Opening up creative spaces for critical thinking

By Nour Barakeh, Alpbach Learning Program Co-manager, European Forum Alpbach, Austria

“I don’t want this war to end. I grew up carrying my weapon and fighting. I have lost everything. I can’t remember the shape of my life, my dreams, before war.”

I still remember my shock when a 23-year-old man said these words to me while I was traveling from city to city in Syria to interview young people about their opinions on the present and their dreams for the future.

Nour Barakeh

In the decades long absence of a collective and free political atmosphere in the country, being critical about social issues, seeking knowledge for deep understanding despite the lack of real and reliable recourses, and doing research was immensely difficult, and at times even dangerous. I however firmly believe that the power of sharing ideas cannot be overestimated.

This brings us to the value of education. When I was younger, I was lucky enough to have been able to complete my academic studies in Syria – I am a trained pharmacist. Unfortunately, most people in Syria today have a very different experience. One only needs to look at the number of children living in camps around the country – children who have had to stop their education due to military conflict. Not to mention the number of young people involved in military life, and all of the others forced to suspend their education for any number of reasons.

In light of this, in 2013, a group of young activists and I who were living in Damascus, decided to change our work approach from what can be described as an emotionally supportive level to an approach focused on opening up creative spaces for critical thinking. Creative spaces for analyzing and exchanging thoughts, fears, and visions about our current situation. We organized art workshops during which we could work around political issues without the danger of being directly involved in them.

After three years of conducting these workshops, I noticed recurring themes. I started doing social research in an effort to predict the post-war period and the possibilities of rebuilding our country with realistic data aimed at addressing the causes of the underlying problems rather than just the consequences. That was how I started traveling around Syria and meeting people through my research.

It was also during this time that I discovered just how isolated we really were, each of us in our individual communities. We didn’t know each other. In addition, in the absence of the aforementioned collective and free political atmosphere in Syria, we were deprived of understanding our shared problems, which forced us to become involved in imagined conflicts based on assumed divisions.

This realization led me to a series of questions. If we could imagine that the war in Syria hadn’t yet started, how could the war have been avoided? Furthermore, how could we build sustained peace in our country? The emphasis here is of course on the word “build”, because peace cannot be imposed on societies. Achieving sustained peace is the fulfillment of revolutions aimed at rooted changes.

Migraspectives – a dance theater game © FFAB | IIASA

In my own life, sometime after doing those interviews in Syria, I was lucky enough to immigrate to Austria. Here, I see peace represented as a culture. I have experienced it through close contact with people, with their way of life, and their psychological structure. I am convinced that the fact that peace has been achieved in this country is the most important factor contributing to progress, not only on a general economic, political, and social level, but also on the level of human consciousness.

Therefore, for me, achieving peace has taken its place next to the rest of the Sustainable Development Goals as a main factor to close the circle of our interrelated world. An expression of interconnected problems that can only be solved on a global level.

In trying to realize the mechanisms of our interrelated world however, my interaction with the culture in Austria has forced me to re-evaluate concepts such as identity and nationality. Forced me to revisit these and other concepts that has been used to create conflicts and to break down awareness of our shared interests and shared pains as human beings.

All of this has motivated me to become more open to a broader sense of belonging, to global citizenship where we can see the full picture and everyone can contribute to the common good. Not as an idealistic dream, but rather, as a necessary condition for our survival.

We need to have one eye on the microscope and the other on the telescope. We need to combine all sectors to achieve the desired impact.

In my work with my partners and colleagues, this has meant combining scientific studies and artistic work through projects like the art-science performance Migraspectives* at the IIASA/JRC Evidence and Policy Summer School, to support the establishment of sustainable educational projects focused on empowering people to transcend the effects of war. It is a method of involving audiences in tricky topics such as migration, and realizing that data alone cannot be the only tool to reach people in making a change, and trying to bridge the gap between researchers, policymakers, and society.

