Network science and marketing: A virus’ tale

By Matthias Wildemeersch,  IIASA Advanced Systems Analysis and Ecosystems Services and Management Programs

FotoQuest Austria is a citizen science campaign initiated by the IIASA Ecosystems Services & Management Program that aims to involve the general public in mapping land use in Austria. Understanding the evolution of urban sprawl is important to estimate the risk of flooding, while the preservation of wetlands has important implications for climate change.

But how can we engage people in environmental monitoring, in particular when they are growing increasingly resistant to traditional forms of advertising? Viral marketing makes use of social networks to spread messages, and takes advantage of the trust that we have in the recommendation coming from a friend rather than from a stranger or a company.

Network science and the formal description of spreading phenomena can shed light on the propagation of messages through communities and can be applied to inform and design viral marketing campaigns.

Viral spreading © kittitee550 | Dollar Photo Club

Viral spreading © kittitee550 | Dollar Photo Club

Network science is a multi-disciplinary field of research that draws on graph theory, statistical mechanics, inference, and other theories to study the behavior of agents in various networks. The spreading phenomena in viral marketing show similarities with well-studied spreading processes over biological, social, physical, and financial networks. For instance, we can think about epidemics,which are well understood and allow for the design of optimal strategies to contain viruses. Another example is opinion dynamics, which received renewed research attention over the last years in the context of social media.  In contrast to diseases or computer viruses, which we aim to contain and stop, the goal of viral marketing is to spread widely, reaching the largest possible fraction of a community.

What makes viral marketing unique?
But some aspects of viral marketing are very different from what we see in other spreading phenomena. First of all, there are many platforms that can be used to spread information at the same time, and the interaction between these platforms is not always transparent. Human psychology is a crucial factor in social networks, as repeated interaction and saturation can decrease the willingness to further spread viral content. Marketing campaigns have a limited budget, and therefore it is meaningful to understand how we can use incentives and how efficient they are. This also means that it is essential to find the group of most influential people that can be used as seeds for the viral campaign.

Network science has addressed to a great extent all these individual questions, mostly under the assumption of full knowledge of the connections between the agents and their influence. Currently, so-called multiplexes are an active research field that studies the behavior of multi-layer networks. This research unveils the relationships between the dynamics of viral marketing, the connection pattern, and strength between the network layers. Although viral spreading may be unachievable in a single layer, for example a social network like Facebook, the critical threshold may be exceeded by joining different platforms. Within a given platform, people alike can be clustered using community detection algorithms. Once the communities are identified, influence maximization algorithms have been established to select these persons that maximize the spread of viral content. Although this discrete optimization problem is computationally difficult—or NP-hard—mathematicians have proposed algorithms that can efficiently predict who to target to give a campaign the best chance of going viral. On top of that, optimal pricing strategies have been developed to reward recommenders.

The FotoQuest Austria app aims to engage citizen scientists in their campaign - network theory may help them go "viral." © IIASA

The FotoQuest Austria app aims to engage citizen scientists in their campaign – network theory may help them go “viral.” © IIASA

Although the literature is extensive, the nature of the results is often theoretical and involves mathematically complex models and algorithms. Considering that only partial information on the network is usually available, it is not straightforward to bring this knowledge back to a practical marketing campaign. So researchers in this field are trying to bridge the gap between theoretical results and practical problems. The generic, powerful methods of network science are sufficiently versatile to capture the specifics of real-world applications. As such, network science can provide guidelines that can bring great value for the design of heuristic methods in marketing strategies.

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.

Fulfilling the Enlightenment dream: Arts and science complementing each other

By Gloria Benedikt, IIASA Associate for Science and Arts

Gloria Benedikt speaks at

Gloria Benedikt speaks at “Towards a Sustainable Future,” Palais Niederoesterreich, March 2015. Photo: Matthias Silveri

“For the real human story, history must comprise both the biological and the cultural,” wrote biologist Edward O. Wilson in his 2014 book The Meaning of Human Existence. ”The convergence between those two great branches of learning (sciences and humanities) will matter hugely when enough people have thought its potential through”.

This elegantly summarizes why I find myself at IIASA. I’ve been splitting my life between the arts (working as a professional dancer) and academia (studying at Harvard University). Over time I started to make connections between seemingly opposing worlds: arts and science. Now my challenge as IIASA Associate for Science and Arts is to help bridge them.

