Interview: An empirical view of resilience and sustainability

University of Tokyo researcher Ali Kharrazi credits the 2012 IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) with strengthening his passion, and giving him the research skills, to make a positive impact on humanity and sustainable development. He continues to collaborate with the institute as a guest researcher.

Ali Kharrazi

What is your research focus?
I’m currently examining both theoretical and empirical dimensions related to resilience and the wider application of sustainability indices and metrics. Towards this end, I have lately completed a literature review of empirical approaches to the concept of resilience, examined the resilience of global trade growth, and examined the resilience of water services within a river basin network.

My future project includes the examination of the application of modularity for resilience and its impact on other system characteristics of resilience, such as redundancy, diversity, and efficiency. In addition, I am collecting more data on the water-energy-food nexus, to empirically examine the resilience of these critical coupled human-environmental systems to various shocks and disruptions. I am working with other researchers towards channeling the emergence of urban big data towards practical research in sustainability indices and metrics, especially those which are related to resilience. Finally, I am engaged in what may be called ‘action research’ towards better teaching and engaging the concept of resilience to students.

How do you define resilience for a layperson or a student?
At its simplest, resilience is the ability of a system to survive and adapt in the wake of a disturbance.

The concept of resilience has been dealt by various disciplines: psychology, engineering, ecology, and network sciences. The literature on resilience relevant to coupled social-environmental systems therefore is very scattered,  not approached quantitatively, and difficult to rely upon towards evidence based policy making. There are few empirical approaches to the concept of resilience. This makes it difficult to measure, quantify, communicate, and apply the concept to sustainability challenges.

In a recent study, Kharrazi explored the resilience of the Heihe river basin in China ©smiling_z | Shutterstock

What is missing from current approaches of studying resilience?
There is a need for more empirical advancements on the concept of resilience. Furthermore, empirical approaches need to be tested with real data and improved for their ability to measure and apply in policymaking. If you look at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the concept of resilience is used numerous times, however the indicators used to reflect the concept need to be improved to better reflect the elements of the concept of resilience. This includes the ability to consider adaptation, the ability to integrate social and environmental dimensions, and the ability to evaluate systems-level trade-offs.

We need to apply the different empirical approaches to the concept of resilience towards real-world sustainability challenges. With the emergence of big data, especially urban big data, we can better apply and improve these models.

How did you personally become interested in this field of research?
I always wanted to make a positive impact for humanity and our common interest in sustainable development. When I first started my PhD, my PhD supervisor at Tokyo University, Dr. Masaru Yarime, told me to always set your sight on the ‘vast blue ocean’ and how as researchers we should dedicate our time to  critically important yet less researched areas. Given the global discussions of SDGs and the Agenda 2020 at that time I became interested in the concept of resilience, its relationship to common sustainability challenges, and our inability to measure and quantify this importance concept. My research stay at IIASA and YSSP and especially my experience with the ASA group strengthened my passion to contribute to this area and therefore since my PhD I have continued to research in this area and apply it to various domains, such as energy, water, and trade.

How would you say IIASA has influenced your career?
Without IIASA and especially the YSSP in the Advanced Systems Analysis program, my academic career would have never taken off. I am truly indebted to the YSSP, where I learned how to engage in scientific research with others from diverse academic and cultural backgrounds and most importantly had the chance to publish high quality research papers. IIASA also gave me the chance to get experience in applying for international competitive funding schemes and truly believe in the importance of science diplomacy and influence of science on global governance of common human-environmental problems in our modern world.

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Ali Kharrazi, second from left, received his certificate with other participants of the 2012 YSSP

Kharrazi A, Akiyama T, Yu Y, & Li J (2016). Evaluating the evolution of the Heihe River basin using the ecological network analysis: Efficiency, resilience, and implications for water resource management policy. Science of the Total Environment 572: 688-696.

Kharrazi A, Fath B, & Katzmair H (2016). Advancing Empirical Approaches to the Concept of Resilience: A Critical Examination of Panarchy, Ecological Information, and Statistical Evidence. Sustainability 8 (9): e935.

Kharrazi A, Rovenskaya E, & Fath BD (2017). Network structure impacts global commodity trade growth and resilience. PLoS ONE 12 (2): e0171184.

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.

A world on the move

by Julia M. Puaschunder, alumna of the IIASA Young Scientist Summer Program 2016.

The world is on the move. Currently, more than 250 million people live outside their countries of birth. Of the moving masses, an estimated 6% are refugees fleeing across borders to more favorable environments. The ongoing European refugee crisis has increased the pressure to reap the benefits from migration while alleviating the burdens of societal movement.


