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.

The city resilient – some systems thinking

By Bruce Beck, Imperial College London and Michael ThompsonIIASA Risk, Policy and Vulnerability (RPV) Program.

What do Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in London, the now glorious heritage of Islington’s housing stock, and the cable-car system in Kathmandu for getting milk supplies to that city, all have in common?

An aerial view of the Emirates Stadium and surrounding area (credit: Peter McDermott/CC BY-SA 2.0)

They are (or were) all transformative in their own way. All are commendable outcomes from the process of city governance that we argue will be essential for Coping with Change, the subject of our working paper for the Foresight Future of Cities project. Each is a primary case study in the analysis of our paper. We call this kind of governance ‘clumsiness’. It is something that does not evoke any sense of the familiar attributes of suaveness, elegance, and consensuality implied and valued in most other kinds of governance. So what, then, makes this thing with such an awkward, provocative name so relevant to the future of cities?

Before and after: Islington’s clumsy and resilient resurgence.

Imagine the city being buffeted about by all manner of social, economic, and natural disturbances over time. There will be times for taking risks with the city’s affairs, and times for avoiding them, or managing them, even just absorbing them – 4 mutually exclusive ways of apprehending how the world works, as it were, and 4 accompanying styles of coping.

In the financial industry, this risk typology has been referred to as the 4 seasons of risk. These are strategically and qualitatively different macroscopic regimes of system behaviour; coping with change between one and another of them is every bit as strategically significant. Conventionally, we recognise only 2 of these regimes: those giving rise to boom and bust in the economy. They reflect just 2 of the 4 ways of understanding the world and acting within it. The nub of the distinctive advantage of clumsiness over other forms of governance for coping with change and transformation is the richness of its (fourfold) diversity of perspective, from which may derive resilience and adaptability in the city’s response to any disturbance – big or small, economic, social, or natural.

Clumsiness is most assuredly deeply participatory. Its process is assiduously supportive of robust, noisy, disputatious debate: witness the gyrations in the Arsenal, Islington, and (especially so) Kathmandu case studies. This is exactly as one should expect of any meaningful engagement among the city’s stakeholders: the public-sector agencies, community activists, private-sector businesses, and so on, all with their own vested interests. The 4 ways of seeing the world are mutually opposed; each is sustained in its opposition to the others, as will be the shaping of their aspirations for the future. Each needs the challenges from the others, not least to avoid the ‘group-think’ in governance that is of such considerable concern to government in managing financial risk.

At the peak of deliberative quality in governance, all 4 outlooks are granted access and responsiveness in the debate, in the process of clumsiness, in other words, in coming to a decision or policy — with ever higher social consent. And in the clumsiest of outcomes, each opposing group gets more of what it wants, and less of what it does not want, at least for a while, until everything about the city’s affairs is revisited once again, as the various seasons of risk come around, each holding sway in turn. As we say in our working paper, clumsiness is why village communities in the Himalayas and Swiss Alps have remained viable over the centuries, without destroying either themselves (‘man’) or their environments (‘nature’) – sustainability par excellence, in other words.

So now we must ask: can cities be viable and sustainable in the same way as these mountain villages? In particular, how can the city’s built environment – the infrastructure that mediates between nature and man, the natural and human environments – be made resilient and adaptable, especially in an ecological sense? Thus might we possess this much prized attribute of systems behaviour in each of the natural, built, and human environments, and in a mutually reinforcing manner. What role might clumsiness have in all of this?

In closing our working paper, where we “connect the systemic dots” of our entire argument, we touch upon a computational foresight study in seeking a smarter urban metabolism for London. The fourfold typology of clumsiness is employed to define future target aspirations for the city (quantitatively expressed, under gross uncertainty). These should be the distant outcomes of the fourfold narratives of how the world is believed to work and what it is that each attaching vested interest much wants – and decidedly does not want. An inverse sensitivity analysis (redolent of a computational backcasting) identifies what is key (and what redundant) to the ‘reachability’ (or not) of each of the 4 sets of aspirations for the distant future. Imagine then the urine-separating toilet (UST) as the clumsy solution to a smarter metabolism for London – a smarter way, that is, of the city’s processing of the resource flows of water, energy, carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus passing through its social-economic life. Rather more grandly put, imagine instead the UST as a “privileged, non-foreclosing policy-technology innovation” for today!