*Migraspectives is a research project that involves artists and scientists in exploring the current debate on Migration through the lense of diverse and often conflicting world-views. The project culminated in a participatory performance during the Summer School for Evidence and Policy, organised by IIASA and the European Commissions Joint Research Center under the auspices of the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, where a new approach to solution finding with an audience of researchers and policymakers from 40 countries was tried out for the first time.

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 legacy of systems analysis in South Africa: when young scientists become global leaders

By Sandra Ortellado, IIASA Science Communication Fellow 2018

In 2007, Sepo Hachigonta was a first-year PhD student studying crop and climate modeling and member of the YSSP cohort. Today, he is the director in the strategic partnership directorate at the National Research Foundation (NRF) in South Africa and one of the editors of the recently launched book Systems Analysis for Complex Global Challenges, which summarizes systems analysis research and its policy implications for issues in South Africa.

From left: Gansen Pillay, Deputy Chief Executive Officer: Research and Innovation Support and Advancement, NRF, Sepo Hachigonta, Editor, Priscilla Mensah, Editor, David Katerere, Editor, Andreas Roodt Editor

But the YSSP program is what first planted the seed for systems analysis thinking, he says, with lots of potential for growth.

Through his YSSP experience, Hachigonta saw that his research could impact the policy system within his home country of South Africa and the nearby region, and he forged lasting bonds with his peers. Together, they were able to think broadly about both academic and cultural issues, giving them the tools to challenge uncertainty and lead systems analysis research across the globe.

 Afterwards, Hachigonta spent four years as part of a team leading the NRF, the South African IIASA national member organization (NMO), as well as the Southern African Young Scientists Summer Program (SA-YSSP), which later matured into the South African Systems Analysis Centre. The impressive accomplishments that resulted from these programs deserved to be recognized and highlighted, says Hachigonta, so he and his colleagues collected several years’ worth of research and learning into the book, a collaboration between both IIASA and South African experts.

“After we looked back at the investment we put in the YSSP, we had lots of programs that were happening in South Africa, and lots of publications and collaboration that we wanted to reignite,” said Hachigonta. “We want to look at the issues that we tackled with system analysis as well as the impact of our collaborations with IIASA.”

Now, many years into the relationship between IIASA and South Africa, that partnership has grown.

Between 2012 and 2015, the number of joint programs and collaborations between IIASA and South Africa increased substantially, and the SA-YSSP taught systems analysis skills to over 80 doctoral students from 30 countries, including 35 young scholars from South Africa.

In fact, several of the co-authors are former SA-YSSP alumni and supervisors turned experts in their fields.

“We wanted to use the book as a barometer to show that thanks to NMO public entity funding, students have matured and developed into experts and are able to use what they learned towards the betterment of the people,” says Hachigonta. The book is localized towards issues in South Africa, so it will bring home ideas about how to apply systems analysis thinking to problems like HIV and economic inequality, he adds.

“It’s not just a modeling component in the book, it still speaks to issues that are faced by society.”

Complex social dilemmas like these require clear and thoughtful communication for broader audiences, so the abstracts of the book are organized in sections to discuss how each chapter aligns systems analysis with policymaking and social improvement. That way, the reader can look at the abstract to make sense of the chapter without going into the modeling details.

“Systems analysis is like a black box, we do it every day but don’t learn what exactly it is. But in different countries and different sectors, people are always using systems analysis methodologies,” said Hachigonta, “so we’re hoping this book will enlighten the research community as well as other stakeholders on what systems analysis is and how it can be used to understand some of the challenges that we have.”

“Enlightenment” is a poetic way to frame their goal: recalling the age of human reason that popularized science and paved the way for political revolutions, Hachigonta knows the value of passing down years of intellectual heritage from one cohort of researchers to the next.

“You are watching this seed that was planted grow over time, which keeps you motivated,” says Hachigonta.

“Looking back, I am where I am now because of my involvement with IIASA 11 years ago, which has been shaping my life and the leadership role I’ve been playing within South Africa ever since.”

