Towards a new enlightenment – global scientists to develop new solutions for complex problems with ‘a Large Hadron Collider for the mind’

A group of scientists and other thinkers from around the world have been working together to help government, business and ordinary people face the problems of today

From the Encyclopédie to FuturIcT via Global System Dynamics

The famous Encyclopédie (1751-1765) of the Enlightenment was put together by a disparate group of writers, physicians, scientists, craftsmen and scholars. They believed that the unprecedented socio-political problems and the emergent ways of thinking of 18th-century Europe demanded a new taxonomy of human knowledge. With contributors including such notable figures as Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu, the 35-volume Encyclopédie was a vast compendium of knowledge. Informed by the technologies of the period, it became a vehicle for change, ushering in the shape of the modern world.

The financial, security, energy and environmental crises of recent times have once again provided compelling evidence of the need to find new ways of building resilience and sustainability across society. Everyone, from politicians and business people to citizens in all walks of life, is beginning to accept that we can no longer rely on the problem-solving methods that we grew up with. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can help us a great deal, but there also has to be – at all levels – a change of mind-set.

Now a group of scientists who have developed a philosophy called Systems Thinking, have started to envisage how these ideas can be applied to global problems. Results can lead to improved information and advice for the World’s policy makers. Indeed far reaching plans are to extend this to create a large-scale ICT-based research endeavour called FuturIcT. Initially instigated by a group in Zurich, Switzerland, but now with contributions from all over the world, one observer has described the project as a ‘Large Hadron collider for the mind’.

‘Traditional methods of decision-making,’ says Professor Steven Bishop, one of the co-ordinators of the group, ‘needs to be rebased on sound scientific advice, backed by ICT: not old-fashioned science, where each practitioner is closed in the silo of his discipline, but a new type of integrated thinking which has the openness and flexibility to deal with the vast array of interconnected problems with which we are faced.’

Developing this new type of ‘systems thinking’ has been one of the concerns of Global System Dynamics, a project funded by the European Commission and co-ordinated by University College London (see

Since May 2008, GSD partner institutions across Europe and experts from all over the world, working with Zoran Stančič, Ralph Dum and a team at the Commission’s Information Society and Media Directorate General, have found an astonishing amount of common ground. Developing new methods and insights, they have forged global connections with other networks of systems thinkers.

‘We are now looking forward to taking systems thinking out to wider groups,’ adds Bishop, ‘including businesses, local government and engaged members of the public.’

Systems Thinking

Over the past two years, under GSD’s aegis and that of other networks, a large number of thinkers from different disciplines (see lists below) have been addressing worldwide problems in a revolutionary fashion. Applying Systems Thinking, an intellectual practice which involves an adaptable, often computer-enabled approach to problem-solving across different domains, they have addressed global issues such as financial crisis, pandemics and climate change.

Systems Thinking is concerned with understanding and exploiting the behaviour of complex dynamic systems – their risks and predictabilities, their feedbacks and interactions, their evolutions over time and through space, the modes and motivations of the agents within them, and their integration or conflict with other systems. A key element of Systems Thinking is comprehending the role of instability in systems.

Above all, Systems Thinking involves taking a global perspective on problems, however local and particular they might at first appear. At the same time, systems modelling – the practical application of systems thinking – often involves employing a simplified decision model backed up by complex ICT operations on rich data.

‘Policy makers,’ says Julian Hunt, a climate scientist who has led many GSD meetings and is also a member of the House of Lords in the UK Parliament, ‘are confronted with decisions that should take into account a multitude of highly interdependent processes in physical, biological, technical, social, economic and political systems. The implications of any decisions are increasingly difficult to evaluate and are often global in scale. There is an urgent need to augment the tools available for developing and assessing decision-making processes.’


At BIG-STEP, GSD’s most recent meeting in Brussels (April 14-15, 2010), members of the programme joined with scientists and experts from two other networks of experts and academics, Assyst, and Complexity.NET, and senior figures from the public and private sectors.

The purpose of the meeting was to engage policy makers and business leaders in a dialogue, showing them how systems thinking can help in the decision-making process. Issues such as risk, resilience, governance and ‘future scenarios’ were at the forefront of discussions around energy, the economy, and the environment. There were also panel discussions focussing on the modelling, societal and political challenges faced in developing a systems approach to policy making.

Highlights at BIG-STEP included contributions from:

  • Jacqueline McGlade (Exec. Director, European Environment Agency)
  • Chris Barrett (Director, Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory, Virginia Bioinformatics Institute)
  • Michel Morvan (Vice President for Strategic Intelligence and Innovation at Veolia)
  • Jean-Philippe Bouchaud (Chairman and Chief Scientist, Capital Fund Management)
  • Sorin Solomon (Professor of Theoretical Physics, Hebrew University, Jerusalem)
  • Luciano Pietronoero (Professor of Condensed Matter Physics, University of Rome, La Sapienza)
  • Bas Eickhout (Dutch Member of the European Parliament)
  • Carlo Jaeger (Professor for Modelling Social Systems at Potsdam University)
  • Pedro Prieto (Director of Development for Alternative Energies, Grupo Avanzit)
  • Caroline Gover (BBC Continuity)

The meeting was also attended by representatives of Unilever, Hewlett Packard, University of New Brunswick, Canada, Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia, Dublin City University, Ireland, the Japan Govt Science and Technology Agency, and the UK Govt Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The next ‘Big Step’

In the next phase of the systems thinking revolution, members of the GSD and the other groups plan to extend their ideas linked to risk and resilience as part of a soon to be funded EC coordination action programme called GSDP to lay down the way forward and highlight the new ICT tools that will be required to enable policy decisions to have scientific and popular support.

Furthermore, many will also work together with Professor Dirk Helbing, an expert in modelling and simulation at ETH Zurich, in the FuturIcT research endeavour, to develop large-scale, interactive computer models which will be able to examine multi-component problems with many interactions. Engaging with a wide range of domains, from the natural sciences to sociology, medicine and the humanities, FuturIcT will enable decision makers to understand systemic issues relating to the problems they encounter, whether these occur in the urban development, energy policy or environmental fields.

Using agent-based modelling, simulations and other techniques, FuturIcT will develop computer applications to help decision-makers make better informed choices. Both global and local at once, their architecture will allow problems to be considered from many different levels and according to the needs of many different users. Ideally, they will eventually be used by individuals in their everyday lives as well as by policy-makers in government and business.

‘If FuturIcT comes off,’ says Giles Foden, a writer who has been attending the GSD meetings and chronicling the discussions held at them, ‘it will be like a Large Hadron Collider for the mind. Communication is going to be important, and it would be great to see other artists and writers involved. There is already increasing convergence between work in environmental sciences and work in the arts and humanities, and this is one aspect of systems thinking in practice, but it could go a lot further.’

Supported by universities and other institutions worldwide, GSD, GSDP FuturIcT and their many associates are all committed to the idea that unified knowledge can bring greater individual empowerment in a sustainable social context, galvanizing new ways of constructively engaging decision makers at all scales. As Denis Diderot, one of the editors of the Encyclopédie put it, our aim is ‘to change the way people think’.