By Anne Goujon, IIASA World Population Program and Vienna Institute of Demography

How will societies develop in the future? And what environmental, economic, and social factors will influence these changes? Can these problems be analyzed in a scientific way? And if so, what tools should we use? On 13 June, I took part in a workshop for a project aimed at answering these questions.

This was the second workshop organized by the Forward Looking Analysis of Grand Societal Challenges and Innovative Policies (FLAGSHIP) project, supported by the European Commission under FP7 and aiming at developing new policies to help solve major social problems.

The workshop took place in Nanterre, France.

The workshop took place in Nanterre, France. Photo Credit: Bladsurb via Flickr

I participated in a round table where we discussed how to find tools for forward-looking analysis and how to develop and integrate them to analyze societal change. This implies the integration of different models (economic, territorial, environmental), which can be very challenging. It can be difficult to avoid overlaps between models, and also to account for possible feedback effects between different factors. We discussed how to choose between two overlapping outputs such as two different GDP projections produced by environmental and economic models. Shall we try to validate the models historically by checking which model is best able to reconstruct the past? A nice idea, but most researchers agreed it would be too time and data-intensive to be practical. Another alternative, much less rigorous but easier to implement, would be to compare the results of the two models and decide which one is the best among the FLAGSHIP team. But according to which criteria? The last alternative would be to decide upfront which model should provide which outcome. It is almost a philosophical decision to be made as none is right or wrong.

Innovation seems to be at the core of all models for the future of Europe, encapsulating more than Information and Communication Technologies and Research and Development, but also incorporating other components such organizational capital – the share of a firm at management level. At the moment, FLAGSHIP is envisaging two storylines for the future—namely socio-ecological transition and global growth—which are actually not very far from some of the Shared Socioeconomic Pathway (SSP) scenarios developed by IIASA and others for the 5th assessment of the IPCC . Another IIASA researcher, Samir K.C. presented these scenarios at the meeting as an invited expert.

In a 2011 Science article, IIASA researchers Wolfgang Lutz and Samir KC showed the importance of population heterogeneity, specifically related to age, sex, and level of education, whenever population is an important driver of change. At the workshop, KC talked about the steps involved in the process of developing global demographic and human capital scenarios for the SSPs, with an emphasis on the importance of dialogue, discussion, and interactive iteration between the demographers and the user community in shaping the quality of the product. He recommended more consultation between the demographers and other experts in the FLAGSHIP project to produce consistent and meaningful demographic narratives. He also argued that existing scenarios such as SSPs should be explored and might be useful with some alterations.

Since the project looks at the next 50 years, rather short-term from a demographic point of view, population will possibly enter the whole model with just one scenario.

More information
FLAGSHIP Project 2nd Workshop
EU FLAGSHIP Project Web site