Well now … if clumsiness is such a jolly good thing, what else might it do for us and our cities? We submit it promises the prospect of greater resilience and adaptability in the governance of innovation ecosystems, extending thus the lines of evidence recounted for re-invigoration of the industrial economy of NE Ohio in Katz & Bradley’s recent (2013) book Metropolitan Revolution. ‘Resilience’ and ‘ecosystem’ are (for now) ubiquitous in our everyday language. But no-one, as far as we are aware, has thought of applying the immensely rich notion of ecological resilience to orchestrating the creative and clumsy affairs of an innovation ecosystem. We are currently examining this.

Read the full report

Featured image by Peter McDermott. Used under Creative Commons.

For further information on the Foresight Future of Cities project visit:

Interview: Aquatic invaders and ecological networks

Danielle Haak, who recently completed her PhD from the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has won the annual Peccei Award for her outstanding research as part of the 2014 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) in IIASA’s Advanced Systems Analysis research program.

Haak_postYSSP_IcelandCould you tell me a bit about yourself? Where are you from and what do you study?
I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (USA), and it was there I fell in love with the natural world. As a kid, my family and I spent weekends boating on Lake Michigan, and I’ve always been fascinated by lakes and the hidden world beneath the water’s surface. As an undergraduate, I spent a few summers in northern Wisconsin at a limnology research station, and this is where I realized I could actually make a career out of this fascination! I went on to get a BSc in Wildlife Ecology, a MSc in Biological Sciences, and I recently defended my PhD dissertation that focused on the energetics and habitat requirements of the invasive freshwater Chinese mystery snail. In general, I’m interested in aquatic invasive species and how their introduction affects ecosystem structure, functioning, and resilience.

How did you get interested in this subject?
I was drawn to aquatic invasive species during my undergraduate research. My first independent research project was on invasive crayfish in a northern Wisconsin lake; in addition to out-competing the native crayfish population, the invasive species suffered from a fungal disease outbreak, and we wanted to understand its prevalence throughout the lake. I also worked as a technician on a whole-lake study researching the efficacy of manual removal of an invasive crayfish species from another lake. It was a long-term project that successfully reduced the invasive rusty crayfish population enough that the native crayfish population was able to recover, and the entire lake underwent a drastic physical change as a result. These large-scale dynamics have always been appealing to me, and I knew it was something I wanted to pursue in my career. When I started my PhD at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, our research group had just started a number of side projects on the Chinese mystery snail, and there was an obvious gap in our scientific understanding of the species; thus, it made sense to take advantage of this opportunity!

What was the question you were trying to answer in your YSSP research project?
My YSSP project built upon my dissertation topic but went in a slightly different direction. My YSSP supervisor, Dr. Brian Fath, and I wanted to utilize the already-established methods of social and ecological network analyses, but in a way that hadn’t been done before. Ultimately, we had two main questions. First, we wanted to investigate how the social dynamics of ecosystems can be integrated into ecological network analysis. And second, we wanted to use network analysis to analyze the ecological effects and movement of the Chinese mystery snail in the southeast region of Nebraska.

What did you find?
Because there were a few parts to this research, we had a number of different results. First, we were able to create directed networks of how anglers and boaters moved among a network of flood-control reservoirs. We also developed ecological networks specific to each of the 19 reservoirs included in our study. Both of these findings were relevant by themselves, but the cool part was how we combined them. We adapted the framework of infectious disease network modeling to simulate what would happen within the first 25 years after a hypothetical introduction. The human movements connecting reservoirs were equivalent to a disease’s transmission rate, and the individual population growth of the snail within each reservoir after an introduction was like a disease’s incubation time leading up to a threshold where that reservoir then became contagious. We started with 5 infected and contagious reservoirs, and after 25 years only 5 of the 19 reservoirs did not have the Chinese mystery snail in it. Finally, we identified three of the already-infected reservoirs where preventing snails from being transported out of them would be most critical as well as two susceptible reservoirs where preventing introduction of the snails would be most beneficial.

Chinese Mystery Snail. Photo: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Doug Jensen

Chinese Mystery Snail. Photo: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Doug Jensen

Why is this research important for policy or society?
Our preliminary results demonstrated that social and ecological network models can be used in tandem, which has the potential to address a number of complex policy and management issues. Additionally, being able to prioritize reservoirs based on how effective prevention efforts would be allows managers to focus their limited resources in places they would get the best return on their investment. I believe there is also a great deal of potential in using this combined model approach to assess the spread of other aquatic invasive species of concern as well as other types of disturbances.  

