A $1.2bn Living Earth Simulator

Technology Review – Professor Dirk Helbing of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich wants to build a “living earth simulator” to probe the kind of dangerous cascading effects that he believes threaten financial markets, power grids and other complex systems that modern life relies upon. He has a good chance at getting €1bn ($1.2bn) of EU research funding to build it, as co-leader of one of six projects competing for two huge research grants.

The ultimate goal of the FuturICT flagship project is to understand and manage complex, global, socially interactive systems, with a focus on sustainability and resilience.

The FuturICT flagship project will align the research of hundreds of the best scientists in Europe through a 10 year, 1 billion euro research programme to develop new methods which integrate different scientific models, data and concepts. To build capacity, regional support will be developed alongside educational programmes for young researchers.

FuturICT will build a sophisticated framework for simulation, visualisation and participation, called the FuturICT Platform. A suite of models forming the Living Earth Simulator will power Observatories, to detect and mitigate crises plus identify opportunities in specific areas.

The Planetary Nervous System

The Planetary Nervous System can be imagined as a global sensor network, where ‘sensors’ include anything able to provide static and dynamic data about socio-economic, environmental or technological systems which measure or sense the state and interactions of the components that make up our world. Such an infrastructure will enable real-time data mining – reality mining – using data from online surveys, web and lab experiments and the semantic web to provide aggregate information. FuturICT will closely collaborate with Sandy Pentland’s team at MIT’s Media Lab, to connect the sensors in today’s smartphones (which comprise accelerometers, microphones, video functions, compasses, GPS, and more). One goal is to create better compasses than the gross national product (GDP), considering social, environmental and health factors. To encourage users to contribute data voluntarily, incentives and micropayment systems must be devised with privacy-respecting capabilities built into the data-mining, giving people control over their own data. This will facilitate collective and self-awareness of the implications of human decisions and actions. Two illustrative examples for smart-phone-based collective sensing applications are the open streetmap project and a collective earthquake sensing and warning concept.

The Living Earth Simulator

The Living Earth Simulator will enable the exploration of future scenarios at different degrees of detail, integrating heterogeneous data and models and employing a variety of theoretical and modelling perspectives, such as sophisticated agent-based simulations, multi-level mathematical models, and new empirical and experimental approaches. Ideas from complexity science will be compared with graph theoretic approaches and other techniques based on concepts from statistical physics. Exploration will be supported via a ‘World of Modelling’ – an open software platform, comparable to an app-store, to which scientists and developers can upload theoretically informed and empirically validated modelling components that map parts of our real world. This will require the development of interactive, decentralised, scalable computing infrastructures, coupled with access to huge amounts of data. Large-scale simulations and hybrid modelling approaches will require supercomputing capabilities that will be delivered by several of Europe’s leading supercomputing centres.

Global Participatory Platform

The Global Participatory Platform will be an open framework for citizens, businesses and organisations to be able to share and explore data and simulations, and debate the potential implications. It will democratise ‘big data’, promoting responsible use of information systems and opening up the modelling of complex systems to non-experts. Next generation decision arenas for policy-makers will be developed to evaluate the consequences of interventions, and then opened up and tuned to the needs of the diverse stakeholders. This will enable (1) software developers to add value, e.g. mobile apps that exploit specific datasets or upload data; (2) develop information visualisation tools, e.g. for policy analysts, citizens and researchers; (3) create semantic web services for distributed e-science, and platforms promoting reflective, participatory online debates. This participation will harness and shape the emerging global, social computing infrastructure to tackle various problems. In addition it will equip different scales of collective agent to more effectively sense their environments, interpret signals, debate the assumptions and implications, and make better informed, more collectively owned decisions.


* Energy
* Networks and Communication
* Economics
* Crime and Corruption
* Migration
* Health
* Crisis Management

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