Introduction to GSS

You are here

A paradigmatic example of a global system is the internet. It “is unique among all computer systems in that it is built, operated, and used by a multitude of diverse economic interests, in varying relationships of collaboration and competition with each other.” [i] And for sure this multitude of interests cuts across nations to span the whole globe.

Other examples are:

  • the energy, water and food supply systems
  • the global financial system
  • the global city system
  • the agents, resources and mechanisms involved in climate policy
  • the web of military forces and relations
  • globally spreading diseases
  • the scientific community

GSS provides evidence about global systems, for example about the network structure of the world economy.[ii] This is essential to track, understand and shape how shocks propagate through the global economic system, or how the shift from “the West” towards South-East Asia and other areas may influence global institutional structures like the international monetary system.[iii] Producing evidence is equally important in view of other global systems, from the dynamics of social networks to the worldwide interdependence of cities.

As important as evidence are concepts that help to structure problems, identify phenomena and organize actions. An example is the concept of “price of anarchy”, developed in studies on computer networks, including the internet.[iv] It is of great relevance for the study of global systems in general, as are related concepts of coordination games, network topologies and more.

In the world of computing, an important resource to achieve coordination under “anarchic” conditions is the culture shared by computer occupations, famously summarized in the internet meme: “We reject: kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.” The concept of occupational groups is another example of a promising conceptual tool in GSS. It is essential to analyse their role in domains ranging from the dynamics of the global urban system[v] to the future of education.[vi]

A key feature of GSS is the combination between computational tools and methods and conversations involving both researchers and practitioners. Why bother about such conversations? Because they can help us keep in mind that computation is but one of many facets of the human condition.[vii]

Some of the problems faced by GSS may be quite easy to address once sufficient resources are dedicated to the tasks, with others, things may be different. It is not always obvious whether a research problem is of the first or the second kind. On June 7, 1742, e.g., a German mathematician by the beautiful name of Goldbach – gold creek – wrote a letter to his Swiss colleague Euler, including the conjecture: "at least it seems that every number that is greater than 2 is the sum of three primes".[viii] Is the check of this conjecture easy or not? Simple as it looks, Goldbach’s conjecture still stands as an unresolved problem in mathematics, more than two centuries later. Even if it should be resolved tomorrow, it is a wonderful example of a problem one has to learn to live with in order to perhaps solving it much later on.


Nowadays, globalization poses a problem of that class, with the difference that it is not only a few mathematicians, but humankind as a whole that has to learn to live with a problem that will take a long time to be solved. It may well be the first and foremost challenge for global systems science to share an awareness of how hard the problem of globalization has become. In fact, it cannot even be stated in a seemingly simple sentence like the one in Goldbach’s letter.

Rather, a list of preliminary questions and conjectures must suffice to point to the problem. Examples of such questions are:

  • What can different agents do to develop the internet and similar systems in ways that empower people all over the world?[ix]
  • What can different agents do to avoid global financial crises in the years and decades to come?
  • What can different agents do to avoid mistakes triggering World War III in the decades to come?[x]
  • What can different agents do to avoid dangerous climate change in the 21th century?
  • What can different agents do to create an institutional setting in which humankind can develop a common will about what kind of world to bestow to future generations?

Examples of relevant conjectures are:

  • The challenges of globalization arise because it involves a high-dimensional information flow that so far we are not able to handle in a reasonable manner; ICT can play a key role in learning to do so.
  • Increasing welfare and education together with improved global communication are leading to a widespread desire and request of empowerment for ordinary people in social life. ICT can play a key role in fulfilling that aspiration.
  • Using algorithmic game theory to model iterated games in complex networks can lead to considerable progress in modelling and understanding global systems.
  • ITC-supported occupational groups can play a vital role as carriers of global know-how and pathways of global decision-making.[xi]

Of course, when living with an unsolved problem like the one of globalization it is essential to learn as much as possible. In the case of GSS, this means that it can only thrive in an on-going dialogue with practitioners. [xii] Sometimes, this dialogue will be based on GSS providing indisputable evidence that helps practitioners to take and implement decisions relating to global cities. With regard to global problems, however, this is more likely to be the exception than the rule. Well-trained researchers working on such problems are likely to come to a rather broad spectrum of views and judgments, and there is little to be gained by blurring those differences in order to create the impression of a broad consensus. [xiii]

What is highly useful, however, is for researchers to offer their attention to practitioners, listening to how these organize their minds and actions with regard to a specific issue, and then making available to practitioners a range of relevant, not necessarily consistent, arguments. This leads to a governance style using pluralism as a resource and paying attention to the danger of closing ones mind instead of maintaining a learning stance.[xiv]

Such an approach is especially important for GSS as there is a second difference between Goldbach’s conjecture and the core problem of global systems science. In the former case, the difficulties arise simply because we lack knowledge about something we would like to know. Sometimes, however, things are more subtle than that; questions can arise out of realising that we are maintaining illusions of unwarranted knowledge. As the saying goes: "It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble, it’s the things we do know that just ain’t so." With regard to globalization, this is the challenge to be addressed by GSS.

[i] Papadimitriou, C.H. (2001) Algorithms, Games, and the Internet. Proceedings of the thirty-third annual ACM symposium on Theory of computing, 749-753, ACM, New York, p.749.

[ii] Vitali S, Glattfelder JB, Battiston S (2011) The Network of Global Corporate Control. PLoS ONE 6(10): e25995.

[iii] Zhou Xiaochuan (2009) Reforming the International Monetary System. BIS Review. Bank of International Settlements.

[iv] Roughgarden, T., Tardos, E. (2007). Introduction to the Inefficiency of Equilibria, in: Nisan, N. et al. (eds.) Algorithmic Game Theory. Cambridge University Press.

[v] King, K., Mellander, C., Stolarick, K. (2010) What You Do, Not Who You Work For. Martin Prosperity Institute, Toronto.

[vi] Maclean, R., Lai, A. (2011) The Future of Technical and Vocational Education and Training: Global challenges and possibilities. Int. J. of Training Research. 9, special issue 1-2.

[viii] In those days, 1 was looked at as a prime number. As Euler pointed out, Goldbach’s original conjecture implies that every even number larger than 2 can be represented as the sum of two primes.

[ix] Amichai-Hamburgera, Y., McKennab, K.Y.A., Tald, S.-A. (2008) E-empowerment: Empower­ment by the Internet. Computers in Human Behavior, 24, 1776-1789.

[x] Mearsheimer, J.J. (2010): The Gathering Storm: China’s Challenge to US Power in Asia. The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 3, 381–396.

[xi] For the importance of not relying simply on national identities in developing structures of global governance, see: Sen, A. (2006) Identity and Violence: the illusion of destiny. Norton, New York.

[xii] Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. Temple Smith, London.

[xiii] Sarewitz, D. (2011) The Voice of Science: Let's Agree to Disagree. Nature, 478, 7.

[xiv] Meuleman, L. (2012) Cognitive dissonance in evidence-based sustainability policy?   Reflections based on governance theory. Paper presented at the Conference on Evidence or Sustainable Development, Berlin 5 – 6 October 2012.