Science and the media – An interview with Anne Glover

by Melina Filzinger, IIASA Science Communication Fellow

As a science communication fellow at IIASA, I had the opportunity to talk to Dame Anne Glover, who was recently made an IIASA distinguished visiting fellow. Originally a successful researcher in microbiology, she previously served as the first chief scientific adviser for Scotland, as well as the first chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission, and is now president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

© Anne Glover

In your roles as scientific adviser you had to know about a broad range of relevant scientific topics. How do you keep informed about topics that lie outside your own area of research?

Of course no-one can be an expert in all the different areas of science. As a microbiologist, I am very specialized, but I am also a generalist when it comes to other areas of research. I keep up to date by reading articles about lots of different topics, from climate change to chemical toxicity or Alzheimer’s research, just because I am curious and interested.

However, if a minister or policymaker asked me to brief them on a particular topic, I would consult organizations with expertise in that area and ask them questions until I felt that I understood the topic. Then I would translate that scientific, often jargon-filled research into something that makes sense to a non-specialist. Part of the role as scientific adviser is not so much being an expert as being a translator.

Do you follow any science publications aimed at a broad audience? What are your favorites?

There is an organization called Sense about Science that publishes reports on issues that are being discussed among the public. They also have a fabulous service called Ask for evidence. Anyone can go onto their website and type a question, for example “Do female contraceptive pills end up feminizing fish in water streams?”, and they have a panel of experts that can comment on that, give you the evidence, and explain why this issue might or might not be a problem. It’s fantastic! I often use these answers as a starting point to find out about something.

I follow several other popular news outlets as well, for example New Scientist or the science and nature section of the BBC news app. I don’t expect absolute accuracy from those, I just expect to get a first impression of a research area. I also use Twitter as a source of information, because people often tweet about interesting science articles.

You are very active on Twitter. Has social media been useful to you, and how can it be used effectively?

I came to Twitter kicking and screaming when I joined the European Commission as chief scientific adviser to the president. I just thought that I had way too much to do to spend time on social media. It was Jan Marco Müller, a former colleague and now head of the directorate office at IIASA, who convinced me that Twitter could actually be a good way to tell people what I was doing, especially since transparency about my work is very important to me.

Have I found it useful? Enormously so! When I was at the commission I used it to see what really got people excited, either in a good way or in a bad way. When people were against a new technology, it helped me to understand their reasons. Tweeting is also an opportunity for me to help other people by highlighting interesting and useful events or initiatives. It can even be a little bit addictive.

How can science communicators and journalists reach a wide audience without oversimplifying scientific content?

The biggest nervousness I see among scientists is that of oversimplification. That is because, if you do oversimplify, you’re not going to upset your lay audience, but you will upset your scientific audience. I struggled with this for quite some time myself. Generally speaking, I would always favor simplification, of course not to the point of saying something that’s not true. I would however encourage scientists to be less afraid of simplification when speaking to a non-scientific audience. You will never be able to please everyone, you can only do your best to make an abstract subject accessible and interesting to people.

Do you have any tips for young scientists to make their work visible to the public?

In many cities there are science centers, museums, and other places where people get together, and there is nothing, other than their own modesty, to stop a young scientist from offering to talk about their work there. If it seems too daunting to do that kind of thing on your own, you could maybe do it with some of your colleagues. There are lots of opportunities out there for young scientists. Nobody is going to give those opportunities to you, but nobody is going to stop you either! You just have to take them!

If you do take them, think about what audience you are trying to reach beforehand, for example, if you want to talk to children or young adults. Then just be creative in how you present your research–try to build a story. Two good things will come out of it: one is that even if only 50 people show up, and only five of them are interested in what you are saying, you will have transformed the lives of those five people and made them excited about something. That is an achievement. The second thing is, that if you are doing things like that, and the young scientist next to you isn’t, it makes you different, and you have added value. You will also gain experience in communicating, which in turn will make the impact of your science much greater in the future. Everybody wins really, and it can be good fun as well.

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

How to achieve scientific excellence

W. Brian Arthur from the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), and a former IIASA researcher, talks about increasing returns and the magic formula to get really great science.

