All posts by open-gss

Models and Narratives

Models and Narratives for Policy in the Digital Age


Conveners: Steven Bishop, Peter Baudains, Ilan Chabay

Raison d’etre

Models are increasingly being used to address problems over different scales, hierarchies, and policy domains to develop a so-called ‘global systems science’. Such models—whether heuristic, analytical, or computational—are approximations tailored to specific contexts and questions. To be useful they must be understood, particularly by decision-makers, but also by society at large and this typically only takes place through the lens of a narrative. Indeed decision-makers often require narratives of policy issues to be prepared for them within a short time-scale.


Model outputs can provide the backbone of a narrative for a particular scenario or policy option. This is then clothed in different forms of expression, argument and storytelling. There is currently insufficient understanding into how such narratives can be constructed in such a way as to also clearly communicate the limitations and assumptions built into that model. We need to explore how to couple models of globally connected systems with narratives in culturally appropriate forms in order to offer insight and options that are generated by the models themselves.


To achieve this coupling, we need a better understanding of the emergence of narratives through social interactions, particularly in the face of a changing media landscape, facilitated by new and ubiquitous digital communication. This is because, as well as being formed directly from a scientific model, narratives can emerge through social interaction. The scientific backbone of a narrative can often be entirely overwhelmed or suppressed by narratives based on social and cultural identity. How can stories, games and art, perhaps embedded in digital communication, be used to bridge the gap between scientific models, policy-makers and citizens? Detecting socially emerging narratives from social media data may lead to the prediction of social trends and enable decision-makers to gauge responses to different policy options on short time-scales.


This workshop will consider how narratives fit into the developing research agenda focused on the use of ICT and models for global policy decisions, with the aim being to identify the crucial research questions for narratives in global systems science from the perspective of both global policy challenges and also ICT.



Workshop format

The first session will begin with an introduction to the workshop. This introduction will comprise of some framing talks by Steven Bishop, Julian Hunt (via video recording) and Ilan Chabay. During these introductory comments, a series of questions (see below) will be introduced, which aim to address the research area to be discussed during the workshop at a relatively high conceptual level. These will be circulated among participants beforehand. The workshop participants will be invited to respond to these questions.


The workshop will firstly discuss whether these questions are appropriate or whether they need to be re-framed. It will be considered whether or not these questions are sufficient, necessary, and specific for the research topic in the context of a science of global systems.


The workshops will then proceed with an open discussion to be chaired by Ilan and Steven, during which each question will be addressed in turn, and specific research challenges that fall under each of the questions will be determined. A list of these research challenges will be recorded during the discussions and displayed on the projector. These will form the basis of the subsequent scientific report.


A provisional agenda is shown below:


Thursday 8th November 17.00 – 19.00

17.00 Introductory talks and questions (Steven Bishop, Julian Hunt, Ilan Chabay)

17.30 Response by participants

18.00 Discussion on suitability of proposed questions

18.50 Agreement on questions


Friday 9th November 14.30 – 16.30

Discussion of each question in turn, specifying specific research challenges.



Proposed Research Questions

The questions we initially pose are outlined below:


  • What are the links between models and scenarios of Global Systems Science and the narratives derived from them, as expressed in different forms, cultures and communities? How can ICT help express such narratives?


  • How might a useful public understanding, including by policy-makers and corporate leaders, of Global Systems Science, via associated narratives, be developed to more effectively support decision-making?


  • How can ICT be used to assess the impact of a narrative on attitudes and collective behaviour change in diverse communities and across spatial and temporal scales?


  • How might digital methods (models, ICT) and their users and analogue methods (performance, non-digital 2 and 3 dimensional art) and their users interact and collaborate in creating narratives in order to initiate positive social change?


City Systems Workshops

Chair: Sander van der Leeuw, Arizona State University





Session 1: Thursday 8th November 15.15 – 16.45:

General: this set of three sessions is intended to generate questions and new ideas for future research. I therefore suggest that after a very quick round of introductions and two very brief introductory statements for each session(that I will invite personally), we devote all our time to discussion.