How are you planning to continue this research when you return to IIASA?
I would like to work with Dr. Fath on refining some of my individual ecological network models, and possibly incorporating some of the additional social data that’s available to us. We also discussed possibly using the approach to look at other questions related to aquatic invasive species, but in different geographical regions and possibly with different software. One of the best parts of this project was coming up with so many questions on where we could go next, and I really enjoyed working with Dr. Fath and gaining a new perspective on the questions that interest me.

How did your time at IIASA affect your PhD research?
My time at IIASA refreshed my love of the scientific process, and I loved the flexibility in adjusting my project as I learned more and developed new questions. Ultimately, I ended up with an additional chapter for my dissertation and came home with a mostly-completed draft.

What was your favorite aspect of the YSSP and IIASA?
I loved so much about YSSP and working at IIASA, but the best part was probably the ability to meet other brilliant scientists and students from around the world. In addition to thought-provoking discussions on science and research, we also had some incredible discussions on life in other countries with drastically different cultures. The other students made the entire summer even better, and I’m so happy I was able to participate in such an incredible experience. IIASA has a truly unique work environment, and everyone made us feel right at home. It really was a dream come true, and I’m so excited about the opportunity to return and pick up where I left off. The only thing missing will be my fellow YSSPers! I wish we could all come back every summer!

What was your favorite moment of the summer?
I think my favorite experience was the end of summer workshop and dinner and dance that followed. I was so impressed during the initial presentations and it was great to hear about all the progress that was made in the short three months. Celebrating this progress with a night of dancing and dining was just the perfect ending to a great summer. It was a bittersweet farewell, but I think it cemented our friendships and was a great capstone to an already dreamlike experience!

Photo credit: Danielle Haak

Danielle Haak (right) and fellow YSSPer Adriana Reyes, at the end-of-summer awards ceremony.

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

Interview: From systems analysis to remote sensing

Eric F. Wood is a hydrologist at Princeton University, well-known for his work in hydrology, climate, and meteorology. He worked as a research scholar in IIASA’s Water program from 1974 to 1976. On 30 April, 2014, he received the European Geophysical Union’s Alfred Wegener Medal in Vienna, Austria.

credit - princeton

Eric F. Wood (Credit: Princeton University)

IIASA: How did you get interested in hydrology? What drew you to the field?
EW: I came to IIASA after I finished my doctorate at MIT. I worked in the areas of system analysis and statistics related to water resources. During my first sabbatical leave at the Institute of Hydrology in the UK (now the Center for Hydrology and Ecology), I started to collaborate with Keith Beven on hydrological modeling, which started my transition towards the physical side of the water cycle from the policy and systems analysis side.

A few years later, Robert Gurney, then at NASA and now at the University of Reading (UK), asked if I would be on the Science Advisory Committee for NASA’s Earth Observing System (EOS), which was just starting to be planned. This started my research activities in terrestrial remote sensing.   Over the next 25 years these elements have played heavily in my research activities.

What have been the biggest changes in hydrology and earth science over your career – either in terms of new understandings, or in how the science is done?
I can name three huge changes, all inter-connected: One is the increase in computational resources. High performance computing—petabyte computing using 500,000+ cores—is now available that allows us to simulate the terrestrial water and energy budgets using physics resolving land surface models at 100m to 1km resolutions over continental scales, and soon at global scales. The second big change is the availability of remotely sensed observations. There are satellite missions that have lasted far beyond their planned lifetimes, such as the NASA EOS Terra mission, where we now have over 15 years of consistent observations. These observations have been reprocessed as algorithms have improved so we can now use the information to understand environmental change at regional to global scales. The third major shift has been computer storage. Large amounts are available at low prices. We have about 500 Terabytes of RAID storage, and can acquire 150TB for about $10,000 or less. This allows us to store model simulations, remote sensing data, and do analyses that were once impossible. Together, these three changes have transformed my field, and the field of climate change related to terrestrial hydrology. Going forward, we have the data, the projections and analytical tools to look at water security in the 21st Century under environmental change.

What insights has remote sensing brought to hydrology?
Remote sensing offers a global consistency that is unavailable with in-situ observations, and offers observations over regions without ground data. This permits us to analyze hydrologic events such as droughts within a global context, and relate these hydrologic events to other drivers like ENSO (tropical Pacific sea surface temperature anomalies) that affect weather and seasonal climate patterns.

