FuturICT: Building a “Socio-Economic Knowledge Collider” and Some Questions

Posted on January 7, 2011


I’m not sure what anyone else thinks, but this proposal which is an attempt to get major funding to do very very large scale social simulations based on real time data of social phenomena is currently up for EU research funding.  This seems to me to be extremely questionable from a variety of perspectives.

FuturICT is a response to the European Flagship call. It intends to unify hundreds of the best scientists in Europe in a 10 year 1 billion EUR program to explore social life on earth and everything it relates to. The FuturICT flagship will produce historic breakthroughs and provide powerful new ways to manage challenges that make the modern world so difficult to predict, including the financial crisis.


Human society continuously makes decisions with massive social, economic and environmental implications on the basis of very limited understanding of the inherently complex social mechanics of our world. FuturICT seeks to revolutionise support for advanced decision making in the face of complexity, by driving paradigm shifts in ICT to enable planetary scale simulations of our social system powered by massive real time data. In doing so, FuturICT will provide massive empowerment to decision support, enhancing prospects for international cooperation and a sustainable future.

First there is the question whether what is being proposed is really possible i.e. whether these kinds of very large scale social “decisions” can in fact be mapped/simulated except at such a level of aggregation and generality as to be of little predictive value… It isn’t clear to me how if at all the simulations would be taking into account the role of localized economic or political conditions or various public policies…

Even if these kind of simulations were possible (or better yet useful), I have really great concerns about who and how they were going to be used.  The accompanying document says The mission of the project is to enable decision-making that will enable humanity to tackle urgent and profound global challenges ranging from environmental change and shortages of natural resources to financial and economic instability. These challenges all derive from difficulties in managing our collective global activities and their consequences.

It isn’t clear from the document whose decision-making is being enabled (it’s not a great stretch to assume that it will be decision making by those currently in a position to make those decisions–which given current circumstances would not necessarily mean that those decisions would be undertaken in the broad public interest).  For many observers, the matter of global crises and the inability to mount effective coordinated responses on a global scale is not a matter of lack of information or predictive capacity–what is available may not be perfect but it probably suffices for most purposes–rather the problem is precisely in the lack of effective and legitimate governance structures at the global level and in many cases at the national level as well. And regrettably because of political developments in certain key national jurisdictions things seem to be getting worse in those areas rather than better.

From what is presented the issues of governance including issues of legitimacy, transparency, corruption and so on seem to not be included for study but are rather taken for granted!  Nor is there a clear definition of what might constitute the public interest in this kind of simulation (precisely what is the goal that the simulation is meant to be pursuing!) and perhaps most importantly how might such a definition of the public interest be realized–is it to be left to the current decision making structures to determine–but in many cases these have dealt with the issues and not been able to make very much useful progress.

In fact, one might have quite serious concerns if the results of this work were to be successful and the power of a social “super collider” was to be put into the hands of current governance structures with the likely result being ever more successful approaches to social control (in the name of security) even while those crises identified in the paper become ever more acute because of a lack of real engagement with the grassroots and broad democratic social participation on which ultimately a response has to be based.

I find it very hard to see how “A specific committee (that) will be set up to arrange this and expert advice from outside, including legal advice, will be sought.” will in any sense deal with the issue since again there will be no democratic engagement but rather simply experts reporting to experts who in turn report to funders who in turn report to governments virtually all of whom are suffering from what is now being termed a “democratic deficit”.

To which David Sadoway very usefully and constructively replied (quoted with permission):

“The FuturICT flagship will produce historic breakthroughs and provide powerful new ways to manage challenges that make the modern world so difficult to predict, including the financial crisis.” [extract from Living Earth Simulator website]

Regarding the Living Earth Simulator my first reaction (as a bit of a enviro-planning nerd interested in these issues) was somewhat nerdish fascination.  And given the scale and magnitude of these intertwined problems no doubt it instinctively makes sense to throw everything we have at the problems.  Also, as a soon-to-be graduate from a PhD program such an integrated initiative looks potentially interesting…however….

