Science without policy is science, but policy without science is gambling

By Géza Tóth, Sustainability Manager Tropical Oils, SBU Ferrero and IIASA alumnus

This famous sentence providing the catchy title for my blog and inspiration throughout my professional career comes from David Grey, who was one of my great mentors at IIASA.

During my seven years at the institute, I had the opportunity to work with several research programs where I had to find my way in various disciplines. Even though I was not the typical modeler, I was fortunate to work with patient tutors and great leaders who were supporting my development and triggering constructive thoughts. I was eager to learn about the crosscutting nature of global challenges and transversal opportunities. As a natural consequence, I found myself migrating between many IIASA programs and roles, constantly on the lookout for new challenges.

I completed a multidisciplinary PhD alongside my regular work at IIASA and changed titles and topics several times. I was into regional development and sustainability dynamics of post-war geographies where you cannot omit any influencing factors, whether it be political, environmental, or socioeconomic in nature. As I look back, I believe my overall results would not be complete without the flexibility and inclusiveness that I had the privilege of experiencing at IIASA.

When I moved into the food industry, I realized that everything I had learnt at IIASA, especially the systems thinking, come in handy when tackling the complex sustainability problems the industry faces. I have always liked connecting dots and fostering collaboration. While it is difficult to pitch policy-relevant research results, I believe there is a clear business case in bringing science and industry closer together.

© Nolimit46 | Dreamstime.com

Our global food supply chains are increasingly untraceable and so we have to connect a multitude of dots. Yet, industry is a very complex animal, driven by powerful shareholder corporations with a clear business agenda. IIASA can predict futures of our declining resources, influencing social aspects, even costs and required investments of businesses. Nevertheless, transforming industry does not depend on scientific facts and publications alone. What we need is to be able to translate scientific findings into innovations that will break current business rules or even disrupt them.

I feel that one of the biggest challenges of industry is to hear and understand the voice of science. Trading is a straightforward business where sustainability can be managed by compliance. As part of my responsibility of managing palm oil supply chain sustainability at Ferrero, I learned that in consumer goods manufacturing, consumers are the main drivers for Corporate Social Responsibility actions and their behavior and consumption patterns are changing.

Severe environmental destruction and unethical labor issues heavily affect the palm oil sector. The production and trade of agricultural commodities follow the rapidly increasing demand for food but, ironically, the amount of food waste and number of hungry people is also tipping. While European policymakers send contradicting messages about whether to eat palm oil or burn it in car engines, the destruction of ancient forests has reached unprecedented levels. Time is of the essence and science must have its voice heard in the language of industry, politicians and consumers. We cannot afford to work in silos. It is time to collaborate and finally link science with people.

The IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) is a unique platform and I am convinced that the positive impact it creates is enormous. Although I was never officially part of the YSSP, I interacted with the participants every year and felt like one of them. Highly skilled young thinkers come together from all around the world, influence and learn from each other under IIASA mentorship and are bound to end up in various disciplines and roles out there. They will surely know how to translate applied science into the right language and channel.

As a family-owned global company, Ferrero is one of the few businesses that is able to make long-term systematic plans and has a successful history of working with a forward looking and constructive vision. Its potential to be a lighthouse model for the industry is enormous and thus its responsibility too. It should therefore come as no surprise that supporting the YSSP program was a natural first step in Ferrero’s collaboration with IIASA.

It is not easy to explain what IIASA does and how it is relevant for the industry. It is equally difficult to illustrate it with good examples. IIASA scientists have however been helping me a lot to identify appropriate channels. I hope there will be more outputs from IIASA in the future that translate science into the business case allowing us in the industry sector to connect more dots.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Creativity: a change in thinking for a sustainable future

Laura Mononen in Passage

Laura Mononen experiencing a creative ”world flow” in the art installation ‘Passage’ by Matej Kren in Bratislava | © Kati Niiles


By Sandra Ortellado, IIASA 2018 Science Communication Fellow

If fashion is the science of appearances, what can beauty and aesthetics tell us about the way we perceive the world, and how it influences us in turn?

From cognitive science research, we know that aesthetics not only influence superficial appearances, but also the deeper ways we think and experience. So, too, do all kinds of creative thinking create change in the same way: as our perceptions of the world around us changes, the world we create changes with them.