Estimates of directional flows between 123 countries between 2005-2010. Only flows containing at least 50,000 migrants are shown. “The Global Flow of People” ( is by Nikola Sander, Guy Abel & Ramon Bauer, and published in Science as “Quantifying global international migration flows” in 2014 (vol. 343: 1520-152).

Concerns were recently raised as to whether granting asylum to refugees—who often make up the most productive parts of their original populations—prevents (re)development in their fractionated home countries? An important consideration absent in these debates are the monetary gifts migrants send to their family members back home.

The World Bank estimates that migrants currently return around 450 billion US Dollars per year to the developing countries they came from, and this number is expected to rise. These monetary remittances have multiple positive impacts, including economic growth. As refugees are primarily younger to middle-aged, their remittances likely pay for their wives and children’s access to medical care and education, or support their parents when pension systems are missing.

Intergenerational monetary transfers are therefore the focus of my recent publication Gifts Without Borders. Contrary to conventional institutionalized sustainable development, remittances grounded in intergenerational care benefit from communication within families. Long-lasting family ties allow direct feedback. People truly care about their loved ones back home and families share their day-to-day experiences honestly. Intergenerational remittances beyond borders are thus a purer and potentially longer-enduring pathway to sustainable development, as these stable funding streams’ impact is more accountable than standard international aid.

Based on World Bank and OECD data covering almost all countries of the world, my forthcoming publication in the book ‘Intergenerational Responsibility in the 21st Century’ highlights that the intergenerational glue of a migrating population helps countries lacking socially responsible and future-oriented public sectors. Rather than blaming asylum-granting countries for removing the labor force from fragile territories, hosting refugees is portrayed as making use of human capital in stable economies, while refugees—at the same time—develop their former homelands by direct monetary contributions in a natural, transparent, and accountable way. In the age of migration, analyzing intergenerational networks and their financial flows is an important, but unexplored, facet of sustainable development. My findings open prospective research avenues on how we can align the economic outcomes of human capital mobility with sustainable development.

The IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program granted a vibrant setting to discuss my findings in a group of international, diverse, and multi-disciplinary future academic leaders during this summer, which was filled with beautiful moments in the historic Schloss Laxenburg in Austria. Recently IIASA also launched a Joint Research Centre of Expertise with the European Commission on Population and Migration, which aims to predict how migration will impact future economies and societies. In addition, the Advanced Systems Analysis (ASA) Program hosts the ‘Economic migration, capital flows, and welfare’ collaboration between ASA and the World Population Program to model dynamics of economic migration and investment. This research is also directly related to my New School Economic Review paper ‘Putty Capital and Clay Labor: Differing European Union Capital and Labor Freedom Speeds in Times of European Migration,’ which elucidates trade differences in capital and labor flows gravitating the benefits and burdens of globalization unequally and the potential problems arising for the European project from migration.

The Alpbach-Laxenburg Group Retreat 2016 on ‘New Business Models for Sustainable Development’

The Alpbach-Laxenburg Group Retreat 2016 on New Business Models for Sustainable Development. © Matthias Silveri | IIASA


Above all, attending the IIASA 2016 Alpbach-Laxenburg Group Retreat at the European Forum Alpbach helped to enhance my understanding of the relationship between migration and intergenerational responsibility. All these endeavors are targeted at contributing to sustainable development in a world on the move.





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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.

How coordination can boost the resilience of complex supply chains

By Célian Colon, PhD student at the Ecole Polytechnique in France & IIASA Mikhalevich award winner

How can we best tackle risks in our complex and interconnected economies? With globalization and information technologies, people and processes are increasingly interdependent. Great ideas and innovations can spread like wildfire. However, so can turbulence and crises. The propagation of risks is a key concern for policymakers and business leaders. Take the example of production disruption: with global supply chains, local disasters or man-made accidents can propagate from one place to another, and generate significant impact. How can this be prevented?

Risk propagation is like a domino effect. Credit: Martin Fisch (cc) via Flickr

Risk propagation is like a domino effect. Credit: Martin Fisch (cc) via Flickr

As part of my PhD research, I met professionals on the ground and realized that supply risk propagation is a particularly tricky issue, since most parts of the chains are out of their control. Supply chains can be very long, and change with time. It is difficult to keep track of who is working with whom, and who is exposed to which hazard. How then can individual decisions mitigate systemic risks? This question directly connects to the deep nature of systemic problems: everyone is in the same boat, shaping it and interacting with each other, but no one is individually able to steer it. Surprising phenomena can emerge from such interactions, wonderfully illustrated by bird flocking and fish schooling.

