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A new look at the increasingly complex world


Many people perceive the world as increasingly complex and confusing. And rightly so. The corona pandemic, for example, illustrates the close interconnection of a wide variety of areas. Possible solutions to the major challenges facing humanity - such as demographic development, climate change or digitization - will be discussed at this year's Alpbach Technology Talks from August 27 to 29, 2020. This traditional meeting will take place in an innovative format this year due to Corona.

The corona pandemic has ushered in a new era, so to speak, in which many things that previously seemed self-evident no longer apply. Fundamental principles of our life and economy have been shaken. "The corona pandemic has exposed and further exacerbated a number of weaknesses in today's social and economic system," says Hannes Androsch, Chairman of the Steering Committee of the Alpbach Technology Talks. Since 1983, more than 1,000 experts, politicians, scientists, business people and other interested parties have traveled to the Tyrolean mountains at the end of August for this event, which is organized by the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology together with ORF Radio Ö1; this year, the Technology Talks will take place in a new, innovative form as a live-streamed symposium due to the Corona pandemic.

Androsch cites an example of the complexity of our times: Globalization and the expansion of supply and value chains around the world have indeed brought great efficiency gains in recent decades and helped lift millions of people out of poverty. But now it is also becoming apparent how vulnerable this system is: as soon as there is a problem at one point, this disruption can cascade throughout the entire network and paralyze the production of entire sectors of the economy.

Systemic crises

"It is now becoming clearer than ever that we are in a deep systemic crisis in which many crisis phenomena overlap and influence each other," Androsch said. This starts with environmental issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, and extends to economic problems such as stagnation, widespread poverty and inequality, demographic imbalances, migration and difficulties adapting to digitalization. And now this multiple crisis is being overlaid by the Corona pandemic and its consequences: "This makes it even more difficult to master the long-term challenges of the future," Androsch states in the foreword to this year's yearbook to the Alpbach Technology Talks, which this year is dedicated to the topic of "Complexity.

Intensive study of how complex systems function and how they could be influenced in a desirable direction is essential. After all, "If we are honest, we are currently ill-equipped or not equipped at all to deal with the major issues of the future."

Our society and economic system are characterized by a high level of connectivity, he said: Global networks of commerce and communication to social media permeate all areas of life and give rise to new lifestyles and behavior patterns. In addition, there is a high level of interdependence between many different areas. For example, climate policy cannot be thought of without digitization, migration issues cannot be resolved without fundamental economic policy and ecological considerations, etc.

[Translate to English:] Buchcover mit der Aufschrift: "Technologie im Gespräch - Komplexität"

Cover of the Alpbach Technology Talks Yearbook 2020

Technology in Conversation - Complexity
by Hannes Androsch, Wolfang Knoll, Anton Plimon (eds.)

Tipping points and nonlinear behavior

Because of the intimate linkage of many variables that influence each other on many levels, all these systems exhibit complex behavior: They exhibit reactions that one would not expect. Complex systems, for example, exhibit tipping points at which they abruptly change their properties. This is the case, for example, in the climate system: When permafrost thaws due to warming, large amounts of methane are released, further accelerating the warming and initiating an irreversible development.

Complex systems also surprise us with cascading effects, in which a change - like a snowball rolling down a mountain getting bigger and bigger - spreads through the entire system. Another phenomenon is the so-called butterfly effect, by which a small cause can grow into huge consequences in a completely different area.

In complex systems, moreover, we are often confronted with nonlinear changes - such as exponential growth, as we recently observed in the spread of the coronavirus. We find it difficult to deal with such properties of complex systems. We find it very difficult to keep track of multilayered networks of relationships; they overwhelm our powers of comprehension. "This lack of clarity leads to uncertainty and insecurity; it also makes it difficult to manage complex systems through political decisions," Androsch said. "We therefore urgently need new methods to be able to grasp and analyze complex systems."

Methods for the study of complex systems

This is the subject of the relatively young science of complexity research - represented in Austria by the Complexity Science Hub (CSH) Vienna. "In complex systems, there is often a chicken-and-egg problem: In general, you cannot simply state which change is the cause and which is the effect," explains the head of CSH Vienna, Stefan Thurner, in his contribution to the yearbook. A central research task is to develop methods that can be used to describe and analyze the properties and diverse relationships in complex systems - so that they can then be recreated in computer models. Such methods are also currently providing valuable services in the wake of the Corona crisis: Thurner was part of the Ministry of Health's forecasting consortium and, with his team, created an epidemiological model for short-term forecasting of the spread of the virus. At the Technology Talks, he will discuss initial findings from the pandemic and its consequences together with internationally renowned colleagues.

Interdisciplinary thinking required

Dealing with the complex problems of the future also drives Gerald Bast, Rector of the University of Applied Arts Vienna. "Probably the greatest challenge is not only to survive in a world of permanent and serious change, but also to be able to intervene in a formative way despite everything. The old methods only work in part anymore," he makes clear in his contribution to the yearbook. "The complex problems of today can no longer be solved from the perspective of a single discipline." Artistic methods, he believes, offer an opportunity that can complement conventional scientific methods. Artists, he said, are skilled at dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity, stepping out of entrenched thought structures and seeking the new. Making use of this knowledge, therefore, is the order of the day, he said. "It's not about eliminating uncertainty - that would be completely presumptuous and doesn't work at all. Rather, it's about allowing uncertainty and ambiguity to become productive," Bast said. He therefore calls for people to be trained who are capable of working with artistic and scientific methods in equal measure - "because only then can they make use of all the layers of knowledge and cognition."

Alpbach Technology Talks 2020

The Alpbach Technology Talks will take place from August 27 to 29 as part of the European Forum Alpbach. They are organized by the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology, Austria's largest research and technology organization, and ORF Radio Ö1. Scientific partner of the Alpbach Technology Talks 2020 is the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers, Industrial partner is the Federation of Austrian Industries (IV). The event is supported by the Austrian Federal Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology (BMK), the Federal Ministry for Digitalization and Business Location (BMDW) and the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research (BMBWF).

This year, the Forum Alpbach and thus also the Technology Talks will take place digitally due to Corona. The high-profile plenary and breakout sessions will be produced live in Alpbach and streamed. The Hop-in tool will be used for the online conference. The participation fee for all talks of the European Forum Alpbach including the technology talks is a one-time fee of 90 euros. This is to enable as many interested parties as possible to participate in the events virtually.