Reflections from the Tuesday parallel session on “AIMES 2.0: Reconsidering integrated socio-environmental modeling”

Into this session, I come with no knowledge and less than zero expectations. It immediately becomes clear that this one is a big deal, I see NASA and a bunch of other abbreviations (probably important, but not making any sense to me) and catch the rumour that Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, is making his way down the hall to open this session. Upon his entrance, Rockström whispers to the chair, Sander van der Leeuw from the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University: “Does everyone in the audience actually know what ‘AIMES’ is?”. I fiercely hope the answer to that will be a ‘no’, otherwise things are about to get quite embarrassing… ‘Analysis, Integration and Modelling of the Earth System’, AIMES, I got that far, but I have a feeling I may not be on board with the weight this session carries.

Fortunately, Rockström comes to my rescue. “Over the past couple of years, science has developed the next generation earth system models, while in parallel, a global roadmap was set up for attaining social goals for humanity within environmental targets such as the Sustainable Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Paris Agreement.” Aha, at least I recognize a returning narrative from this conference: the need for true integration of sciences.

It finally dawns to me where I’ve ended up; the baby shower of the soon-to-be younger brother/sister of AIMES-1. Kathy Hibbard from NASA takes over and gives us some historical background. AIMES-1 was the brainchild of Future Earth, conceived from a need to capture how humans interact with nature, and how nature affects humans, thus extending Earth System Modelling with human processes and not just carbon cycles. The big challenge then was to create coupled networks to synchronize data flows to feed into such a social-ecological model. For example, by the time the reports on the mitigation of emissions through socio-economic development pathways would be out and ready to put in relation with other data sets, the data on climate change would already be outdated. Everyone had to start working together.

AIMES-1 produced great results in, amongst others, integrating data flows, fostering successful spin-offs and coordinating related projects. Sander van der Leeuw, co-chair of the Scientific Steering Committee of AIMES continues. “We have come really far with AIMES-1, and complementarity of different sciences is now very much valued. However, this integration has come from an environmental point of view. We can see the environment is in crisis, but we have not enough seen that the crisis is societal. How is it that we manage to get to the moon but traffic jams prevent us from getting to the airport? Society is full of complex, so-called wicked problems. We need to start modeling from this societal perspective. For example; how do individuals make environmental decisions, how does societal feedback impact people’s opinions and actions?” As a social scientist by nature, I’m even starting to feel at home. Michael Barton from Arizona State University adds; “We originated from mammals and have grown into a very special, telecoupled species. In the world we have created, we can’t anticipate what is going to happen. We need advanced science to manage the socio-technological system we have inherited and are creating. People and earth systems are linked, so we need linked modeling to understand and manage the planet.”

One big question remains on the table however; how will this different approach in the second phase of AIMES see the light? Well, the shared parenthood (also called the International Project Office), is taken up by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis and Columbia University, with alimentation coming from NASA. “Next to that, we need a next generation modeling platform to capture these human-earth systems”, Barton adds. A collaborative open source software environment is on its way, as a self-organizing, adaptive software development space where scientists can build on the right sharing structure.

Kathy Hibbard however warns to not start dancing too soon. A lesson she drew from AIMES 1.0 is to focus on a few things and do those really well before moving on to other possibilities. It will be challenge for AIMES 2.0 to live up to all the high hopes, but a proud (pregnancy) glow is definitely radiating all throughout the room.

Your Resilience2017 correspondent:
Elke Markey is a former Master’s student from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, where she earned a degree in Social-Ecological Resilience for Sustainable Development. Her roots lie in political science and in Belgium, where she gained another Master’s degree in Comparative and International Politics from KU Leuven University. To complete these endeavours, she packed her backpack for field work on forest governance in the Amazon region as well as on food systems in South Africa.


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