Bringing some light into the dark

By Tobias Sieg, IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program alumnus

IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program alumnus Tobias Sieg explains how risk assessments considering uncertainties can substantially contribute to better risk management and consequently to the prevention of economic impacts.

© Topdeq |

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Landscape 2018, extreme weather events and natural disasters are ranked among the top three global risks. For many regions, hydro-meteorological risks – in other words, weather or water related events like cyclones or floods that pose a threat to populations or the environment – constitute the biggest threat. This calls for a comprehensive scientific risk assessment with a particular focus on large associated uncertainties.

Assessing the risk of hydro-meteorological hazards without considering these uncertainties, is like entering a pitch-dark labyrinth. You have no idea where you are and where you will end up. If you enter with a flashlight, you might still not immediately know exactly where you will end up, but at least you can assess your possibilities for finding a way out.

We should all care to see those possibilities and to identify uncertainties, since the consequences of hydro-meteorological hazards can have severe impacts on socioeconomic systems, and global- and climate change could favor the occurrence of floods. An increase in extreme weather events, such as heavy precipitation can be expected along with an increasingly warmer climate. In combination with uncontrolled socioeconomic development, these extreme weather events could potentially trigger more intense hazardous flood events in the future. Appropriate management of their consequences is therefore required, starting from today, while pro-actively thinking about the future. To that end, risk management policy and practice need reliable estimates of direct and indirect economic impacts.

The reliability of existing estimates is usually quite low and, what is maybe even worse, they are not communicated properly. This may signal a false sense of certainty regarding the prediction of future climate-related risks.

In two recent studies, my co-authors and I developed and applied a novel method, which specifically focuses on the communication of the reliability of economic impact estimates and the associated uncertainties. The proposed representation of uncertainties enables us to shed some light on the possibilities of how a specific event can affect economic systems. As a Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participant with the IIASA Risk and Resilience Program, I applied the method together with my supervisors Thomas Schinko and Reinhard Mechler, to estimate the overall economic impacts of a major flood event in Germany in 2013.

The estimated overall economic impacts comprise both direct and indirect impacts. Direct impacts are usually caused by physical contact of the floodwater with buildings, while indirect impacts can also occur in regions that are not directly affected by a flood. For example, obstructions of the infrastructure can lead to delayed deliveries, in turn leading to negative impacts for the production of goods outside the flooded areas. The crucial novelty of this method is the integrated assessment of direct and indirect economic impacts. In particular, by considering how the uncertainties associated with the estimation of direct economic impacts propagate further into the estimates of indirect economic impacts.

Being able to reproduce what has happened in the past is essential to making credible predictions about what could potentially happen in the future. A comparison of reported direct economic impacts and model-based estimates reveals that the estimation technique already works quite reliably. The good news is that anyone can help to increase the predictive reliability even further. The method uses the crowdsourced OpenStreetMap dataset to identify affected buildings. The more detailed the given information about a building is, the more reliable the impact estimations can get.

Our study reveals that the potential of short-term indirect economic impacts (without considering recovery) are quite high. In fact, our results show that the indirect impacts can be as high as the direct economic impacts. Yet, this varies a lot for different economic sectors. The manufacturing sector, for instance, is much more affected by indirect economic impacts, since it is heavily dependent on well-functioning supply chains. This information can be used in emergency risk management where decisions have to be made about giving immediate help to companies of a specific sector to reduce high long-term indirect economic impacts.

We are now looking at different possibilities of how flood events could affect the economic system. Having a range of possibilities of the relation between these impacts makes them transferable between different regions with similar economic systems. Our results are therefore also relevant more broadly beyond the German case. This representation of uncertainties can help to get to a more credible and consistent risk assessment across all spatial scales. Thus, the method is able to potentially facilitate the fulfillment of some of the calls of the UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Detailed risk assessments considering uncertainties can substantially contribute to better risk management and consequently to the prevention of economic impacts – direct and indirect, both now and in the future.


[1] Sieg T, Schinko T, Vogel K, Mechler R, Merz B & Kreibich H (2019). Integrated assessment of short-term direct and indirect economic flood impacts including uncertainty quantification. PLoS ONE 14(4): e0212932. []

[2] Sieg T, Vogel K, Merz B & Kreibich H (2019). Seamless estimation of hydro-meteorological risk across spatial scales. Earth’s Future.

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.

Running global models in a castle in Europe

By Matt Cooper, PhD student at the Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland, and 2018 winner of the IIASA Peccei Award

I never pictured myself working in Europe.  I have always been an eager traveler, and I spent many years living, working and doing fieldwork in Africa and Asia before starting my PhD.  I was interested in topics like international development, environmental conservation, public health, and smallholder agriculture. These interests led me to my MA research in Mali, working for an NGO in Nairobi, and to helping found a National Park in the Philippines.  But Europe seemed like a remote possibility.  That was at least until fall 2017, when I was looking for opportunities to get abroad and gain some research experience for the following summer.  I was worried that I wouldn’t find many opportunities, because my PhD research was different from what I had previously done.  Rather than interviewing farmers or measuring trees in the field myself, I was running global models using data from satellites and other projects.  Since most funding for PhD students is for fieldwork, I wasn’t sure what kind of opportunities I would find.  However, luckily, I heard about an interesting opportunity called the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) at IIASA, and I decided to apply.