From the merchandizing shelves of H&M and Vero Moda to doctoral research at the Faculty of Information Technology at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, 2018 YSSP participant Laura Mononen has seen product delivery from all angles. Whether dealing with commercialized goods or intellectual knowledge, Mononen knows that creativity is all about a change in thinking, and changing thinking is all about product delivery.

“During my career in the fashion and clothing industry, I saw the different levels of production when we sent designs to factories, received clothing back, and then persuaded customers to buy them. It was all happening very effectively,” says Mononen.

But Mononen saw potential for product delivery beyond selling people things they don’t need. She wanted to transfer the efficiency of the fashion world in creating changes in thinking to the efforts to build a sustainable world.

“Entrepreneurs make change with products and companies, fashion change trends and sell them. I’m really interested in applying this kind of change to science policy and communication,” says Mononen. “We treat these fields as though they are completely different, but the thing that is common is humans and their thinking and behaving.”

Often, change must happen in our thinking first before we can act. That’s why Mononen is getting her doctorate in cognitive science. Her YSSP project involved heavy analysis of systems theories of creativity to find patterns in the way we think about creativity, which has been constantly changing over time.

In the past, creativity was seen as an ability that was characteristic of only certain very gifted individuals. The research focused on traits and psychological factors. Today, the thinking on creativity has shifted towards a more holistic view, incorporating interactions and relationships between larger systems. Instead of being viewed as a lightning bolt of inspiration, creativity is now seen as more of a gradual process.

New understandings of creativity also call on us to embrace paradoxes and chaos, see ourselves as part of nature rather than separate from it, experience the world through aesthetics, pay careful attention to our perception and how we communicate it, and transmit culture to the next generation.

Perhaps most importantly, Mononen found in her research that the understanding of creativity has changed to be seen as part of a process of self-creation as well as co-creation.

“The way we see creativity also influences ourselves. For example if I ask someone if they are creative, it’s the way they see themselves that influences how creative they are,” says Mononen. “I have found that it’s more crucial to us than I thought, creativity is everywhere and it’s everyday and we are sharing our creativity with others who are using that to do something themselves and so on.”

This means on the one hand that we use our creativity to decide who we are and how we see the world around us for ourselves. But it also means that the outcomes and benefits of creativity are now intended for society as a whole rather than purely for individuals, as it was in the past. It may sound like another paradox, but being able to embrace ambiguity and complexity and take charge of our role in a larger system is important for creating a sustainable future.

“From the IIASA perspective this finding brings hope because the more people see themselves as part of systems of creating things, the more we can encourage sustainable thinking, since nature is a part of the resources we use to create,” says Mononen.

Mononen says a systems understanding of creativity is especially important for people in leadership positions. If a large institution needs new and innovative solutions and technology, but doesn’t have the thinking that values and promotes creativity, then the cooperative, open-minded process of building is stifled.

Working in both the fashion industry and academic research, Mononen has encountered narrow-minded attitudes towards art and science firsthand.

“Communicating your research is very difficult coming from my background, because you don’t know how the other person is interpreting what you say,” says Mononen. “People have different ideas of what fashion and aesthetics are, how important they are and what they do. Additionally, scientific concepts are used differently in different fields.”

“We are often thinking that once we get information out there, then people will understand, but there are much more complex things going on to make change and create influence in settings that combine several different fields.” says Mononen.

For Mononen, the biggest lesson is that creativity can enhance the efforts of science towards a sustainable world simply by encouraging us to be aware of our own thinking, how it differs from that of others, and how it affects all of us.

“When you become more aware of your ways of thinking, you become more effective at communicating,” says Mononen. “It’s not always that way and it’s very challenging, but that’s what the research on creativity from a systems perspective is saying.”

Insights into the future of agriculture from past human climate change responses

Ancestral Puebloans

© Marcus Thomson

By Marcus Thomson, researcher, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

While living in Cairo in 2010, I witnessed first-hand the human toll of political and environmental disasters that washed over Africa at the end of the last century. Unprecedented numbers of migrants were pressing into North Africa, many pushed out of their homelands by conflict and state-failure, pulled towards safer, richer, less fragile places like Europe. Throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, climate change was driving up competition for scarce land and water, and raising pressure on farmers to maintain the quantity and quality of their crops.

