Systems modelling placed at the heart of landmark Commission on Planetary Health report

Systems modelling placed at the heart of landmark Commission on Planetary Health report

Systems modelling has been placed at the heart of the landmark report – Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Epoch – by The Rockefeller FoundationLancet Commission on Planetary Health.

With input from members our team, Peter Head who sat on the Scientific Advisory Panel and Stephen Passmore and Alexander Schmidt through inclusion of their work on the January 2015 status report to DFID and Cities Alliance.

Panel 15: Understanding and modelling complex feedbacks — a systems approach

The interdependence between human wellbeing and ecology is highly complex, both in the nature of connections and in responses in time and space. Achievement of an improved understanding of human–ecological systems interaction is essential, just as is being achieved in climate science through computer modelling. Systems modelling (understanding and modelling complex systems, in this case socioenvironmental and economic interactions and feedbacks) has been evolving quickly during the past 20 years with the growing power of computer processors and the evolution of new mathematical modelling techniques. In 2013, a review424 reported that 17 different systems resource models existed for city development, resource planning, and technology system optimisation, but none incorporated ecological systems and human wellbeing.

This revolution in systems modelling has reached the point where it is now possible to begin modelling the interplay between the economic (values), societal (health, welfare, and productivity), and the environmental impacts of decisions and investments to support long-term decision making.425 The data to support such resource flow modelling can come from earth observation, crowd sourcing, ground-based sensors, census, surveys, cohort studies, and other epidemiological approaches. The opportunity these data sources provide have informed several key recommendations for actions to be taken on data offered to the UN secretary general by the UN Independent Expert Advisory Group, established in August 2014.426 Geospatial data exists at high resolutions427 and complimentary human demographic and health datasets are now advancing (eg, WorldPop428). The next step in the improvement of these models will be to improve coverage of civil registration and vital statistics at the subnational scale.426 These data will also help to identify the inequalities in access to services and the differences in outcomes and also to improve the quality of other statistics, such as household surveys, that depend on accurate demographic benchmarks.426 In many cases, models of complex ecological systems used to make projections of future trends use data derived statistically from putative causal associations, but these associations can change under novel conditions and thus predictions might be questionable. Models that are based on an understanding of the underlying processes that cause a system to behave in particular ways are increasingly needed.429


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  5. WorldPop. 2015. (accessed Feb 14,2015).
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