Solving social problems through collaboration between CBS and UvA

We live in a world of complex systems: everything is connected to everything. The economy, the environment, social security, how people move in their network of friends, colleagues and acquaintances. There are many factors that determine how these systems evolve and the systems also affect each other. Researchers from Statistics Denmark and UvA / IAS to do since 2019 together research this complexity and try to grasp complex issues such as climate change and inequality in opportunities.

Grasp the complexity

The collaboration has two goals. ‘Firstly, with our research we want to contribute to the solution of complex social problems such as the poverty trap and the energy transition’, says Prof. Huub Dijstelbloem, Director of IAS. ‘Secondly, the collaboration between IAS and Statistics Netherlands contributes to a better understanding of complexity as a method. We are particularly interested in the relationship between the various complex systems, such as the environment, poverty and inequality. The aim is to develop a better method for examining these systems and to get a better grip on these systems so that politicians can implement targeted improvements. ‘

digital twins

In recent years, much research has been done into so-called ‘digital twins’† CBS Researcher Gert Buiten: ‘One can study complex systems by making a digital copy of reality. You imitate, like Dutch society, adding “agents” who represent the people of the Netherlands. You can model the behavior of these ‘agents’ and then run different scenarios at the touch of a button and see what happens next.’ Dijstelbloem: ‘Police officers can make use of that information when making targeted improvements to society ‘digital twins’ of society. For example, from a simulation in a digital version of society, you would early warning signs be able to derive and test opportunities for new policies. ‘ There are many ethical and privacy considerations involved in conducting this research. CBS researcher Edwin de Jonge† ‘It has our constant attention. We ensure privacy by design: the privacy guarantee is already built into the design of our models. ‘

Network mapping

The next step is for CBS and IAS to examine networks of human relationships. Based on information in state registers, CBS has mapped the situation of the Dutch population completely anonymously. De Jonge: ‘It’s about family relationships: who lives with whom, who knows each other from work, who are friends and who goes to school together?’ Using this database, it has already been investigated to what extent highly educated Dutch people have contact with less educated Dutch people, while at the same time protecting the privacy of citizens. In addition, the network was used to calibrate scientific models of corona spread and make them as realistic as possible. Buiten: ‘Researchers call this a unique database. Together with IAS, we will devise even more applications for it in the coming years. We also work with University of Leiden With whom we have formed a consortium with IAS, Population Scale Network Analysis (POPNET), to realize a secure user interface of the database. Researchers from, for example, planning agencies and ministries can make use of this under strict conditions. ‘

Convince people

Dijstelbloem also stresses that he would like to contribute ‘the story’† »If the problems are really complex, for example with climate change or the corona pandemic, it is often seen that the development is not linear. The situation does not gradually get worse, but can suddenly escalate or no way back‘ to be. That means you have to act before it’s too late. This includes requiring a government to take measures that go against the intuition of the people, such as the corona measures. Then you have to convince people, show them that they are doing something for the greater good, for society as a whole. As IAS, we want to help do this in a good way, by thinking with politicians and politicians about how to explain things in a clear way. ‘

New ideas and plans

A workshop was arranged around the signing of the expanded collaboration, where the researchers shared new ideas and plans. Outside: ‘There’s a lot of excitement, it’s buzzing.’ So there is a lot ahead. Dijstelbloem: ‘To cite one example: in the near future we will focus our attention on the subject of polarization. We want to gain more insight into this using demographic and economic data from Statistics Netherlands. Where, for example, do people with more extreme opinions live, how are they distributed in the labor market? We are now doing this with the help of surveys, for example in schools. But we want more. Therefore, we are investigating how we can better map this complex social phenomenon. ‘

To combine theory and practice

‘At the same time, we are building on ‘digital twins’ of Dutch society, in which agent-based model combined with our network file, “says The young† To ensure the computing power required for such a comprehensive system, CBS works with the research institute CERN in Switzerland. Buiten: ‘We combine their computing power with our data from practice and IAS’ mathematical models. It offers great opportunities. You can compare it to James Webb telescope: our models allow you to see the world in a way that was not possible before. It will lead to new theories and new scientific insights and hopefully to a solution to our greatest social problems. ‘

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