All posts by Marco Janssen

The tragedy of a common currency

The current crisis of the Euro emphasizes some basic lessons from the study of resilience of dynamic systems. Attributes of complex systems that enhance resilience are diversity, redundancy and modularity. There is a cost of maintaining resilience. The decision to have one currency among different countries in Europe was based on a focus of efficiency. This could be reached as long as economies would grow steadily and the countries kept their budgets in check.

Unfortunately, some countries did not so. Also Germany and France have broken maximum governmental budget shortages, and no actions were taken. It sounds as if the basic principles of institutional design were not met. Meaning that there was no proper monitoring and were no proper enforcement mechanisms. Surprisingly there are not even regulations how countries may leave the EU or Euro.

By creating a tightly connected system without proper enforcement it is no surprise that the resilience of the European, and global, economy has been decreased. The budget crisis leads now to a spiral of distrust among participants in the action arena of the global financial system. It does not help either that the USA is not able to reach to any solution to their own budget problems.

If there was more modularity we could afford countries to fail. But in the tightly globalized financial system, a failure leads to a cascade of dominos falling. A short-sighted focus on efficiency has led to a costly endeavor and likely collapse of the euro. We can learn from long-lasting biological systems and the importance to develop system features that enhance resilience. Hopefully during the recovery after the pending transformation more emphasis will be given to design system properties to enhance resilience.

How humans affected the climate system for 8000 years

vovberWilliam F. Ruddiman pose an interesting hypothesis by arguing that humans have had a measurable impact on the climate system for 8000 years. In his book “Plow, Plagues and Petroleum”, the emeritus environmental science professor shows interesting anomalies in the trends of atmospheric CO2 concentration (since 8000 years) ago when Europeans start cutting down forest in Middle and Eastern Europe for agriculture, and CH4 concentration (since 5000 years) when irrigated rice farming started at large scale. This has led to an temperature increase of 0.8 degrees Celsius before the industrial revolution started which led to a similar amount of emissions, but in a much shorter period. Ruddiman argues that instead of heading to a cooler climate, as was expected from traditional climatology (due to regular orbital changes) increased human-induced emissions avoided this cooling down, and may lead to a brief warming period (on geological scale). There is also an interesting chapter where brief declines of CO2 concentrations are related to major pandamics (like black plague), which led to a temporarely regrowth of forests. If Ruddiman’s thesis is true humans have unconsiously entended the K-phase of preferable climate before a dramatic reorganization phase (in the coming years?) occur.  

Success through failure

Henry Petroski wrote a wonderful book ‘Success through failure’ on the importance of failures in the design of successful projects, buildings, policies etc. Petroski is a professor in civil engineering and history at Duke university. The book stress the importance of failures in designing successes. Building only on successes might actually lead to severe failures. Petroski discuss designs of various objects like presentations (from the cave to powerpoint), bridges, sky crapers, etc. A lot of these designs are improvements of earlier designs. Due to thinkering with previous designs, previous failures are avoided, but new ones may occur. By being open to learn from failures, robust designed objects may evolve.cover

An interesting observation is the regularity of major failures in the design of bridges. Every generation of engineers, a major failure occurs. Probably with a new generation, lessons from previous failures get ignored or forgotten, and less emphasis is made on double checking and testing the designs.




Interactive agroecological story

A nice interactive game on solving dilemmas between different stakeholders can be found at  The game is a simple-minded and optimistic story which is used as an excercise for people to learn the basics about scenario simulation, dynamical adaptive systems, sustainability attributes, multicriteria analysis, among others.  In the first act, slash and burn maize farmers  are compelled by the government to leave a biodiversity reserve zone and to intensify maize production in a smaller area using urea. The user plays the role of the farmer, explores scenarios and decides if he can sustain his family economy under the government´s proposal.