Recently, Brian stopped in at the Complexity Science Hub Vienna, of which IIASA is a member institution, and spoke to Verena Ahne about his work.

Brian Arthur (© Complexity Science Hub)

Brian Arthur (© Complexity Science Hub)

Brian, now 71, is one of the most influential early thinkers of the SFI, a place that without exaggeration could be called the cradle of complexity science.

Brian became famous with his theory of increasing returns. An idea that has been developed in Vienna, by the way, where Brian was part of a theoretical group at the IIASA in the early days of his career: from 1978 to 1982.

“I was very lucky,” he recalls. “I was allowed to work on what I wanted, so I worked on increasing returns.”

The paper he wrote at that time introduced the concept of positive feedbacks into economy.

The concept of “increasing returns”

Increasing returns are the tendency for that which is ahead to get further ahead, for that which loses advantage to lose further advantage. They are mechanisms of positive feedback that operate—within markets, businesses, and industries—to reinforce that which gains success or aggravate that which suffers loss. Increasing returns generate not equilibrium but instability: If a product or a company or a technology—one of many competing in a market—gets ahead by chance or clever strategy, increasing returns can magnify this advantage, and the product or company or technology can go on to lock in the market.”

(W Brian Arthur, Harvard Business Review 1996)

This was a slap in the face of orthodox theories which saw–and some still see–economy in a state of equilibrium. “Kind of like a spiders web,” Brian explains me in our short conversation last Friday, “each part of the economy holding the others in an equalization of forces.”

The answer to heresy in science is that it does not get published. Brian’s article was turned down for six years. Today it counts more than 10.000 citations.

At the latest it was the development and triumphant advance of Silicon Valley’s tech firms that proved the concept true. “In fact, that’s now the way how Silicon Valley runs,” Brian says.

The youngest man on a Stanford chair

William Brian Arthur is Irish. He was born and raised in Belfast and first studied in England. But soon he moved to the US. After the PhD and his five years in Vienna he returned to California where he became the youngest chair holder in Stanford with 37 years.

Five years later he changed again – to Santa Fe, to an institute that had been set up around 1983 but had been quite quiet so far.

Q: From one of the most prestigious universities in the world to an unknown little place in the desert. Why did you do that? 

A: In 1987 Kenneth Arrow, an economics Nobel Prize winner and mentor of mine, said to me at Stanford: We’re holding a small conference in September in a place in the Rockies, in Santa Fe, would you go?

When a Nobel Prize winner asks you such a question, you say yes of course. So I went to Santa Fe.

We were about ten scientists and ten economists at that conference, all chosen by Nobel Prize winners. We talked about the economy as an evolving complex system.

Veni, vidi, vici

Brian came – and stayed: The unorthodox ideas discussed at the meeting and the “wild” and free atmosphere of thinking at “the Institute”, as he calls the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), thrilled him right away.

In 1988 Brian dared to leave Stanford and started to set up the first research program at Santa Fe. Subject was the economy treated as a complex system.

Q: What was so special about SF?

A: The idea of complexity was quite new at that time. But people began to see certain patterns in all sorts of fields, whether it was chemistry or the economy or parts of physics, that interacting elements would together create these patterns…To investigate this in universities with their particular disciplines, with their fixed theories, fixed orthodoxies–where it is all fixed how to do things–turned out to be difficult.

Take the economy for example. Until then people thought it was in an equilibrium. And there we came and proved, no, economics is no equilibrium! The Stanford department would immediately say: You can’t do that! Don’t do that! Or they would consider you to be very eccentric…

So a bunch of senior fellows at Los Alamos in the 1980s thought it would be a good idea if there was an independent institute to research these common questions that came to be called complexity.

At Santa Fe you could talk about any science and any basic assumptions you wanted without anybody saying you couldn’t or shouldn’t do that.

Our group as the first there set a lot of this wild style of research. There were lots of discussions, lots of open questions, without particular disciplines… In the beginning there were no students, there was no teaching. It was all very free.