To somewhat echo Michael’s concerns the website and readings left me curious about the role of general public involvement in this ‘social science simulator’. Given the depth of current financial austerity measures in line for European universities, not to mention state budgets, one wonders whether a project like this apparently modeled on centralized big physical science organizational approaches (CERN LHSCollidor) can be operated in a very different socio-economic-ecological domain.  Wasn’t it the excessive reliance on science Quants (quantitative modeler dudes) partially responsible for some of the run-away effects in the financial crisis in the first place?  Don’t get me wrong some of my best friends are modelers (also have some model friends too) and I think good models are super critical pardon the pun.  The key is how publics and officials participate in the framing, scenario building and so forth.  Are these systems designed to listen to the public’s voices and stories or are they designed to operate in technocratic academic-Eurocrat echo chambers?

Certainly European institutions have a track record for developing stakeholder models/approaches and solid collaborative partnerships amongst its universities. And the Swiss involvement might bode well for decentralized, democratic public inputs.  However, when I look at the “control room/observatory” imagery in the Living Earth Simulator prospectus (shown above) I am left wondering where the general public, democratically elected officials, non-state actors and counterpublics might sit in the room, if anywhere—or is this just a technocratic visions of an Earth Systems Governance modelers playroom ? What happened to local knowledge systems, traditional ecological knowledge systems, and the myriad of sustainability experiments taking place at the community level throughout the EU?  Did this diversity of experiments and their lessons suddenly become irrelevant in the name of a newly formulated centralized research agenda (1 billion Euro/10 years)?  Not to knock the founders’ visions too much but the control room imagery also made me think of an article I just finished reading by communications scholar Klaus Krippendorff, “Pathology, Power, and Emancipation” (1989).  Krippendorff talks about the dangers of misusing and borrowing language and metaphors from the physical sciences and importing it into the social sciences. Here is an interesting thought which the Living Earth Simulator’s might want to ponder in their quest to observe and solve:

“Economic metaphors and physical metaphors have different entailments, but share their determinism, leaving no place for the use of language and denying their human constituents intelligent roles.”     (K.Krippendorff, 1989).

At which point Dr. Steven R. Bishop a spokesperson for the project intervened (again quoted with permission):

It was interesting reading your email exchange – a bit like eavesdropping into a conversation.

We all have worries and concerns and that it what the preliminary year will sort out. The European Commission will choose 5-7 areas to promote for a year allowing them to really get their act together before choosing 1, or possibly 2 flagships.

Our idea is to bring modellers together and yes with a focus on governance since particularly in Europe that is what we need.

However the long term goal is to allow the methods, software and hardware developed to be reduced in size allowing citizen engagement.

Steven Bishop

And to which I replied again:

As the proud father of son who grew up playing and learning some very very important lessons from Sim City (he still has a strong fascination with the dynamics of large scale urban phenomena as witnessed by his personal and professional interest in urban China) I understand the intellectual fascination and value of the kind of modelling that you are looking to undertake.

And I’m really delighted to see that you have as a long term goal “to allow the methods, software and hardware developed to be reduced in size allowing for citizen engagement”!

I have several friendly comments on that…

The first is that since this is a longer term goal it might be useful and certainly a lot more comforting to those of us who will be watching this as it develops (and particularly for those of us in Europe who will be making a financial contribution through their tax dollars) to have this goal stated explicitly somewhere in the proposal.

Also, from a community informatics perspective simply making these tools available may not be sufficient to engage the broader base of the population (or civil society) in what will be a potentially important set of pre-policy discussions and analyses.  Planning in advance for ensuring broadly accessible opportunities for effective use of the tools even in the planning stage would go some what to helping to achieve an active and useful citizen engagement.  (I’ve discussed these issues at some length in a couple of blogposts that might be of interest here and here.)

And finally, I should say that it has been my experience and I think the experience of my community informatics colleagues that in order to ensure that a project of this kind does result in longer term “citizen engagement” it is necessary to build those processes in from the very beginning as for example, through having a lay advisory council (rather than a “committee of experts”), advising you on this process.  If that is of interest I’m sure that ways could be found to provide you with such a group who would be both highly sympathetic to your enterprise but who might also help you in bridging its outcomes to interested citizens and civil society.

And now over to others for comment…