Credit: Carolina Reyes (distributed via

Wood’s work has focused in part on drought and climate change. Badwater, California, a huge salt flat drainage system for the Death Valley desert. Credit: Carolina Reyes (distributed via

What do you see as the key questions currently facing water resources?
The biggest question I see over the next decades is how water security will be affected by environmental change. By environmental change I mean climate change, global urbanization, increasing demand for food, land use and land cover change, pollution, etc. Water security is coupled to food and energy security, and water security is and it is intrinsically linked to the climate system and how that may be changing.

How did IIASA influence your research interests or career?
I made many friendships during my stay at IIASA and I was exposed to world-class research and researchers. This helped me in thinking about important research questions and the types of problems and research that will have impact.

What do you think is the role for IIASA in the worldwide research community?
There are many answers to this question. IIASA plays an important role in providing critical scientific information and analyses related to global issues that go beyond countries – transboundary analyses, and therefore that can provide the scientific basis for global policies. There is an urgent need for more global policies on environmental change and adaptation, food and water security, and environmental refugees, to name just a couple examples in my area.

IIASA has also developed scientific methods and data that can be applied by various groups. For example, IIASA’s world renowned integrated assessment models have been used in climate change modeling for the IPCC and Coupled Model intercomparison Project (CMIP).

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.

Alumni memories: nuclear reactors and energy models

By Alan McDonald, IIASA Alumnus (1979-82 and 1997-2000) and member of the IIASA Alumni Advisory Board

I stumbled on IIASA in 1975. I was 24 and working for General Electric’s Fast Breeder Reactor Department. I was supposed to figure out how safe General Electric should make its new breeder reactor, a type of nuclear reactor (The project later died when Jimmy Carter came to the White House and the uranium price plummeted). We researched what was going on around the world on determining acceptable risks. The best stuff was coming from this place outside Vienna called the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. We didn’t know IIASA was only two years old. We only knew its papers on determining acceptable risks were better than anyone else’s.

In 1977 I look a leave from GE to go to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. In my second year I was a teaching assistant for Howard Raiffa and took his seminar on the art and science of negotiation. After graduation, I asked if I could get a job at IIASA. Perhaps in an administrative capacity, he thought, since I didn’t have a PhD. If I wrote a page about why IIASA should consider me, he might forward it to Laxenburg.

Wolf Häfele hired me for what was then called the Energy Systems Program (ENP). It was 1979, six years after the Arab oil embargo, the creation of OPEC, and an explosion of energy studies in the US and other oil importing countries. All those national studies projected national oil demands exceeding supplies by varying amounts depending on the policies being modeled. Then they labeled the unmet demand “imports.” IIASA was the first to check if all those imports might add up to more than the oil exporters could export, and what might be done about it if they did. In addition, ENP developed the energy supply model MESSAGE, now used in multiple national and international studies. Cesare Marchetti’s logistic model taught humility about dreams of quick policy-driven transitions away from oil. And ENP still had some of the world’s best work on risk acceptance — which had the added benefit of provoking Mike Thompson to analyze the issue through the lens of cultural anthropology and generate a whole new set of useful insights.

I met my wife, Sue, at IIASA. She was in Personnel and, when I arrived, briefed me about leave slips and all the rest. Part way through, she stopped. “You’re not listening,” she said. “If I have questions, I can come back,” said I. I did, and I did.

Two and a half years later we left IIASA, got married and did a 5-month road-trip honeymoon around the US on the theory it might be another 50 years before we were again so unburdened with obligations (right so far). The trip ended in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The US membership in IIASA was being exiled from Washington to Cambridge due to Dick Pearle’s and President Reagan’s animosity. I joined up to pitch IIASA’s virtues to foundations, US corporations and anyone who’d listen in Washington. In pitching IIASA’s virtues, there was a lot to work with.

Now there’s even more.

IIASA Alumni Day will take place on April 29, 2014, and we are inviting alumni to send their memories and photos of their time at IIASA. For more alumni memories, see the IIASA Alumni Web page.

From left, Alan McDonald, Sue (Buffery) McDonald, David McDonald (no relation), Walter Foith, Linda Foith, and Bill Godwin-Toby taking a break during the July 4th games, 1980.

From left, Alan McDonald, Sue (Buffery) McDonald, David McDonald (no relation), Walter Foith, Linda Foith, and Bill Godwin-Toby taking a break during the July 4th games, 1980.



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.