Why is this important, and why now? Because the way the world is run assumes that human beings act rationally and that economic (material) well-being in itself is key in solving all major issues afflicting our world. We have focused on the biological and neglected the cultural; we assumed that satisfying basic needs to keep bodies functioning will keep people alive. In short, we looked at the body and overlooked the soul. Or as prominent Czech Economist Tomáš Sedláček framed it, “There were huge advances that were brought upon us thanks to science and also thanks to economics, but now I feel we are in a time where we see the limits of it. In the beginning, there was no analytics, just ethics. Today there is only analytics and no ethics.”

Gloria Benedikt (right) and Hussein Khadour (left) answer questions from young scientists at a dress rehearsal of their new performance, InDignity, at the Festspielhaus St. Poelten

Gloria Benedikt (left) and Hussein Khadour (right) answer questions from young scientists at a dress rehearsal of their new performance, InDignity, at the Festspielhaus St. Poelten

There was a time when humanity was already closer in finding a balance between the two. It was called the Enlightenment. “The Enlightenment quest,” Wilson observed, “was driven by the belief that human beings can know all that needs to be known, and in knowing understand, and in understanding gain the power to choose more wisely than ever before.”

Then, for the next two centuries and to the present day, science and humanities went their own way. Complex reasons briefly summarized: albeit making good progress, scientists were nowhere close to meeting expectations and artists sought meaning in other more private venues.

Is there any value in resuming this quest of connecting arts and science now? Wilson argues that the answer is yes, “because enough is known today to make it more attainable than during its first flowering.” And yes, because the solutions of so many problems in modern life will depend on solutions for the clash of competing religions, the revival of moral reasoning and on adequate foundations of environmentalism.

So, how can this work in practice?


Gloria Benedikt and Mimmo Miccolis in GROWTH, Kennedy Center, Washington DC, July 2014 Photo: Morgan Marinoni

For starters we should be aware that there is a common foundation. Despite science and humanities being fundamentally different from each other in what they say and do, they are complementary to each other in origin, as they arise from the same creative process in the human brain. But there is more. “Good” science is  data driven. Scientists are trained to present their findings in a neutral way. A scientist appealing to emotion is likely to be considered unprofessional.

Meanwhile, artists are masters of metaphors and of appealing to emotion. At the same time, the majority religiously avoids being explicit. “Good” art is not dogmatic. We prefer to leave it up to our audiences to find meaning for themselves.

In the past 150 years, we have seen that if we push our noble pursuits to the extreme, we risk losing our purpose because we lose our link to society. If people don’t understand how scientific findings matter to them and if artists are too scared or simply too wound up in their own world, and thus fail to articulate, our work falls short of its ultimate purpose: to serve society by revealing truths in the world around us so that people can make better-informed decisions on how to go about their work and lives and shape the direction of our planet and the over 7 billion people populating it.

Arts and science need to be free – in 2015, I believe this freedom lies in the ability to present our findings clearly and independently. This quest, coupled with a new sense of responsibility to communicate, is what can and should bring scientists and artists together in the coming years and decades. I, for one, am excited that IIASA has opened its doors for us to join hands so we can create a sustainable future together and perhaps fulfill Wilson’s vision of a second enlightenment along the way.

Please note: I use the terms ‘humanities’ and ‘arts’ interchangeably here. However the term humanities is of course technically broader, as it includes not only the creative arts, but also political theory & philosophy.


Wilson, Edward O. The meaning of Human Existence. New York: Norton & Company, 2014

Sedláček, Benedikt, Twaalfhoven. Arts Economics and the Irrational – A debate in 3 Acts. November 29th 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.

IIASA Employee Number 1

By Martha Wohlwendt

IIASA’s Alumni Association is hosting its first Alumni Day on April 29, 2014, and we are inviting alumni to send their memories and photos of their time at IIASA. Our first post comes from Martha Wohlwendt, IIASA’s first employee, Executive Secretary/Administrative Assistant in the Director’s office.  To contribute, please contact IIASA Development Assistant Deirdre Zeller.

Martha Wohlwendt, Howard Raiffa, Vivien Schimmel

From left to right: Martha Wohlwendt, Howard Raiffa, Vivien Schimmel

It was October 1972 when I joined IIASA.  My first few days at the office,  then located  in Vienna’s 3rd District, were a bit confusing since there was only a lawyer taking care of matters.  The first IIASA director, Professor Howard Raiffa, and the secretary, Dr. Andrei Bykov, had been travelling back and forth from their respective countries but had not yet arrived to stay.