It is a similar story throughout the developing world, where many farmers do without the use of expensive chemical fertilizer and pesticides, complex irrigation, or boutique seed varieties. They rely instead on traditional land management practices that developed over long periods with consistent, predictable conditions. It is difficult to predict how dryland farmers will respond to climate change; so it is challenging to plan for various social, economic, and political problems expected to develop under, or be exacerbated by, climate change. Will it spur innovation or, as has been argued for the Syrian civil war[1], set up conflict? A major stumbling block is that the dynamics of human social behavior are so difficult to model.

Instead of attempting to predict farmers’ responses to climate change by modelling human behavior, we can look to the responses to environmental changes of farmers from the past as analogues for many subsistence farmers of the future. Methods to fill in historical gaps, and reconstruct the prehistoric record, are valuable because they expand the set of observed cases of societal-scale responses to environmental change. For instance, some 2000 years ago, an expansive maize-growing cultural complex, the Ancestral Puebloans (APs), was well established in the arid American Southwest. By AD 1000, members of this AP complex produced unique and innovative material culture including the famed “Great Houses”, the largest built structures in the United States until the 19th century. However, between AD 1150 and 1350, there was a profound demographic transformation throughout the Southwest linked to climate change. We now know that many APs migrated elsewhere. As a PhD student at the University of California, Los Angeles, I wondered whether a shift to cooler, more variable conditions of the “Little Ice Age” (LIA, roughly AD 1300 to 1850) was linked to the production of their staple crop, maize.

I came to IIASA as a YSSP in 2016 to collaborate with crop modelers on this question, and our work has just been published in the journal Quaternary International.[2] I brought with me high-resolution data from a state-of-the-art climate model to drive the crop simulations, and AP site information collected by archaeologists. Because AP maize was quite different from modern corn, I worked with IIASA soil scientist Juraj Balkovič to modify the crop simulator with parameters derived from heirloom varieties still grown by indigenous peoples in the Southwest. I and IIASA economic geographer Tamás Krisztin developed a statistical technique to analyze the dynamical relationship between AP site occupation and simulated yield outcomes.

We found that for the most climate-stressed high-elevation sites, abandonments were most associated with increased year-to-year yield variability; and for the least stressed low-elevation and well-watered sites, abandonment was more likely due to endogenous stressors, such as soil degradation and population pressure. Crucially, we found that across all regions, populations peaked during periods of the most stable year-to-year crop yields, even though these were also relatively warm and dry periods. In short, we found that AP maize farmers adapted well to gradually rising temperatures and drought, during the MCA, but failed to adapt to increased climate variability after ~AD 1150, during the LIA. Because increased variability is one of the near certainties for dryland farming zones under global warming, the AP experience offers a cautionary example of the limits of low-technology adaptation to climate change, a business-as-usual direction for many sub-Saharan dryland farmers.

This is a lesson from the past that policymakers might take note of.

[1] Kelley, C. P., Mohtadi, S., Cane, M. A., Seager, R., & Kushnir, Y. (2015). Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201421533.

[2] Thomson, M. J., Balkovič, J., Krisztin, T., MacDonald, G. M. (2018). Simulated crop yield for Zea mays for Fremont Ancestral Puebloan sites in Utah between 850-1499 CE based on temperature dailies from a statistically downscaled climate model. Quaternary International. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2018.09.031

Volunteering for our climate – An interview with YSSP participant Yuping Bai

by Melina Filzinger, IIASA Science Communication Fellow

Yuping Bai is a participant of the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) and a first year PhD candidate at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research. She is working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading international body for the assessment of climate change, as a chapter scientist for their Special Report on Climate Change and Land. I recently had the chance to talk to her about her engagement as a chapter scientist.

© Yuping Bai

What is the aim of the IPCC special report on climate change and land?

Compared to the IPCC comprehensive assessment reports, this special report really focuses in depth on the linkages and inter-relationship between climate change, land use, and food security. It aims to propose sustainable land-based solutions towards climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. We all know that climate change is an important issue and the connections between climate change and land use change are extremely complex. The report will include many different topics like land degradation, desertification, greenhouse gas fluxes and food security. Understanding the links between these diverse issues is particularly important for informing decision making by governments, as well as private sectors, to address challenges in land use change and governance.

What is a chapter scientist?

