Nothing new under the sun?

An interdisciplinary research project explores glo-cal entanglements of power and nature in 18th century Vienna

By Verena Winiwarter, Guest Research Scholar, IIASA Risk and Resilience Program, and Professor, Centre for Environmental History, Alpen-Adria-Universitaet Klagenfurt.

Nowadays, rulers turn to primetime TV events to demonstrate their power, be it putting men on the moon, testing missiles, or building walls. When the kings of France, in particular Louis XIV and XV, built Versailles, they had the same goals: To claim their leading role in Europe and make their mastery of nature and their subjects visible for all.

In the 1700s, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had to pull off a comparable feat, in particular as Emperor Charles VI had a huge constitutional problem: His only surviving child, a smart and pretty daughter, was not entitled to the throne. Only men could be emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. So while eventually, an international agreement allowed young Maria Theresia to succeed him, her position was clearly weak and would become contested right after her father’s death.

The construction of Vienna’ Schönbrunn Palace, and the taming of the river that flows by it, served as an international declaration of power by the Habsburgs and helped secure Maria Theresia’s position. Vienna, the Habsburg capital, already sported a summer palace in the game-rich riparian area to the west of the city center, close to a torrential, but rather small tributary of the Danube, the Wien River. Here, the leaders decided, a palace dwarfing Versailles should be built. One of the most famous architects of his time, J.B. Fischer von Erlach originally designed a grandiose structure that could never have been carried out. But it staked a claim and when seven years later, a more realistic plan was submitted, it became the actual blueprint of what today is one of Vienna’s most famous tourist sites.

Fischer v. Erlach’s second, more feasible design for Schönbrunn Palace (Public Domain | Wikimedia Commons)

While the kings of France built in a swamp and overcame a dearth of water by irrigation, the Habsburgs’ choice offered another opportunity to show just how absolute their rule was: the torrential Wien River had damaged the walls of the hunting preserve with its then much smaller palace several times. Putting the palace right there, into a dangerous spot, allowed the house of Habsburg to prove that their engineers were in control.

The flamboyant new palace was deliberately placed close to the Wien River, necessitating its local regulation. This had repercussions for those living up- and downstream, as flood regimes changed. Not all such change was beneficial, as constraining the river’s power meant that it found outlets elsewhere. In this case, European power struggles affected the course of a river, putting a strain on locals for the sake of global status.

In the 19th century, effects of global events and structures played out in favor of local health, when it came to building sewers along the by then heavily polluted Wien River. The 1815 eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia led to unusually heavy rains during the otherwise dry season and the proliferation of cholera, which British colonial soldiers brought to Europe. A cholera epidemic hit Vienna in 1831/32, creating momentum to finally build a main sewer along Wien River. The first proposals for a sewer date back to 1792; they were renewed in 1822, but due to urban inertia, the sewer was not built. Thousands of deaths (18,000 in recurring outbreaks between 1831-1873) called for a response, and from 1831 onwards, collection canals were built.

A global constellation had first affected locals negatively, but with long-term positive outcomes of much cleaner water.

We uncovered these stories of the glo-cal repercussions of Wien River management during the FWF-funded project URBWATER (P 25796-G18) at Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt with the joint effort of an interdisciplinary team. We have shown in several publications how urban development was intimately tied to the bigger and smaller surface waters and to groundwater availability, telling a co-evolutionary environmental history.

The overall development of the dammed and straightened, then covered river can be seen in science-based videos by team member Severin Hohensinner for 1755. At 2:00 in the video, the virtual flight nears Schönbrunn on the right bank, with the regulation measures visible as red lines. A comparison between 1755 and 2010 is also available. Both videos start with an aerial view of downtown Vienna and then turn to the headwaters of the Wien, progressing towards the center with the flow.

More on the project, including links to publications and images are available at,6536,URBWATER.html

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: A look back at the Young Scientists Summer Program

Former IIASA Director Roger Levien started the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) in the summer of 1977. After 40 years the program remains one of the institute’s most successful initiatives.

The idea for the YSSP came out of your own experience as a summer student at The RAND Corporation during your graduate studies. How did that experience inspire you to start the YSSP?
At RAND I was introduced to systems analysis and to working with colleagues from many different disciplines: mathematics, computer science, foreign policy, and economics. After that summer, I changed from a Master’s in Operations Research to a PhD program in Applied Mathematics and moved from MIT to Harvard, because I knew that I needed a broad doctorate to be a RAND systems analyst.