This wild style became more or less the pattern that has been followed ever since. I think the Hub is following this model too.

The magic formula for excellence

Q: Was this just a lucky concurrence: the right people and atmosphere at the right time? Or is there a pattern behind it that possibly could be repeated?

A: I am sure: If you want to do interdisciplinary science – which complexity is: It is a different way of looking at things! – you need an atmosphere where people aren’t reinforced into all the assumptions of the different disciplines.

This freedom is crucial to excellent science altogether. It worked out not only for Santa Fe. Take the Rand Corporation for instance, that invented a lot of things including the architecture of the internet, or the Bell Labs in the Fifties that invented the transistor. The Cavendish Lab in Cambridge is another one, with the DNA or nuclear astronomy…

The magic formula seems to be this:

  • First get some first rate people. It must be absolutely top-notch people, maybe ten or twenty of them.
  • Make sure they interact a lot.
  • Allow them to do what they want – be confident that they will do something important.
  • And then when you protect them and see that they are well funded, you are off and running.

Probably in seven cases out of ten that will not produce much. But quite a few times you will get something spectacular – game changing things like quantum theory or the internet.

Don’t choose programs, choose people

Q: This does not seem to be the way officials are funding science…

A: Yes, in many places you have officials telling people what they need to research. Or where people insist on performance and indices… especially in Europe, I have the impression, you have a tradition of funding science by insisting on all these things like indices and performance and publications or citation numbers. But that’s not a very good formula.

Excellence is not measurable by performance indicators. In fact that’s the opposite of doing science.

I notice at places where everybody emphasize all this they are not on the forefront. Maybe it works for standard science; and to get out the really bad science. But it doesn’t work if you want to push boundaries.

Many officials don’t understand that.

In Singapore the authorities once asked me: How did you decide on the research projects in Santa Fe? I said, I didn’t decide on the research projects. They repeated their question. I said again, I did not decide on the research projects. I only decided on people. I got absolutely first rate people, we discussed vaguely the direction we wanted things to be in, and they decided on their research projects.

That answer did not compute with them. They are the civil service, they are extraordinarily bright, they’ve got a lot of money. So they think they should decide what needs to be researched.

I should have told them – I regret I didn’t: This is fine if you want to find solutions for certain things, like getting the traffic running or fixing the health care system. Surely with taxpayer’s money you have to figure such things out. But you will never get great science with that. All you get is mediocrity.

Of course now they asked, how do we decide which people should be funded? And I said: “You don’t! Just allow top people to bring in top people. Give them funding and the task of being daring.”

Any other way of managing top science doesn’t seem to work.

I think the Hub could be such a place – all the ingredients are here. Just make sure to attract some more absolutely first rate people. If they are well funded the Hub will put itself on the map very quickly.

This interview was originally published on https://www.csh.ac.at/brian-arthurs-magic-formula-for-excellence/

Arctic Circle embraces the Arctic Futures Initiative

By  Hannu Halinen, special advisor to the director general and CEO of IIASA

The Harpa Center at Reykjavik Harbor is the scene for one of the biggest annual gatherings of Arctic researchers, politicians, business representatives, indigenous peoples, nongovernmental organizations, and students; the Arctic Circle Assembly. Under the roof of this architectural landmark some two thousand participants spend a long weekend discussing a multitude of Arctic issues. This year there was an added attraction next door to the Harpa Centre: Finland, as a part of her 100 year independence celebration, had brought the multipurpose ice breaker “Nordica” to Reykjavik. A number of the assembly events were held on board the vessel, and everybody—both assembly participants and Icelanders— wanted to take the rare chance to see this impressive ship. The sea around Iceland is ice-free thanks to the Gulf Stream; hence no need for ice breakers.

The official assembly program consisted of a few high-level plenary sessions and many parallel break-out sessions. IIASA and the Arctic Futures Initiative (AFI) were introduced at the assembly in 2015, and I was busy at that time introducing Pavel and Anni to my Arctic colleagues. I can safely say that the time then was effectively used to build and strengthen the network between IIASA and Arctic actors.