In act 2, rural families that depend on ecotourism in a clear lake downhill feel their income threatened by water murkiness caused by nitrogen coming into the lake from the maize farmer´s fields. As part of negotiation with uphill farmers, the user (now in the role of the lake-side dweller) needs to know how much N they can accept to run into the lake before it becomes murky. A number of simulations helps the user find out the limits (which of course depend on initial conditions in the bi-stable regime). Time series coupled with  parameter-sensitive cup and marble models that run as real time animations allow the user to better understand the cusp catastrophe involved

In act 3 farmers try to comply with such restriction imposed by the interests of the lake side people. The farmer, together with the lakesier and the government, first consider if its possible to do so under a maize moncrop system and later under a maize-leguminous shrub system. A simple agroforestry model is behind the curtains and the user currently has access only to a small set of its parameters.

Each act provides: the story with illustrations, a scenario simulator  based on minimalist dynamical models,  a number of excercises that must be solved before going further and a graphical tutorial.

A failsafe solution for world food supply?

New Scientist of January 12, report on an initiative of the Norwegian government to create a large concrete room, hewn out of a mountain on a freezing-cold island just 1000 kilometres from the North Pole, to hold around 2 million seeds, representing all known varieties of the world’s crops.

It is being built to safeguard the world’s food supply against nuclear war, climate change, terrorism, rising sea levels, earthquakes and the ensuing collapse of electricity supplies. “If the worst came to the worst, this would allow the world to reconstruct agriculture on this planet,” says Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an independent international organisation promoting the project.

This initiative shows a practical implementation of principles to enhance resilience: redundancy and diversity.

Robustness of the Internet

Router-level topology of Abilene. Each vertex represents a router, and each link represents a physical connection; however, each physical connection can support many virtual connections, giving the appearance of greater connectivity at higher layers of the IP stack. End-user networks are shown in white, peering networks are shown in blue, and high-degree routers can only be found at the network periphery (not shown).

John Doyle and his colleagues published a very interesting paper on the structure of the internet and its implications for robustness. It is a popular belief that the structure of the Internet follow a scale free distribution of the number of connections, which then results in being sensitive to target attacks at the hubs. Doyle et al. dig deeper in to the real structure of the internet and falsify this myth. Indeed the number of connections follow a scale free distribution, but there are various ways to derive such a distribution. Doyle et al. find that the components of the internet with the most connections are not the crucial hubs of the internet.

Doyle et al. define an alternative model to generate networks structures of the internet (an alternative to the preferential attachment models). This alternative model is based on the highly optimized tollerance (HOT) concept and includes specific technological (bandwidth) and economic (costs) constraints. The resulting model generates statistics more in line with the real internet, and an important finding is that this structure is robust to targeted attacks to highly connected nodes.

John C. Doyle, David L. Alderson, Lun Li, Steven Low, Matthew Roughan, Stanislav Shalunov, Reiko Tanaka, and Walter Willinger (2005) The “robust yet fragile” nature of the Internet, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 102: 14497-14502

Parks and People in Africa

New Scientist has an interview with Paul van Vlissingen who is the largest private parks operator in Africa. Interesting is his focus on the importance of integrating the people and the park:

No park will survive in the long run unless it is supported by the people living in and around it. They need to know there is something better to do with a zebra than eat it, that they can benefit from protecting it.

Our management philosophy is completely different from anything that has been there before. We say that the villagers in and around our parks should see the park rangers as people who will help them, not as policemen who go round beating up anybody they think is poaching. Our rangers visit the villages and ask if there is anything they can do. There is a lot of physical suffering there: hunger, malaria, AIDS, people being mauled by lions. Our rangers have radio equipment, so they can get doctors or medicine. We offer security, too. In Liuwa, our park in Zambia, there were 60 or 80 murders a year before we went there. In the first year that we were there, that number went down to 26, the next year to two.

Why the emu’s survived the human occupation

In the July 8 edition of Science an interesting study is presented by Miller et al. (2005) and commented by Johnson (2005) on the impact of human activities. Around 45,000 years ago, the human started to occupy Australia, and like similar puzzles in the Americas, the questions is the impact of human activities on the extinction of many large herbivores. Miller et al. (2005) provide “the best evidence to date that human arrival, rather than climate, played the leading role in the extinctions of many large herbivores in Australia. They look especially to the diets of the emu and of the largest flightless but now extinct bird Genyornis.

Genyornis & Emu
Figure compares Genyornis & Emu.

Continue reading