Chapter scientists are early-career researchers that support the development process of the individual report chapters. IPCC asked for volunteers who are required to dedicate at least one-third full time equivalent over a 2.5-year period while working from their home institutions. The chapter scientists were chosen based on expertise, motivation, time availability, and experience in working in a multi-cultural context. There are ten chapter scientists in total working on the report, one or two for each chapter.

How do you contribute to the report?

I am assigned to Chapter 1, which provides the framing and context for the report. Part of my job has been organizational tasks, for example managing our referencing system, scheduling online meetings, tracking down key literature, assisting in the design and development of figures and tables, and assisting in compiling, revising, and organizing chapter contributions. On the other hand, I have also been involved in  developing the overall concept of our chapter and can voice my ideas and express my views. Chapter 1 raises the key issues related to land use and sustainable land management for climate adaptation and climate resilience, and provides the concepts and definitions needed to understand the rest of the report.

In fact, many of these topics are closely related to my PhD research and my YSSP project. The YSSP experience significantly broadened my knowledge on climate change and land related topics, and at the same time deepened my understanding of the cross-scale complexity of the issues. After three months, I feel that I’m much better equipped to contribute to the future work for the chapter.

Why did you decide to volunteer so much of your time?

As a chapter scientist I have the chance to participate in discussions on some of the most pressing and important issues in the world. I also have the unique possibility to work with some of the world leading scientists in their respective fields. Therefore, I think it’s an important opportunity to make contacts and to gain insight into the work of the IPCC.

What has your experience been so far?

I’m the youngest one of the chapter scientists, so I felt a bit overwhelmed at first, particularly as I was suddenly rubbing shoulders with some of the brightest, most established academics and researchers on the planet. In this first half year, I attended the second lead author meeting and have been involved in the first draft of the report. During busy periods leading up to key deadlines, such as the submission of the drafts, my hours peaked, and the pressure built. But don’t let this frighten you. It is possible to learn on the job! It helped that everyone made me feel so welcome and valued. I have definitely learned a lot. My research is very specialized, and my work with the IPCC has helped me gain a broader view on climate change and the problems that are connected to it.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Reimagining the workforce of the future

© SasinTipchai | Shutterstock

By Sandra Ortellado, 2018 Science Communication Fellow

Science fiction depicts the future with a combination of fascination and fear. While artificial intelligence (AI) could take us beyond the limits of human error, dystopic scenes of world domination reveal our greatest fear: that humans are no match for machines, especially in the job market. But in the so-called fourth industrial revolution, often known as Industry 4.0, the line between future and fiction is a thread of reality.

Over the next 13 years, impending automation could force as many as 70 million workers in the US to find another way to make money. The role of technology is not only growing but also demanding a completely new way of thinking about the work we do and our impact on society because of it.

Rather than focusing on which jobs will disappear because of technological disruption, we could be identifying the most resilient tasks within jobs, says J. Luke Irwin, 2018 YSSP participant. His research in the IIASA World Population program uses a role- and task-based analysis to investigate professions that will be most resilient to technological disruption, with the hope of guiding workforce development policy and training programs.

“We are getting better and better at programming algorithms for machines to do things that we thought were really only in the realm of humans,” says Irwin. “The amount of disruption that’s going to happen to the work industry in the next ten years is really going to impact everyone.”

However, the fear and instability created by the potential disruption elicit chaos, and the response is hard to organize into constructive action. While the resources remain untapped, creativity and imagination are wasted on speculation instead of preparation.

“I couldn’t stand that there’s all this great evidence-based work out there about how we can improve people’s lives and no one is using it,” said Irwin, “I’m trying to align a lot of research and put it in a place where you can compare it and make it more useful and more transferable between the people who would be talking about this: educators, policymakers, employers, and anybody in the workforce.”

Using a German dataset with vocational training as well as time and task information, Irwin will break down jobs into the specific cognitive and physical skills involved and rank the durability of each skill.

Based on the identified jobs and skills, Irwin will go on to draw connections between labor-force capabilities and education policies. His goal is to scale the findings of the most resilient skills to the German labor system so that policymakers and academic institutions can retrain currently displaced workforces and reimagine the future of human work.

After all, while about half the duties workers currently handle could be automated, Mckinsey Global Institute suggests that less than 5% of occupations could be entirely taken over by computers. The future of predictable, repetitive, and purely quantitative work may be threatened, but automation could also open the door for occupations we can’t even imagine yet.

