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International Crises and the value of Global System Dynamics

Lord Professor Julian Hunt – Visiting Professor at Delft University of Technology 

This article was published on Reuters The Great Debate UK on June 15th 2010

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

•    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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.
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.

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?
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

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 systems
and to engage with novel forms of interaction with policy, with regard to problems that
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

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.

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.
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