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.
An Italian nursery riddle goes: “Why does the heron stand on one leg? Because if it takes away the second leg, it will fall down!” An ornithologist will tell you that herons have incredibly strong legs. The EAEU, consisting of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia is not a heron – it does need to stand firmly on two legs. In this case, one leg is the European Union, and the other leg is the People’s Republic of China. An economist will tell you that the strength of “economic legs” underpinning the countries which make up the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) can be described, at best, as fair to middling: the heavy reliance on oil and gas is not particularly wholesome. That is why Russia and its EAEU partners need to establish close economic ties with both the EU and China.
Both partners are critically important for the EAEU. The EU remains its largest trade partner: in 2016 it accounted for 50% of total exports from, and 41% of total imports to the Eurasian Union. EAEU member states are interested in expanding the inflow of European investment capital, transfer of EU technologies, and stable EU demand for energy. The EAEU, in turn, is the third largest EU trade partner (after the US and China); accordingly, the EU may be interested in liberalization of trade with the EAEU (establishment of a free trade agreement), reduction of non-tariff barriers in EAEU member states (with a view to increase EU exports), and stability of EAEU power supplies.
At the same time, the EAEU’s “turn to the East” is slowly gaining momentum: Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries,first and foremost, China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, are beginning to overtake the EU. By the end of 2016, the Eurasian Union had imported 1.5% more goods from APEC countries (42.3% of total imports, mostly from China, Korea, and ASEAN countries) than it did from EU countries. It is also important for EU investors to understand that they are exposed to an ever-increasing risk of losing EAEU markets due to the inflow of capital from the leading Asian economies.
These matters have been subjected to rigorous applied analysis in Challenges and Opportunities of Economic Integration within a Wider European and Eurasian Space, a project initiated by IIASA in 2014. It advanced an independent dialogue platform to facilitate interaction between representatives of supranational bodies, expert and business communities of the two unions. The project is designed to help its European and Eurasian participants find common ground with respect to a possible inter-union trade and economic agreement.
According to project publications , it is advisable to reach a comprehensive agreement covering a much broader range of partnership domains than that associated with a standard free trade area. According to the latest calculations by European and Russian experts, an EU-EAEU free trade agreement would produce a positive impact. However, experts from the Information and Forschung (IFO) institute in Munich point out that EAEU agriculture and automotive industry may suffer heavy losses. This demonstrates that it is necessary to work out a quite structurally complex solution offering asymmetric advantages to the two sides.
Relations with China display completely different patterns. Two following “tracks” are especially important.
The first relates to the ongoing negotiations on a non-preferential agreement on trade and economic cooperation between the EAEU and China, envisaging reciprocal minimization of barriers in customs regulations and the financial sector, and intensification of investment cooperation. Talks have already been underway for one year, and are expected to continue for another year or two.
The second track deals with realization of the One Belt One Road initiative. It involves implementation of large-scale joint infrastructure projects, primarily in transportation. EAEU’s participation in the One Belt One Road initiative is very promising for its member states, especially for Russia and Kazakhstan, which need to remove infrastructural limitations inhibiting railroad carriage of containerized cargoes. The EAEU continues to face the issue of insufficient investment capital allocation to container logistical hubs. Kazakhstan will also need to eliminate bottlenecks in its transportation and logistics infrastructure, primarily by building modern container terminals. These are but several of the numerous problems facing the EAEU.
We are looking at One Belt One Road in the broad Greater Eurasia context. Higher efficiency of Greater Eurasian land transportation corridors could enhance trade and generate numerous industrial opportunities. This is particularly relevant for landlocked countries and regions (all Central Asian countries, Russian Urals and Western Siberia).
Russia and its EAEU partners need to establish close economic cooperation ties with both the European Union and China. The EAEU will have to learn to balance between those two poles, making ample use of economic vistas presented by the tripartite cooperation setup, and “capitalize on contradictions.” If the EAEU manages to reach this overarching goal, its foreign economic policy would be successful.
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.
Two things are distinctly noticeable when you meet Cornelius Hirsch—a cheerful smile that rarely leaves his face and the spark in his eyes as he talks about issues close to his heart. The range is quite broad though—from politics and economics to electronic music.
After finishing high school, Hirsch decided to travel and explore the world. This paid off quite well. It was during his travels, encompassing Hong Kong, New Zealand, and California, that Hirsch started taking a keen interest in economic and political systems. This sparked his curiosity and helped him decide that he wanted to take up economics for higher studies. Therefore, after completing his masters in agricultural economics, Hirsch applied for a position as a research associate at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research and enrolled in the PhD-program of the Vienna University of Economics and Business to study trade, globalization, and its impact on rural areas. Currently, he is looking at subsidies and tariffs for farmers and the agricultural sector at a global scale.
As part of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program at IIASA, Hirsch is digging a little deeper to analyze how foreign direct investments (FDI) in agricultural land operate. “Since 2000, the number of foreign land acquisitions have been growing—governmental or private players buy a lot of land in different countries to produce crops. I was interested in knowing why there are so many of these hotspots in the world— sub-Saharan Africa, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia—why are people investing in these areas?,” says Hirsch.
