Options Magazine, Summer 2023: Continuing innovation and developing new tools is crucial to effectively address problems, adapt to changing circumstances, and drive progress in an ever-evolving world. To bolster the institute’s analytical toolkit, IIASA is continuously developing new systems models and methods incorporating state-of-the-art technology.

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The IIASA Advancing Systems Analysis (ASA) Program is the institute’s laboratory for innovative systems analysis and has a strong focus on producing new data, developing innovative methods, and creating new insights for use in other programs and the broader research community, while acting as a hub to promote transdisciplinary research for informed decision making.

Decision makers often need to make trade-offs between multiple conflicting objectives. In this context, the ASA program developed a novel way to reduce a very large set of potential policies to a handful of alternative diverse solutions that optimize the multiple objectives of the decision maker. Applying their framework to a case study of epidemic control, a small set of candidate policies were identified that balance health impacts with economic or societal costs, while being robust with respect to uncertainties of the underlying processes. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, decision makers strived to minimize deaths, while simultaneously minimizing the cumulative impact on the economy. According to the model, alternative control strategies would consist of mass testing, lockdowns, or a combination thereof.

As another example of out-of-the-box thinking, ASA researchers developed a new type of computer model – known as an agent-based model or ABM – representing an innovative approach to economic forecasting. It focuses on small open economies and incorporates both micro and macro data from various sources, enabling a detailed picture of the economy. What makes the model unique is that it considers all economic activities as defined by the European System of Accounts and includes millions of individual agents representing different sectors of the economy. This enables the model to make predictions at the sector level and to analyze and forecast the economic performance of specific economic sectors, which could provide valuable insights into the economy and can be applied to real-world situations to inform decision-making processes.

IIASA has a long history of contributing to climate science and hosts the Scenario Explorer and databases underlying the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). One of the latest innovative developments in the institute’s climate science toolshed is the Pathfinder model. Pathfinder is open-source and merges multiple state-of-the-art sources of information via a statistical technique called Bayesian inference. The model thus combines established formulations that describe climate and carbon cycle systems and incorporates the latest data from complex Earth system models and the IPCC sixth assessment reports. Despite its simplicity, it can accurately replicate the behaviors and outcomes of complex models.

While these are just a few examples of the work done at IIASA, they clearly illustrate the institute’s commitment to innovation in systems analysis models, methods, and tools with the aim to inform decision-making processes in an agile manner and pave the way to a better future.

By Ansa Heyl