From that point on, I carried the knowledge that a summer experience at a ripe time in one’s life, as one is choosing their post university career, can be life transforming. It certainly was for me.

Roger Levien, left, with the first IIASA director Howard Raiffa, right. ©IIASA Archives

Why did you think IIASA would be a good place for such a summer program?
When I thought about such a program within the context of IIASA, it seemed to me that it would offer an even richer experience than mine at RAND. I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to bring young scientists from many nations  together in their graduate-program years at IIASA. At that time, systems analysis was not well-known anywhere outside of the United States, and even there it was not very well known. In universities interdisciplinary research, and especially applied policy research, was almost nonexistent.

This would be an opportunity to introduce systems analysis to graduate students from around the world, who were otherwise deeply involved in a single discipline. It would be fruitful to bring them together to learn about the uses of scientific analysis to address policy issues, and about working  both across disciplines and across nationalities.

What was your vision for the program?
I hoped that these students, who had been introduced to systems analysis at IIASA, would become an international network of analysts sharing a common understanding of international policy problems. And in the future, at international negotiations on issues of public policy, sitting behind the diplomats around the table would be technical experts, many of whom had been graduate students at IIASA, having worked on the same issue in a non-political international and interdisciplinary setting. At IIASA they would have developed a common language, a common way of thought, and perhaps working together at the negotiation they could use their shared view to help their seniors achieve success.  A pipe dream perhaps, but also an ideal and a vision of what people from different countries and different disciplines who had studied the same problem with an international system analysis approach could accomplish.

Social activities have been an important component of the YSSP since the beginning ©IIASA Archives

The program is celebrating its 40th year. Why do you think it has been so successful?
I think there are many reasons for success. But for one thing, it’s my impression that just having 50 enthusiastic young scientists around brings an infusion of energy, which is a great boost to the institute. The young scientists also bring findings and methods on the cutting edges of their disciplines to IIASA.

What would be your advice to young scientists coming this summer for the 2017 program
It would be to engage as deeply as you can and as broadly as you can. This is an opportunity to learn about many things that aren’t on the curriculum of any university program. So, now’s the time to engage not only with other disciplines, but with people from other nations, to get their perspective. The people you meet this summer can be lifelong contacts. They  can be your friends for life, your colleagues for life, and the opportunities that will open through them, though unpredictable, are bound to be invaluable, both professionally and personally.

This is a learning experience of an entirely different type from the typical graduate program, which goes deeper and deeper into a single discipline. You have a unique opportunity to go broader and wider, culturally, intellectually, and internationally.

 IIASA will be celebrating the YSSP 40th Anniversary with an event for alumni on June 20-21, 2017.

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.

A continuing transformation

By Aviott John, IIASA alumnus

Anyone who has seen before and after photos of Schloss Laxenburg—the home of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)—knows what an incredible physical transformation the building went through between 1972 and 1981 to become the home of IIASA.

Aviott John with his daughter Megala. He worked at IIASA for 37 years.

Aviott John with his daughter Megala. He worked at IIASA for 37 years.

The functional and organizational changes that happened inside Schloss Laxenburg as IIASA developed, were just as striking as the physical ones. Here was an abstract idea taking shape, not only in the wood and stone of Schloss Laxenburg, but in the various actions of people; in the recruitment of staff from more than 40 different nationalities who had never worked together before; in joint study programs to discover how large organizations work successfully under different political systems; and in the solution of common ecological problems in different parts of the world. No less important were the social interactions that formed the basis for deep friendships that ultimately provide the glue for successful international relations

Today the word globalization slips glibly off the tongue. The ability to travel was not so taken for granted in the world of the 1970s. There were many reasons for that, the most obvious being the political systems in place at the time and the relatively high financial cost of air travel. Today the challenge the Institute must face is perhaps not the financial cost of air travel, but its environmental cost. The Institute no longer just works across the divide between East and Western Europe as in Cold War days, but now across the barriers between developed and developing countries, on all continents of the world. And so the transformations continue. I feel privileged to have been an observer of some of these transformations for 37 years.

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. This post comes from Aviott John, longtime IIASA employee in the library and communications departments, who retired last year. To contribute, please contact IIASA Development Assistant Deirdre Zeller.

Before: View of the inner courtyard of Schloss Laxenburg, 1962

Before: View of the inner courtyard of Schloss Laxenburg, 1962

After: View of the Schloss Laxenburg inner courtyard after renovation in 1978

After: View of the Schloss Laxenburg inner courtyard after renovation in 1978

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.