Andrei Bykov took office shortly thereafter, then Professor Howard Raiffa  and his wife Estelle arrived and with them his secretary Margot Sweet and his first assistant, Mark Thompson with his wife Elizabeth.  In the weeks and months that followed,  the initial team grew: we were joined by Prof. Letov, IIASA’s first Deputy Director, Silver Newton, Ruth Steiner, Julyan Watts, Vivien Schimmel, Claudia Staindl, to name a few.  A personnel system was needed, and one of the first steps was to develop a staff numbering system.  I was given number 001, as the first IIASA staff member.  Andrei Bykov was to receive 002, but it was agreed by all that, because of his good looks and his nationality, he should be given 007.

The small IIASA team then moved to a beautiful villa in Baden – Haus  Rosenauer – from which IIASA operated for almost a year.  In the early spring of 1973 Howard Raiffa and I moved into the first office available in the Schloss – his office.  Shortly thereafter approximately 10 more offices were handed over to IIASA.

My first Council Meeting, in January 1973, was quite an experience.   We were very few and so much to do!  You would see Andrei Bykov and me photocopying, sorting and then delivering the  meeting documents to the participants in their hotels in my little Volkswagen Beetle.  We also drove Council members from the airport to the hotels and back.  Prof. H. Koziolek and his assistant, from the Academy of Sciences of the German Democratic Republic, had to squeeze into my Beetle from the airport to the hotel and then to IIASA.

Howard and Estelle Raiffa, with their warmth and appreciation for others, instituted a strong feeling of family which so many of us still remember today.   They often invited the small staff to their apartment in the Operngasse for dinner, and Estelle would serve some of her delicious homemade dishes. It was during these years that we had the first 4th of July picnic organized by IIASA staff from the United States, the unforgettable celebration of the October Revolution, organized by  the staff from the Soviet Union, the International Dinner, at which time all of us brought a national dish from our home country, the wine and cheese parties, the beer parties, and other IIASA events, some of which continue to this day.

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. What’s a forest worth?

This post was originally published on the blog. IIASA is a partner in the new project, which focuses on the potential for renewable energy in the Alps.

mountain biker in forest ©dreamstime.comWhen I think of an alpine forest, I think of the towering cedar trees that blanket the Cascade mountains near my native Seattle, with trunks so broad you can’t reach your arms around them. I think of the shadowy quiet that envelops me as I wander through a mountain forest in my new home in Austria. I think of the scent of pine needles and the bounce of my feet on a trail softened by forest litter. The value of a mature forest to people like me who love the outdoors—its recreational value—is impossible to put into numbers.

We can, however, calculate the effects of different styles of forest management on more quantifiable criteria. We can determine how much carbon dioxide is taken up from the atmosphere and stored by long-growing forests. And we can estimate how much bioenergy we can sustainably produce by managing forests for biomass harvesting.

This is exactly what IIASA scientists have done for their first efforts in the project. IIASA’s role in the project is to use our modeling expertise to explore the various possibilities for renewable energy expansion in the Alps. We are also looking at the tradeoffs and benefits of the different possible scenarios and ecosystem services (ESS). As a first step, researchers Florian KraxnerSylvain Leduc , Sabine Fuss (now with MCC Berlin), Nicklas Forsell, and Georg Kindermann used the IIASA BeWhere and Global Forest (G4M) models look at the tradeoffs between bioenergy production or carbon storage in alpine forests.

These graphs show the first results for from IIASA’s BeWhere and G4M models, optimizing the location of bioenergy plants to maximize either carbon sequestration (top) or bioenergy production (bottom). The gradiant of green colors shows the amount of carbon storage over the landscape, while the red boxes (and according gradient in red) show the harvesting intensity in different harvesting areas.

These graphs show the first results for from IIASA’s BeWhere and G4M models, optimizing the location of bioenergy plants to maximize either carbon sequestration (top) or bioenergy production (bottom). The gradiant of green colors shows the amount of carbon storage over the landscape, while the red boxes (and according gradient in red) show the harvesting intensity in different harvesting areas.

“Managing forests optimally for bioenergy requires more intensive management,” says Kraxner. That means shorter rotations where trees are cut more often. Such a forest is made up of smaller trees that may look more like “close-to-nature plantations” than an old-growth forest. In contrast, managing forests for carbon storage means letting the trees grow older, also good for biodiversity and environmental preservation.

