Research has armed us against the COVID-19 pandemic with genomic surveillance, vaccines, social distancing and face masks. But differences in countries’ death and vaccination rates indicate that society needs more than technological solutions. To prevent future pandemics, reduce inequality, stabilize democracy and guide the transition to net-zero carbon emissions, researchers need insight into the effects of increasing social, economic and ecological interconnectedness.
Our socio-economic-ecological world is a complex adaptive network, in which behaviours emerge that cannot be understood by looking at the interacting components in isolation. Such a networked system can undergo sudden, often unpredictable, change, for example in the climate or the global economy, as I have written about in several books (see, for example, Crashes, Crises, and Calamities; Basic Books, 2011).
Understanding how the world might become resilient to such collapses requires ‘complexity thinking’. Scientists must collaborate with a wide sphere of fellow thinkers — from economists to social scientists, political scientists and historians. One upside in this dark time is that such interdisciplinary work can be fun. It provides new outlets to rekindle the curiosity and delight of discovery that drew most of us to research in the first place. Try it.