In order to facilitate that, I would like to receive from anyone who is so inclined, tentative answers to the ‘What’ and ‘How’ questions formulated for each session. That will greatly help me steer the sessions to a productive result.


Main questions


  • What drives the seemingly inexorable growth of urban systems?
  • What might level off this growth?
  • What would a generalizable theory of urban systems look like?


  • How would we collect, and deal with, the data?
  • How could we model it?
  • How could we derive scenarios from the models?
  • How might such a model serve to improve decision-making?



Contributors / participants:


Luis Bettencourt. Ricardo Herranz, Denise Pumain, Jose Javier Ramasco, Moritz Remig, Wanglin Yan, Maxi San Miguel, Alan Wilson, Michel Morvan, David Lane




Session 2: Friday, 9th November 2012, 14.30 – 16.30:

Main questions:



  • What would a sustainable city look like?
  • What would make urban systems more sustainable?
  • What are the trade-offs that would need to be dealt with?
  • What kinds of institutional change would this require?
  • What kinds of policies would need to be put in place?


  • How could we mobilize society to that effect?
  • How could ICT play a role in this process?
  • How could ICT create a synthesis between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’?


Contributors / participants:


Vittorio Loretto, David Lane, Michel Morvan, Denise Pumain, Maxi San Miguel, Alan Wilson, Luis Bettencourt. Ricardo Herranz, Jose Javier Ramasco, Moritz Remig, Wanglin Yan


Session 3: Saturday November 10th, 9.30 – 10.30


Chairs: Carlo Jaeger and Sander van der Leeuw


This workshop will be oriented to identify and discuss common questions between the different workshops following the insights gained from the previous discussions. So the topics will be adapted to the results of the prior days.




Anyone of the above (and the Global Systems Science sessions) that is still present and interested




Climate Resilience Workshops

Two Workshops on Global Systems Science and Sustainability Challenges

Chair: Diana Mangalagiu


The understanding and governance of global systems – social, economic and ecological (socio-eco-eco) – raises questions about systemic risks and multi-scalar resilience. This requires new systemic perspectives in science and policy and the development of models and analyses that span the whole range of scales and domains. Global Systems Science (GSS) should find novel responses to the unsustainable trends of global socio-eco-eco systems by developing a new set of approaches to system modeling and governance. GSS should explore the role of ICT in linking various global systems, in fostering global learning communities and awareness, and developing new methodologies and decision support systems for global governance. The role of ICT here is twofold: bring the necessary knowledge (data on the state of the world, models, and data on societal and individual behaviors) and provide a means for new forms of societal organization to better cope and anticipate (systemic and emergent) risks.

In this workshop, we look into the global sustainability challenges through two different perspectives:  1/ from the challenge of extreme events and 2/ through the link between global climate policy and the financial crisis and global markets.



1/ Global sustainability and the challenge of extreme events

Traditionally, the main sources of risks – hazard, exposure and vulnerability to extreme events – tend to be dealt with separately. We will inquire how to better integrate risk management and governance and build pathways towards more resilient global interconnected societies.

Questions we would like to address include (but are not limited to):

  • What is unique of global systems risks and the resilience of global systems (functioning)?
  • What the challenges of extreme events mean for the reconceptualization of risk and resilience of global systems?
  • How can our current knowledge support change processes? What is needed in order to reduce risks and better manage disasters?
  • How to deal with the multi-scalar sources of instability in global systems?
  • How to tackle the multi-dimensional aspects of disasters (natural disaster, pandemic etc.)?
  • How to combine adaptability with transformability of systems? How to implement ‘extreme adaptation policies’? How to harness transformability?
  • How can resilience to disasters be increased in a time of global economic crises, decreasing resource availability at local, national and international levels? How can more be achieved with less?
  • What is the role of data (e.g. data through sensors, in a smart city context)?
  • How to deal with the cognitive and empowerment issues at the core of global challenges? What is the role of social media in this process?
    • E.g., the global environmental change and sustainability issues have been framed as a collective problem rather than an individual one.  Is there a need to bring it back to the individual level and if yes, how?
    • E.g., Individual and collective risk perceptions influence the allocation of resources and investment decisions. How models can better take such aspects into account?


