Most Anthropocene concerns are “wicked problems” that defy a single answer and may never be solved definitively. Examples include anthropogenic climate change, biodiversity loss, the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, and global food supply. Systems thinking, which involves gathering knowledge from many disciplines for aggregation at a higher level, permits us to get a partial, but holistic grasp of wicked problems that require interdisciplinary perspectives. Models based on systems thinking — whether computer models based in mathematics, or simpler, analogical models — are sophisticated tools for exploring how positive and negative feedbacks interact in the real world to create non-linear and non-intuitive results.
This seminar introduced the systems thinking perspective by working with simple systems models. One such exercise used the Schelling segregation model, which shows how individuals who each genuinely desire to live in a racially mixed neighborhood can nevertheless collectively, against their best intentions, produce a segregated town as they seek optimal housing for themselves. Another exercise had students use the Global Systems Simulator, a sophisticated integrated assessment model, to explore avenues towards achieving sustainability by tracking a wide range of factors, from population and production to agriculture and pollution.
Listen to the Resumee Session on the Seminar “Modeling wicked problems”.
See also the case study on “Modeling wicked problems”, presented during the opening weekend of the Campus by Paul Edwards.