sources that document your approach: http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/2/8/2626. Of course, searching for “Tellus scenarios” and related stuff on the web is also worth the effort.

    You argue forcefully that we should “focus Global Systems Science around the creation of interesting future scenarios”. I’d rather see this as one of several key tasks, but clearly it is a major task for GSS. If I understand you correctly, you suggest to consider a global system as consisting of several interacting complex systems and to develop narratives around plausible ways these subsystems might interact. And you also mention that we should do so in view of how we want to change them.

    That makes sense to me, and I would like to expand your sketch in two directions. First, any given global system operates in some environment, and it is often useful to be explicit about that, too. The environment of the internet e.g. includes the solar system, the tradition of mathematics, global markets, and much more. Just in case you should have the impression from some of my work that I would like to see a “model of everything”, this is one reason why I don’t. And second, human ecological systems come with packages of norms of values, and it is quite important to pay attention to them. Believing, with Talcott Parsons, that social systems are built around a normative consensus is probably going a bit too far – in reality there usually are conflicting norms and values, but they definitely matter. I still think that Max Weber gave very good advice on scenario building when he said that in the social sciences one should design ideal types by taking some value orientation present in a system and push it as far as possible.

    I still consider that the best scientific methodology is the one of Christophorus Columbus, who set sails to find a new way to the Indies, discovered America instead, and did not realize it. Therefore, at the present embryonic state of GSS I am more interested in creating useful scenarios than in trying to pin down how best to create them. With regard to ICT, it seems to me that two important scenarios can be developed around the labels of “Luxor” and “Athens”.

    In Ancient Egypt, a small elite had some extremely useful understanding of the regular flooding produced by the river Nile and of astronomy. They embedded this understanding in a colorful symbolic universe of gods and the afterlife (and by the way their symbolic universe had great beauty). The vast majority of the population worked hard in the agricultural system made possible by that knowledge but had no clue about it. In the 21st century, we may well live with a global ICT infrastructure based on the sophisticated technical knowledge of an exclusive elite, where that knowledge is embedded in science-fiction-like ideas of spiritual machines, super-human intelligence and more. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the population will work hard in a world shaped by that infrastructure, with their minds connected by the same infrastructure to an endless stream of entertainment.

    In the Ancient city state of Athens, first rate intellectual discoveries were embedded in a culture where the citizenry as a whole was involved in a web of conversations that included the smartest people in town, too. There were many things that I don’t like about ancient Athens, as there are many things that I don’t like about the world I live in. But the point is that in the 21st century we may live with a global ICT infrastructure in such a way that this infrastructure facilitates what some philosophers call the conversation of humankind. People all over the world would then be ICT-literate in ways that shield them – as well as the ICT whiz kids – from superstition.

    It is clear that these two scenarios build on value orientations present in our global culture, and it is also clear that they have a lot to do with the future of democracy. So they may be relevant to GSS, including the question of how to nudge things more towards “Athens” than “Luxor”.

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