In their analysis, Kraxner and the team compared two management strategies: restricting bioenergy production to a small land area, and managing it intensively, or spreading bioenergy over a large land area but managing less intensively over the whole area. They found that the same amount of bioenergy could be produced by managing a small amount of land area intensively for bioenergy production. This more intensive management on a small area of land would free up a larger land area for preservation and protection or other special dedication to ecosystem services.

“Both methods are sustainable,” says Kraxner, “but the optics are different. Intensification can be a good solution to provide renewable energy and at the same time preserve biodiversity and the more intangible values of mature forests.”

What do you think? What should our priorities be in managing Alpine forests?

Inside the Alpbach Forum

By Pavel Kabat, IIASA Director and Chief Executive Officer

This year is my second participating in the world-renowned Alpbach Forum. Last year I was invited to contribute to the Technology Forum and participated in breakout sessions with Karlheinz Töchterle, Austria’s Federal Minister for Science and Research. Although I was only in Alpbach for 3 days last year, there was a lot happening and it was clear that this was a unique forum, bringing together some of the world’s greatest thinkers across a wide range of fields.

Pavel Kabat at Alpbach Forum

During the breakout session on 26 August, I had the chance to discuss green growth with people from around the world. Image courtesy EFA

When I first met with the new European Forum Alpbach President, Franz Fischler, prior to the IIASA Conference last October, it became immediately clear that our attitudes towards the planet and life were very compatible. We very quickly found common ground, which has developed into a positive official collaboration between IIASA and EFA. Fundamentally the principles of European Forum Alpbach and IIASA are very similar. IIASA was established in 1972 to try and unite Europe after the Cold War, while the very first Alpbach Forum took place in 1945, immediately after WWII. This was an extremely courageous move, especially in Austria at that time. The forum was set up with the motive to build bridges by peaceful dialogue, and to get political leaders involved in that dialogue. IIASA had a similar role 20 years later, when Lyndon Johnson pursued JFK’s idea to create a bridge between East and West, using science policy to reach across boundaries.

Partners for a global transformation

EFA and IIASA have now embarked on a new partnership. Like any new relationship it has started with ambitious goals. Yet we have also clearly defined those ambitions. EFA and IIASA share a vision on the global transformation—one that leads to a more sustainable, equitable and livable planet. We agree that there is not only a need for new partnerships, but also that that this transformation requires vision and leadership.  Fischler and I both believe that this will not come from one country, government, business, or individual. We also agree that the steps that need to be taken for this global transition must come from the combined wisdom of academia, business, governments, civil society, and culture.

Our first combined project is also our most ambitious:  to establish, with the support of some of the most prominent world leaders from these sectors, a new global think tank, details of which will be announced later this week.

Most importantly for the global transformation, I believe we need a change in narrative. The existing narratives on the Sustainable Development Goals, how to manage the resource crisis, the governance crisis, and the social crisis all need to be transformed into positive discussions. They need to be narratives of hope and of a positive future.  This will not be an easy challenge.

Highlights from Alpbach

IIASA has been extremely privileged to take part in Alpbach this year.  At the end of the forum I took part in discussions with European Commission President Jose Barroso, Heinz Fischer (President of Austria), Kandeh K. Yumkella (Chair of UN Energy), Habbib Haddad (CEO of WAMDA), Jakaya Kikwete (President of the United Republic of Tanzania), and IPCC Chair and Nobel Prize Laureate Rajendra Pachauri. We had a big obligation and responsibility to make concrete specific steps on what was agreed, and I am happy to have been able to contribute where both IIASA’s and my research can be of service.

Although I have been privileged to meet many leaders this week, I’d like to mention just two in this small space. First, I am grateful to my colleague and friend Jeff Sachs, who participated with me in a number of discussions this week, for his continued support of IIASA. I agree fully with him that to establish a global knowledge network, and to work on changing the narratives about transformation, we need a goal.  Second I was privileged to meet Erhard Busek, former Austrian science minister from 1989 to 1994, a time when Europe was uniting and therefore IIASA’s entire future was in question. His involvement with IIASA during that time helped shape the Institute’s future course, leading to today’s role as a globally recognized science and policy bridge-builder.

village of alpbach in tyrol

The Alpbach forum brings an amazing array of leaders and thinkers to a tiny town in the Tyrolean Alps for weeks of discussion and ideas. It was a privilege to take part. Image courtesy EFA