21 October 2015

From insect swarms to banking crises—making connections across networks

Options Magazine Winter 2015: Q & A with IIASA Postdoctoral Research Scholar
Matthias Wildemeersch working jointly in the Advanced Systems Analysis and Ecosystems Services and Management Programs at IIASA. His research focuses on
network dynamics and stability and can be applied across diverse disciplines.

How would you describe systems analysis?

We look at the whole system, we never focus on a single, isolated component. So, for example, in an ecological setting we wouldn’t look at a single species and its population fluctuations, we would try to look at all species in the ecosystem and how they affect each other. Another example would be financial networks, we would not examine the success or failure of a single bank, we would want to study the system as a whole. The bottom line is that we always look at connections between components in a system.

How did you become interested in this type of research?

The common factor running through all my work has been networks. For my PhD I researched how wireless communication networks can be designed so that they are more energy-efficient. As I worked I began to see that networks of all different kinds have common qualities. For example, the initial proposal I sent to IIASA when applying for my post‑doc was actually about opinion dynamics. I was interested in phenomena like the Arab spring of 2011 where social networks were used to spread opinions in a very short amount of time. But in fact the framework we created is not limited to this specific circumstance, it describes network behavior in general, and can be applied more widely.

Does your work have practical applications for policy design?

We are often most interested in how the structure of a network affects its stability; this can have important applications. For example, when Lehman Brothers failed in 2008 other institutions with financial links to the company also started to get into trouble. There was a cascade of failures. The question is, can we design a financial network in a different way, so that the loss of one of these institutions does not result in such a cascade? Research like that could help to create a regulatory framework that would prohibit certain unstable network structures, ensuring resilience. Currently, I am working on a very applied problem. We have been examining insect outbreaks, known to us as critical transitions. Certain conditions—for example, rising temperatures or increased rainfall as a result of climate change—can result in critical transitions in the ecosystem; from stable, low numbers of an insect, to a very high density that stays that way for a long time. I am working with colleagues in the Ecosystems Services and Management Program, using data on moths in Scandinavian forests to model and predict these critical transitions. This information could then be used to inform forest management.

What do you enjoy about working at IIASA?

IIASA is a very fertile working environment. There are so many different subjects being studied here but everyone is looking at them from a systems perspective. I am interested in all kinds of problems, ecological, social, it doesn’t matter. Here you can broaden your scope and apply your specific background to problems which affect everybody. That is very satisfying and motivational.

Interview by Daisy  Brickhill

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Last edited: 22 August 2017


Matthias Wildemeersch

Research Scholar Exploratory Modeling of Human-natural Systems Research Group - Advancing Systems Analysis Program



Network science and marketing: A virus’ tale

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
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Phone: (+43 2236) 807 0 Fax:(+43 2236) 71 313