Increased food demand from a growing world population is leading to an increased rate of investment in agriculture in regions with large stretches of fertile land. That these regions are largely rain-fed make them even more attractive for investors as they save the cost of expensive irrigation services. In fact, Hirsch argues that “the term land-grabbing is misleading. It should actually be water-grabbing as water is the foremost deciding factor—even more important than simply land abundance.”
Some researchers have found an interesting contrast between FDI in traditional sectors, such as manufacturing, and the ones in agricultural land. While investors in the former look for stable institutions and good governmental efficiency, FDI in land deals seems to target regions with less stable institutions. This positive relationship between corruption and FDI is completely counterintuitive. Hirsch says that one reason could be that “sometimes weaker institutions are easier to get through when it comes to such vast amount of lands. A lot of times these deals and contracts are oral and have no written proof—the contracts are not transparent anyway.”
For example in South Sudan, the land and soil conditions seem to be so good that investors aren’t deterred despite conflicts due to corrupt practices or inefficient government agencies.
One area that often goes unnoticed is the violation of land rights of indigenous communities. If a government body decides to sell land or give out production licenses to investors for leasing the land without consulting the actual community, it is only much later that the affected community finds out that their land has been given away. Left with no land and hence no source of livelihood, these communities are forced to migrate to urban areas.
A strain of concern enters his voice as Hirsch talks about the impact. “Land as big as two times the area of Ecuador has been sold off in the past—but it accounts for a tiny percentage of the global production area.” With rising incomes and greater consumption of meat, a lot of land is used to produce animal feed crops. “This is a very inefficient way of using land,” he says.
During the summer program at IIASA, Hirsch is generating data that will help him look at these deals in detail and analyze the main factors that are taken into consideration before finalizing a land deal. At the moment he is only able to give an overview of land-grabbing at the global level. With more data on the location of the deals he can look at the factors that influence these decisions in the first place such as the proximity between the two countries involved in agricultural investments and the size of their economies.
While there is always huge media coverage when a scandal about these land acquisitions comes out in the open, Hirsch seems determined to dig deeper and uncover the dynamics involved.
About the researcher Cornelius Hirsch is a research associate at the Austrian Institute of Economics and Research (WIFO). At IIASA he is working under the supervision of Tamas Krisztin and Linda See in the Ecosystems Services and Management Program (ESM).
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.
Pascal Lamy was the director general of the World Trade Organization from 2005 to 2013, and currently serves as a president emeritus of the Notre Europe – Jacques Delors Institute. On 28 and 29 August he is taking part in a meeting of the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group, focused on new models for sustainable business development.
As the former director general of the WTO, you have extensive experience in global trade and economic development. How does this background inform your perspective on the issues of the sustainable development? To put it very simply, there is a very well-understood interaction between trade and growth, starting in the 18th century until now. The understanding of the relationship between global trade and sustainable development, i.e. including the environment dimension, is much more recent, understandably because environmental issues only came into the picture much more recently than the 18th century.
The reality is today that the communities working on trade and environmental issues are rather poorly connected. You belong either to one or to the other. There are not that many people who have feet on both sides, which does not help because the issue is complex.
In theory it’s very simple. Take climate change for instance: If you put the carbon price at the proper level, i.e. the one that takes into account the externalities of climate change and CO2 emissions, all you have to do is price CO2 properly, and problem is solved: markets will reallocate production factors accordingly. That’s what theory tells us. The little problem is actually agreeing on a set price for the entire planet. And this triggers a lot of suboptimal propositions, solutions.
I think that the overall stance now is that that trade is not an end. Trade is a means to improve growth in climate, welfare, sustainability, including environment sustainability. This was in fact part of the WTO charter from 1994. When I was DG of the WTO we did quite a lot of work in collaboration with environmental international organizations such as UNEP for instance. We looked into the big question on this topic: Is the expansion of trade good or bad for the environment? There are arguments on both sides, and it is a vast set of issues. But overall I think there are ways and means to reconcile, to synergize the benefits of trade opening for a more environmentally sustainable world.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals? It’s a very long and vast set of issues. So it’s not a single thing—what you have to address issues on inequality, on education, on oceans, on poverty—it’s a lot of different things.
But overall, I think the biggest challenge—and this is why a number of us are working on that—is to properly organize the accountability of these SDGs. That means providing proper metrics, proper review, proper debate, and proper public accountability. Now that the goals have been agreed by the UN, the issue is whether or not they can be achieved, and whether we can properly organize public pressure on sovereign nation states, through civil society, involvement of businesses. So in my view the main issue is building and agreeing on a proper follow up transparency system.
How do you think that the private sector could help in achieving the SDGs? In doing what private businesses have been doing increasingly, which is integrating this sustainable development focus into their global strategies. Most big businesses now have a set of principles, a set of values that include sustainability.