“I think people are amazing and that they have a lot more potential than we are currently capable of fulfilling,” says Irwin.

The World Economic Forum estimates that 65% of children today will end up in careers that don’t even exist yet. For now, an increasingly self-employed millennial generation works insecure, unprotected jobs. The new gig economy, characterized by temporary contracted positions, offers independence but also instability in the labor market.

Without stable work, people lose a sense of security, and that can be dangerous for a policy system that isn’t built to handle uncertainty.

The last industrial revolution caused two or three generations of people to be thrown into poverty and lose everything they had because it was all tied into their job, recalls Irwin.

“Everything gets bad when things are uncertain,” says Irwin, “And this is a very uncertain time. We need to have a better idea of what’s coming so we can actually make some change.”

Irwin, who earned his Master’s in Public Health in 2014, wants his work to have a preventative focus, trying to find those things that not enough people are talking about, but have the potential to make a huge impact on public well-being.

“Especially in the United States, where I live, we’re so tied up with our jobs—it seems like it’s over half our identity,” says Irwin, “We live to work in America.”

In a place like the US, where a job is not only a source of income, but also an identity and a health factor, Irwin’s research offers hope that technological disruption can foster opportunity instead of chaos.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Estimating risk across Africa

by Melina Filzinger, IIASA Science Communication Fellow

Having just finished tenth grade, Lillian Petersen from New Mexico, USA is currently spending the summer at IIASA, working with researchers from both the Ecosystems Services and Management (ESM), and Risk and Resilience (RISK) programs on developing risk models for all African countries.

At a talk Petersen gave at the Los Alamos Nature Center/Pajarito Environmental Education Center, her method for predicting food shortages in Africa from satellite images caught the attention of Molly Jahn from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Jahn, who is collaborating with the ESM and RISK programs at IIASA, was so impressed with Petersen’s work that she added her to her research group and connected her to IIASA researchers for a joint project.

One of the indicators used to estimate poverty in Nigeria. © Lillian Petersen | IIASA

Knowing which areas are at risk for disasters like conflict, disease outbreak, or famine is often an important first step for preventing their occurrence. In developed countries, there is already a lot of work being done to estimate these risks. In developing countries, however, a lack of data often hinders risk modeling, even though these countries are often most at risk for disasters.

Many humanitarian crises, like famine, are closely connected to poverty. However, high resolution poverty estimates are only available for a few African countries. This is why Petersen and her colleagues are developing methods to obtain those poverty estimates for all of Africa using freely available data, like maps showing major roads and cities, as well as high-resolution satellite images. Information about poverty in a certain region can be extracted from this data by considering several indicators. For example, areas that are close to major roads or cities, or those that have a large amount of lighting at night, meaning that electricity is available, are usually less poor than those without these features. The researchers are also analyzing the trading potential with neighboring countries, the land cover type, and distance to major shipping routes, such as waterways.

As no single one of these indicators can perfectly predict poverty, the scientists combine them. They “train” their model using the countries for which poverty data exists: A comparison of the model’s output and the real data helps to reveal which combination of indicators gives a reliable estimate of poverty. Following this, they plan to apply that knowledge in order to accurately predict poverty with high spatial resolution over the entire African continent.

Poverty data for Nigeria in 2010 (left) and poverty estimates based on five different indicators (right). © Lillian Petersen | IIASA

Once these estimates exist, Petersen and her colleagues will apply risk models to find out which areas are particularly vulnerable to disease outbreaks, famine, and conflicts. “I hope that this research will inform policymakers about which populations are most at risk for humanitarian crises, so that they can target these populations systematically in aid programs,” says Petersen, adding that preventing a disaster is generally cheaper than dealing with its aftermath.

The skills Petersen is using for her research are largely self-taught. After learning computer programming with the help of a book when she was in fifth grade, Petersen conducted her first research project on the effect of El Nino on the winter weather in the US when she was in seventh grade. “It was a small project, but I was pretty excited to obtain scientific results from raw data,” she says. After this first success she has been building up her skills every year, by competing at science fairs across the US with her research projects.

Her internship at IIASA gives Petersen access to the resources she needs to take her research to the next level. “Getting feedback from some of the top scientists in the field here at IIASA is definitely improving my work,’’ she says. Petersen is hoping to publish a paper about her project next year, and wants to major in applied mathematics after she finishes high school.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.