A perspective on the GSD conference: Dynamics for Policy, by UCL CASA researcher Basak Demires Ozkul

The House of Lords played host to an international gathering of the Global System Dynamics and Policies Group (GSD) on July 2nd 2009. The historical setting provided a dramatic backdrop for discussions on the future trajectory of advanced modelling techniques, the integration of modelling and policy and the importance of effective communication and dissemination methods. The day was split into three main sessions. A set of talks on current modelling techniques was given in the morning followed by lunch. After lunch the session started with three presentations on the structure of GSD and on modelling techniques and was finalised with a panel discussing the intersection of modelling and policy.

The morning talks started with a welcome speech by Prof. Steven Bishop, GSD Project Co-ordinator, who gave an overview of the GSD Project. This was followed by Prof. Kristian Lindgren and Prof. Mike Batty’s presentations. The first presentation focused on interpreting future global energy use through a multi-parameter interactive model and the second one on interpreting historic urban population distributions through a rank-size model. Both speakers focused on the importance of the use of these models for policy makers in understanding difficult processes. Prof. Lindgren pointed out the effects of small parameter changes on the overall model and Prof. Batty remarked on the pervasiveness of macro stability and micro volatility in rank-size models for urban populations in the US and the UK. The speakers also demonstrated the use of innovative modelling tools; the web interface for the energy use model GETOnline that can be accessed at and the rank clocks that can be viewed and downloaded at

These were followed by two further talks; the first one by Prof. Saskia Sassen and the second one by Prof. Mike Kelly both of whom also focused on how invisible processes and cultural norms could be made visible through analytical and visualization techniques and provide us with better ways of interpreting real world phenomena. Prof. Sassen demonstrated that decentralized sustainable urban density models could be far from ideal in the real world due to socio-economic conditions as in the case of Mexico City and in contrast unsustainable highly mono-centric business districts such as London can prove to be success stories thanks to the accumulation of specialised knowledge.  She pointed out the challenges of fully modelling such complex phenomena mathematically due to difficult complex structures and the need to identify feedback loops. Prof. Kelly outlined the strong effects of unquantifiable model parameters such as personal behaviour and lifestyle choices in energy consumption patterns.

The lunch break allowed me to catch some of the attendees and pose them the question ‘how do you think models can advance the idea of sustainability?’ The answers mainly centred on the possibility of defining a complex phenomenon such as sustainability in a more coherent and tangible form through models and the opportunity of interpreting future scenarios.

The afternoon session was kicked off by Dr. Ralph Dum, the Scientific Officer for the European Commission who outlined GSD’s agenda as achieving a new scientific paradigm for highly interdependent systems for sustainability. He also stressed the importance of transparency and communication/interaction with the general public. The next two presentations were given by Prof. Sir Alan Wilson and Prof. Carlo Jaeger who were looking at the potential and shortcomings of major modelling cultures; Prof. Wilson in the hard sciences and Prof. Jaeger in economics. Prof. Wilson demonstrated the effectiveness of combining well-known static spatial interaction models with nonlinear dynamics as in the Lotka-Volterra model and linking these to existing information systems and tools such as GIS to create intelligent modelling systems. He used the growth of Chicago in the 19th century to demonstrate how such combined systems can provide clues for past geographic and urban processes and thus offer a scientific basis for future scenarios.  Prof. Jaeger was more cautious in his approach to prevalent economic models pointing out the general failure of such models in the banking industry. He concentrated on the risks and benefits associated with conventions in modelling and public policy.

The presentations were capped by a lively panel discussion, composed of academics working in the policy field, which straddle the theoretical and real worlds. The panel was led by Prof. Lord Julian Hunt from UCL and composed of Vicky Pryce, the Department for Trade and Industry’s Chief Economic Adviser and Director General, also Deputy Head of the UK’s Government Economic Service; Prof. Paul Wiles, the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Home Office, Prof. Lord Meghnad Desai, LSE; Michael Oborne, Director of Multi-Disciplinary Issues, OECD and Dr. Ralph Dum, Scientific Officer, European Commission. The initial presentations by the panellists provided a glimpse of the challenges and demands in conducting research in national and international political organisations. Panellists pointed to the necessity of providing hard and fast answers to politicians based on research that incorporates a measure of uncertainty, the difficulties of conducting cross disciplinary research in the rigid and often outdated confines of government and academic departments, the gap between the more common deterministic models and the uncertainty and unpredictability of real life and the effect of competing sources of information such as popular media. Prof. Desai summarised the policy makers position in his statement “It may be that the citizen is right and you are wrong”, thus defining the fine line that politicians and policy makers tread in their interactions with the public.

The day was interspersed with discussions on a wide range of subtexts thanks to the diverse academic fields and cultures represented. Some key questions can be summarised as: How to bridge the gap between the hard and the social sciences to bring together the various skills and knowledge that both possess? How to expand and advance modelling to incorporate real world conditions such as uncertainty, multi-dimensionality, dynamic equilibrium etc.? How to design models that are open, easy to interpret and flexible? How to communicate effectively the results of complex models? How to account for the difference in skill knowledge level between the modeller and user? How to actively involve the wide range of stakeholders? How to access the ever-expanding trove of data that is available and make use of it?

The conference ended with a general tour of the House of Lords led by our host Prof. Lord Julian Hunt where the attendees were able to witness the long and fascinating history of British politics while discussing the many topics that were raised throughout the day with many promising ideas for the future of modelling.