  • What role can ICT play in?
    • Preventing disasters: E.g. Early warning systems; learning from previous disasters; disaster-related citizen participation; use of social media in mobilizing and activating information thus empowering citizens and help build resilient communities;
    • Response times to disasters: E.g. Search and rescue technology and expertise; improvement of disaster investigation systems using smart phones, GPS, sensors, social media for gathering valuable information in real-time (providing situational updates, geo-location information, situation awareness etc.);
    • Disaster recovery: E.g. Coordination of National Disaster Management Systems; public health and telemedicine during disaster recovery.



2/ The link between global climate policy and the financial crisis and global markets perspective

Today there is compelling evidence that at the heart of the global financial crisis there is a capital crisis from the energy flows imbalance (two third of global imbalances are due to energy). This raises the questions of the sustainability of a globalized open financial system dependent on fossil fuel and of its consequences in terms of systemic issues. A possible response is to tackle jointly the governance of energy systems – in which the climate can be thought an unwanted negative effect of its malfunctioning – with the governance of information systems, in which the financial systems are also part. Thus reforming climate and financial issues could be thought as two key pillars in the move toward an integrated strategy for a green transformation. A green transformation strategy could offer the opportunity to address the current financial and economic crisis by turning sufficient amounts of financial capital into entrepreneurial investment. Transforming the cities, businesses, energy systems and homes jointly with making the best use of information systems, including ICT and knowledge about transparency and governance of monetary flows so as to increase welfare while reducing damages to the environment is great opportunity and a tremendous challenge at the same time. Moreover, given the scale of the finance required, combined with tightening fiscal constraints in most industrialized countries, the challenge to leverage significant investment is.

Questions we would like to address include (but are not limited to):

  • What type of science for what type of world? That is, it does not make sense to answer what type of science we want if we don’t know or make explicitly what type of world we want.
  • Do we want a GSS to do the same as today? Or do we want a GSS for a different type of society(ies)? Is GSS as we can conceive of it today possible without the ICT tools at our disposal?
  • How can GSS help addressing systemic risk, finance and the sustainability challenges together?
  • How to bring into focus the long-term nature of both sustainability issues and long term-finance needed?
  • How to tackle the issue of risk transfer from private to public sector (there are similarities in this respect between the financial crisis issues and the sustainability issues)? How can data and models of risk help in better regulation?
  • How the broadening scope of information available for decision-making changes our conception of money and its role in how society functions? How changing the nature of information can change the nature of decision-making? Money is information but we know the system is fundamentally flawed and our balance sheet is broken – blind to a wide range of issues that matter greatly in terms of risk matrix that went global and multi-scalar with long supply chains and shadow (i.e., invisible) dependencies.
  • What role ICT plays in a differentiated globalization? As ICT allows the emergence of different forms of local economies, it may push us in the direction of a new type of globalization with a re-evaluation of the nature, risks and opportunities in managing supply chains. Can ICT help us to rebalance supply chains based on their length, risks and social payoffs they bring by making visible and bringing into the decision making new dimensions reflecting forms of social capital invisible otherwise?
  • How to use ICT to provide opportunities for public engagement, political participation, more sustainable consumption and altogether societal change?

On equilibrium and bad economics for the global system

Orthodox economists, including New Keynesians such as Paul Krugman, think that economies eventually converge to equilibrium. This thinking can lead to the idea of a “return to normal” after any recession or depression, when the depth and especially the length of the recession might instead lead to a lowering of expectation by investors and a consequent lowering of the long-term growth rate.
It is very helpful to abandon equilibrium as an organising concept in understanding the processing at work during recessions and in forming expectations about climate change mitigation and carbon prices. It is helpful to realise that the interacting economies in the world system are not in equilibrium (or disequilibrium for that matter) but in a chaotic but remarkably orders dance with some outcomes more stable through time than others. Abandoning equilibrium also downgrades the search for the global social optimum in modelling. We can expose the absurd assumptions of the benign global dictator required to solve integrated assessment models (IAMs) of climate change economics such as William Nordhaus’s DICE family of models.


Terry Barker

4CMR, University of Cambridge