As an applied mathematician thrilled by such complexities, I was enthusiastic to work on this question. I built a model where firms produce and interact through supply chain relationships. Pen and paper analyses helped me understand how a few firms could optimally react to disruptions. But to study the behavior of truly complex chains, I needed the calculation power of computers. I programmed networks involving a large number of firms, and I analyzed how localized failures spread throughout these networks, and generate aggregate losses. Given the supply strategy adopted by each firm, how could systemic risk be mitigated?

With my collaborators at IIASA, Åke Brännström, Elena Rovenskaya, and Ulf Dieckmann, we have highlighted the key role of coordination in managing risks. Each individual firm affects how risks propagate along the chain. If they all solely focus on maximizing their own profit, significant amounts of risk remain. But if they cooperate, and take into account the impact of their decisions on the risk profile of their trade partners, risk can be effectively mitigated. Reducing systemic risks can thus be seen as a common good: costs are heterogeneously borne by firms while benefits are shared. Interestingly, even in long supply chains, most systemic risks can be mitigated if firms only cooperate with only one or two partners. By facilitating coordination along critical supply chains, policy-makers can therefore contribute to the reduction of risk propagation.

Colon's model analyzes how firms produce and interact through supply chain relationships. Credit: Jan Buchholtz (cc) via Flickr

Colon’s model analyzes how firms produce and interact through supply chain relationships. Credit: Jan Buchholtz (cc) via Flickr

Drawing robust conclusions from such models is a real challenge. On this matter, I benefited from the experience of my IIASA supervisors. Their scientific intuitions greatly helped me focusing on the most fertile ground. It was particularly exciting to borrow techniques from evolutionary ecology and apply them to an economic context. Conceptually, how economic agents co-adapt and influence each other shares many similarities with the co-evolution of individuals in an ecological environment. To address such complex issues, I strongly believe in the plurality of approaches: by illuminating a problem from different angles, we can hope to see it more clearly!

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.

Climate change, bioenergy, and ozone in the EU

By Carlijn Hendriks, Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) & IIASA Peccei award winner

Last summer, I participated in IIASA’s Young Scientist Summer Program, working with the Mitigation of Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases and Ecosystems Services and Management programs. My research focused on what impacts the EU climate and air quality policy could have on ground level ozone around the middle of this century. While clean air policies should help reduce the pollution that can lead to ozone formation, we found that that climate change and energy policies will still increase ozone concentrations and damage by mid-century, unless stricter air pollution measures are implemented.

Ozone forms through reactions of various pollutants - a process that speeds up at higher temperatures. © Damián Bakarcic via Flickr

Ozone forms through reactions of various pollutants and chemicals in the atmosphere – a process that speeds up at higher temperatures. © Damián Bakarcic via Flickr

Ozone at ground level is an air pollutant, causing health and ecosystem problems. It is also an important component of summer smog. Ozone is not emitted into the atmosphere directly, but is produced when volatile organic carbons are oxidized in the presence of  nitrogen oxides and light. Nitrogen oxides are released into the atmosphere mainly as a result of combustion processes (like car engines and industry), while non-methane volatile organic carbons (NMVOCs)  come in large part from vegetation, especially broad-leaf trees and some fast-growing crops.

Part of the EU energy policy is to stimulate the use of sustainable biomass as an energy source. This could lead to expansion of commercial bioenergy crop production in plantations and an increasing use of  forests. While this may help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it will also increase NMVOC emissions. At the same time, EU air quality policies aim to reduce emissions of air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and man-made NMVOC. Because some steps in the ground level ozone formation process are driven by absorption of light and/or proceed faster with higher temperatures, climate change could lead to higher ground level ozone concentrations in the future.

The separate effects of these three trends on ground level ozone have been studied before, but the question remains: what will be the combined impact of a) an increase of bioenergy plantations, b) EU’s air quality policy and c) climate change on health and ecosystem damage from ground level ozone? And which of the trends is the most important? To answer these questions, I used three models to study two energy and air quality scenarios for Europe under current and possible future climate conditions.

Two energy scenarios calculated by the Price-Induced Market Equilibrium System (PRIMES) model form the basis of this work. We used a reference scenario and one in which Europe reaches 80% CO2 emission reduction in 2050. These energy scenarios were used as a basis to calculate air pollutant emissions with IIASA’s  Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollution Interactions and Synergies (GAINS) model. Then we put the same scenarios into IIASA’s Global Biosphere Model GLOBIOM to obtain the change in land cover because of increasing bioenergy demand. I combined these datasets in chemistry transport model LOTOS-EUROS (the model of choice at my home institute, TNO) to calculate the impact on ground level ozone concentrations across Europe. To simulate ‘future climate’ we used the year 2003, in which Europe had a very warm summer, with temperatures 2-5 °C higher than normal.