Participating in the YSSP turned out to be a great experience, both personally and professionally.  Vienna is a wonderful city to live in, and I quickly made friends with my fellow YSSPers.  Every weekend was filled with trips to the Alps or to nearby countries, and IIASA offers all sorts of activities during the week, from cultural festivals to triathlons.  I also received very helpful advice and research instruction from my supervisors at IIASA, who brought a wealth of experience to my research topic.  It felt very much as if I had found my kind of people among the international PhD students and academics at IIASA.  Freed from the distractions of teaching, I was also able to focus 100% on my research and I conducted the largest-ever analysis of drought and child malnutrition.

© Matt Cooper

Now, I am very grateful to have another summer at IIASA coming up, thanks to the Peccei Award. I will again focus on the impact climate shocks like drought have on child health.  however, I will build on last year’s research by looking at future scenarios of climate change and economic development.  Will greater prosperity offset the impacts of severe droughts and flooding on children in developing countries?  Or does climate change pose a hazard that will offset the global health gains of the past few decades?  These are the questions that I hope to answer during the coming summer, where my research will benefit from many of the future scenarios already developed at IIASA.

I can’t think of a better research institute to conduct this kind of systemic, global research than IIASA, and I can’t picture a more enjoyable place to live for a summer than Vienna.

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.

Closing funding gaps and building bridges with the IIASA network

By Marzena Anna Adamczuk, Development Officer, Office of Sponsored Research, IIASA

YSSP Fund recipients from 2011 to 2018

The 27 fellows smiling at you from the photograph are all part of the IIASA global network of system thinkers thanks to the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) Fund. The YSSP Fund accepts donations from the IIASA community and directs the proceeds to support young scholars who are not eligible to receive a stipend from an IIASA National Member Organization.

The IIASA experience has had a profound influence on the lives of previous recipients, and has brought them closer to answering some of their most pertinent research questions. J. Luke Irwin (2018 YSSP Fund), for example, was able to explore which jobs and skills are the least automation resilient and how policymakers and academic institutions should address future unemployment caused by automation. Another previous beneficiary of the fund, Diana Erazo (2016 YSSP Fund), looked at the transmission dynamics of Chagas disease – one of the most neglected tropical diseases in Latin America – and the most efficient strategies to contain it.

Since its inception in 2011, the YSSP Fund has opened the IIASA door to 27 young researchers from Ethiopia, Thailand, India, China, Colombia, Brazil, and many other countries. All these scholars have since become an important part of the IIASA worldwide network, enriching the institute’s research portfolio and planting the seeds of their newly acquired systems analysis expertise in their home countries.

This bridge-building and door-opening capacity of the YSSP Fund is what inspires many members of the IIASA family to support it every year. Ever since I was appointed as development officer at IIASA in 2014, I have been privileged to accept donations from former IIASA directors, eminent researchers, and renowned experts in a variety of fields. We are all united in our belief that supporting the YSSP Fund is a great investment in future generations of researchers and an important token of trust in IIASA and its flagship capacity-building program.

Many of our alumni donors are former YSSP fellows, who appreciate the impact the program has had on their careers. One of them is Petr Aven, who was part of the first YSSP cohort in 1977 and still remembers this experience as the best time of his life. Some of our alumni, who were themselves recipients of the YSSP Fund scholarship, see it as their duty and privilege to give back. One of our most distinguished donors, Dr. Roger Levien, former director of IIASA and the founder of the YSSP, hopes that his donations will help build a bridge between IIASA and Pardee RAND Graduate School, of which he is an alumnus as well. The motivation behind our most recent pledge from Professors Jyoti and Kirit Parikh is to expose young minds to systems analysis and to promote research-based policymaking.

After the annual fundraising campaign is over and the IIASA network lives up to the challenge for yet another year, I find it very gratifying to be able to channel the support coming from the IIASA community to the YSSP Fund recipients. My favorite time of the year is June when I get to meet the lucky recipients of the scholarships, learn all about their plans and ambitions for the summer at IIASA, and see how motivated they are to make the most of their time at the institute.

However, the real satisfaction kicks in when I see the YSSP Fund fellows thrive in their post-IIASA careers. With immense support from our alumni officer and the Communication Department, we take great pride in sharing their successes with the IIASA worldwide community. We see it as a token of gratitude to both the donors, who opened the IIASA door to them, as well as to their IIASA supervisors, who generously shared their expertise and continue to mentor them after their summer at the institute is over.

Speaking of successes, Gbemi Samuel (2017 YSSP Fund), the first Nigerian to ever participate in the program has recently published a well-received article in the Journal of African Population Studies describing her research on estimating how many children under five could be prevented from dying if women in Nigeria used cleaner fuels to cook their family meals. Lu Liu, a 2016 YSSP Fund recipient published her first-authored paper in Environmental Research Letters and had a poster presentation at the AGU Fall Meeting in Washington D.C. We are also very proud of Zhimin Mao’s (2015 YSSP Fund) post-IIASA career, starting from her IIASA Peccei Award in 2015 and leading up to her current position at the World Bank. We can hardly wait to boast about the successes and accomplishments of our 2018 YSSP Fund fellows and hope they will stay in touch.

Every donation to the YSSP Fund goes a long way. Help us close more funding gaps this summer and support the next generation of system thinkers!

2018 YSSP Fund recipients: (L-R) Ekaterina Antsygina, Luke Irwin, Sara Turner, Fabio Diuana, Ankita Srivastava, Muhammad Nurariffudin, Fumi Harahap

Support the 2019 YSSP Fund

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.