By 2017 we were many steps ahead, as AFI has become a well-known Arctic endeavor and launching the collaboration between IIASA and the Arctic Circle was a major development. I have had the privilege to be associated with AFI over three years now, and one of the challenges for me all along has been to explain to those interested what AFI is about. Because my background is as a diplomat and a civil servant, the concept of a research project has been something new to me—and to many other decision makers and business leaders as well.

Everybody is asking what new angle can the AFI bring, and what’s in it for me? The collaboration between the Arctic Circle and AFI is a prime example on how to respond to the question. A wealth of insights and information is provided in hundreds of interventions at the assembly. What is missing is the analysis, follow up and possible implementation of the inputs during the Assembly. Here AFI can give the crucial assistance needed through systems thinking, models, and scenarios.

Two years ago we had one break-out session at the assembly. This year AFI was presented by Pavel and the former President of Iceland Olafur Grimsson at a plenary, as well as in three well-attended break-out sessions covering how systems analysis perspective can be invaluable to the challenges and opportunities that the Arctic faces; how the opening of the Northern sea route might impact global trade, and Arctic fisheries assessments.

The network is now largely built, the project development phase is coming to the end, and the focus of the work is shifting to carry out the project itself. But many issues still need to be tackled: who will organize and carry out the work, for example, how to solve the funding issues, and so on. I have believed in this project from the beginning. With wise and decisive action the remaining questions can be solved.

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.

Where are they now?

Lauren Hale, now professor of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine talks about her time at the IIASA Young Scientist Summer Program in 1996, and her new role as part of the IIASA US National Member Organization.

©Lauren Hale

As a professor at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, I study how sleep is a mechanism through which policy and social factors can affect mental and physical health. I find that differences in sleep patterns across the population are contributing to disparities in health and wellbeing.  My current study of nearly 1000 teens from across the USA seeks to understand the contributing factors (including school start times and screen-based media) of insufficient sleep and health concerns among the young. In addition, I serve on the board of directors of the National Sleep Foundation, and I’m the founding editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Sleep Health, which, ironically, has cut into my own sleep health.

Out of the thousands of colleges and universities in the USA where I could have ended up, it is a fortuitous coincidence that, just across the road, my initial IIASA mentor Warren Sanderson teaches in the Economics Department also at Stony Brook University.  He still visits IIASA for three months every summer and continues to play a supportive role in my professional life.

I might never have pursued postgraduate work had it not been for my early experiences at IIASA. I had the unique opportunity to join IIASA for the Young Scientists Summer Program while still an undergraduate (long story). It was an incredible opportunity, as a college junior, to find myself within a week of my arrival in the summer of 1996, seated around a table with the world’s top demographers at an international workshop on world population projections. I credit Wolfgang Lutz for being so inclusive with the YSSPers. I found everything about systems dynamics and population modeling novel and exciting. For my summer project, I modeled the dynamics of tourism and fish populations off the coast of the Yucatan. Thankfully, I had enormous guidance and support from my mentor Warren Sanderson, and co-YSSPer Patricia Kandelaars. Patricia and I were both Aurelio Peccei scholars and invited back for a second summer, during which we pretended we were still in the YSSP program, joining for many heurigen evenings and other memorable weekend excursions.

Class of 1996 Young Scientists Summer Program © IIASA

Thanks to my positive experiences at IIASA, I entered a PhD program at Princeton University to pursue population studies, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at the RAND Corporation, in Santa Monica, California. Although population sleep health research seems far afield from the interplay between fish and tourism in Mexico, I see a link to my experiences at IIASA, which is where I was introduced to systems thinking with policy relevance. Recently, I was honored to be invited to join the US National Member Organization for IIASA. Once again, I sought advice from Warren Sanderson, who encouraged me to accept the opportunity. I’m looking forward to giving back and reconnecting with IIASA.

Further info: Other YSSP stories.

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.