What’s happening for instance around the push towards green finance, notably since the COP21 in Paris, is a good example of how some businesses can be on the front line of a larger coalition. We need coalitions like this to bind public authorities at the national, regional, and city levels, to civil society organizations focused on sustainability, climate, environment, biodiversity, and development, and businesses, whether big or small.
So from your perspective it sounds like business is already on the right track. What further changes would be needed in the private sector in order to fully embrace the SDG agenda? It will happen if and when businesses realize that it matters to their consumers, to their staff, and to their shareholders, or their finance providers more generally. This is the frame within which they have to optimize what they do—clients, consumers, their people, and where they get their financial resources from. And if these various sides of the triangle push in that direction, inevitably businesses will push in this direction. They’ll have to.
The Alpbach-Laxenburg Group brings together leaders from business, and young entrepreneurs, along with government leaders and science experts. What do you think can be gained from a meeting of this type? What’s unusual is that it links you with people whom you may not meet every day, so it’s an occasion of diversity connecting on a topic. Plus, there is something which tends to come out of this sort of environment, which is innovation. People exchanging ideas, not just theoretically, “What should we do?” “Where are we?” “Where are we going?” but, “This is what I suggest to do,” “This is what I tried and it worked,” and “This is what I tried and it didn’t work.” It’s more about experiences on the ground, which may then inspire more general conclusions.
Further reading Pascal Lamy (2016). “Négociations climatiques et négociations commerciales : antinomie évidente ?“. Speech delivered at the 24th Meeting about Risk Management, AMRAE, at Lille, France, February 5th 2016. Download speech (PDF)
Gloria Benedikt was born to dance. She started at the age of three and since the age of 12 she has been training every day—applying the laws of physics to the body. But with a degree in government and an interest in current affairs, Benedikt now builds bridges between these fields to make a difference, as IIASA’s first science and art associate.
Conducted and edited by Anneke Brand, IIASA science communication intern 2016.
When and how did you start to connect dance to broader societal questions? The tipping point was when I was working in the library as an undergraduate student at Harvard University. I had to go to the theater for a performance, and thought to myself: I wish I could stay here, because there is more creativity involved in writing a paper than in going on stage executing the choreography of an abstract ballet. I realized that I had to get out of ballet company life and try to create work that establishes the missing link between ballet and the real world.
To follow my academic interest, I could write papers, but I had another language that I could use—dance—and I knew that there is a lot of power in this language. So I started choreographing papers that I wrote and rather than publishing them in journals, I performed them. The first work was called Growth, a duet illustrating how our actions on one side of the world impact the other side. As dancers we need to concentrate and listen to each other, take intelligent risks and not let go. If one of us lets go, we would both fall on our faces.
What motivated you make this career change?
We as contemporary artists have to redefine our roles. In recent decades we became very specialized, which is great, but we lost our connection to society. Now it’s time to bring art back into society, where it can create an impact. I am not a scientist. I don’t know exactly how the data is produced, but I can see the results, make sense of it and connect it to the things that I am specialized in.
How did you get involved with IIASA? I first started interdisciplinary thinking with the economist Tomáš Sedláček who I met at the European Culture Forum 2013. A year later I had a public debate with Tomáš and the composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven in Vienna. Pavel Kabat, IIASA Director General and CEO, attended this and invited me to come to IIASA.
What have you done at IIASA so far? For the first year at IIASA I created a variety of works to reach out to scientists and policymakers and with every work I went a step further. This year, for the first time I tried to integrate the two groups by actively involving scientists in the creation process. The result, COURAGE, an interdisciplinary performance debate will premiere at the European Forum Alpbach 2016. In September, I will co-direct a new project called Citizen Artist Incubator at IIASA, for performing artists who aim to apply artistic innovation to real-world problems.
How do scientists react to your work? The response to my performances at the European Forum Alpbach 2015 and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (EU-JRC) was extremely positive. It was amazing to see how people reacted—some even in tears. Afterwards they said that they didn’t understand what I was trying to say for the past two days, but the moment that they saw the piece, they got it. Of course people are skeptical at first—if they were not, I will not be able to make a difference.
Gloria and Mimmo Miccolis rehearsing at Festspielhaus St. Pölten for COURAGE which will premiere at the European Forum Alpbach 2016.
What are you trying to achieve? I’m trying to figure out how to connect the knowledge of art and science so that we can tackle the problems we face more efficiently. There are multiple dimensions to it. One is trying to figure out how we can communicate science better. Can we appeal to reason and emotion at the same time to win over hearts and minds?
As dancers we can physically illustrate scientific findings. For instance, in order to perform certain complicated movements, timing is extremely critical. The same goes for implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Are you planning on doing research of your own? At the moment I am trying something, evaluating the results, and seeing what can be improved, so in a way that is a type of research. For instance, some preliminary results came from the creation of COURAGE. We found that if we as scientists and artists want to work together, both parties will have to compromise, operate beyond our comfort zones, trust each other, and above all keep our audience at heart. That is exactly what we expect humanity to do when tackling global challenges. We have to be team players. It’s like putting a performance on stage. Everyone has to work together.