Difference in average ozone concentration (in µg/m3) between the current situation and the 80% CO2 reduction scenario in 2050 under future climate change conditions for the period April-September. Negative numbers mean a decrease in ozone levels.

Difference in average ozone concentration (in µg/m3) between the current situation and the 80% CO2 reduction scenario in 2050 under future climate change conditions for the period April-September. Negative numbers mean a decrease in ozone levels.

We found that especially for the CO2-reduction scenario, the increase in bioenergy production could cause a slight increase in ozone damage. However, the impact of reduced emissions because of more stringent air quality policies far outweighs this effect, leading to a net reduction of ozone damage. The third effect, more efficient ozone formation in a warming climate, is so strong that in 2050 ozone damage to human health could be worse than today, especially for northwestern Europe. Stringent air quality policies close to a maximum feasible reduction scenario would be needed to make sure that health and ecosystem damage towards the middle of the century is smaller than it is today.

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.

Interview: Can nature bounce back?

Jesse Ausubel is director of the Rockefeller University Program for the Human Environment. He was a participant in one of the first classes of IIASA’s Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP).

Please tell us about your current job – what is your major area of focus?
I do research and manage research.  My research primarily concerns sparing natural resources through changes in technology and consumer behavior.  The main projects I help manage are the Deep Carbon Observatory  (concerned with the origins of life and hydrocarbons) and the International Quiet Ocean Experiment (aiming to achieve a better soundscape of the oceans, including human additions of noise).

In your recent paper, Nature Rebounds, you present a hopeful view of environmental change which contrasts with many other views of the future. What makes you think your view is possible?
The paper looks objectively at the peaking of demand for many natural resources that has occurred in the USA and elsewhere since about 1990.  Demand for water, energy, land, and minerals is softening, while demand for information continues to soar.  Fortunately, information brings precision in production and consumption and spares other resources.  The result is, for example, huge regrowth of forests.  The global greening, or net growth of the terrestrial biosphere, allows re-wilding.  Ecological restoration inspires many people, although learning again to live in proximity to bears and wolves is not simple.

The American bald eagle population has recovered from endangered status. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife

The American bald eagle population has recovered from endangered status. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife

What would be the key changes humanity would need to make for this vision to come true at a global scale?
Most of what happens is not because humanity consciously and deliberately strategizes and makes changes.  The role of policy is vastly exaggerated.  French intellectual Bertrand de Jouvenel wrote in his profound 1945 book, Du Pouvoir, “politics is the last repository of hope. “ High tech tycoons Steve Jobs (Apple) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon) popularized tablets and e-readers and did more, together with the innovators in e-mail, to spare forests than all the forest activists and UN targets.  Good systems analysts find high leverage for sound directions like decoupling and recycling. Simply observing well, describing the world as it is, matters greatly and demands tremendous skill and dedication.

Ausubel wears the ribbon of the International Cosmos Prize, which he shared with other leaders of the Census of Marine Life program. Photo courtesy Jesse Ausubel

Ausubel wears the ribbon of the International Cosmos Prize, which he shared with other leaders of the Census of Marine Life program. Photo courtesy Jesse Ausubel

Please tell us about your YSSP work at IIASA? What were your questions, and what did you find?
I participated in the 1979 YSSP, the second class.  IIASA’s energy group had developed scenarios of how human activities might change climate. My task was to explore impacts of climate and adaptations.  The 1980 book Climatic Constraints and Human Activities summarizes much of what we learned. Most of the book still reads well.  Following climate today, I am reminded of the remark, “Everything has been said, but not everyone has had a chance to say it.”

How did the YSSP influence your career?
My YSSP summer encouraged a big drop in my disciplinary and national prejudices. My chief, Soviet hydrodynamicist Oleg Vasiliev, had great intellectual integrity.  We had a wonderful rapport and in fact in July I sent him best wishes for his 90th birthday.  Oleg invited me to stay in Laxenburg for two more years, which opened more avenues, most importantly collaborations with Cesare Marchetti, Nebojsa Nakicenovic, and Arnulf Gruebler which continue today. The YSSP class itself was lively and talented; John Birge, for example, has had a great career in operations research.  Finally, IIASA showed me the value of scientific cooperation between nations in conflict, and I have actively supported such cooperation ever since.
Ausubel, Jesse H. 2015. “Nature Rebounds.” Long Now Foundation Seminar, San Francisco, 13 January 2015.

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.