Does biocomputing have a future?

What does the future hold? : Sustainability that pays off

The small computers are very popular on the Internet: you push the controls a little and you can see straight away how not eating meat or switching to public transport would improve your individual climate balance. The models that mathematician Sarah Wolf is working on at Freie Universität work in principle in a very similar way. They too simulate the effects that certain decisions or measures would have on the economy, society and the environment. But these so-called agent-based models are much larger and more complex, as Sarah Wolf explains: “For example, we represent all people in Germany as a 'synthetic population'. It is not just about the individual climate balance, but also about the interactions between the decisions from many actors. "

With the help of agents

Sarah Wolf is currently building the “Mathematics for Sustainability Transitions” junior research group at the Institute for Mathematics at Freie Universität in the “Biocomputing” department. Sarah Wolf heads the junior research group as part of the Math + Cluster of Excellence, a research association funded by the federal and state government's excellence strategy. The cluster is a joint project of the Free University, Humboldt University and Technical University in cooperation with the Weierstrass Institute for Applied Analysis and Stochastics and the Zuse Institute Berlin. Similar models have been used in ecology for a long time, for example to simulate how the development of an overall system results from the behavior of many individual plants or animals. For some time now, they have also been used to represent the behavior of people, households, companies or states. These are then represented in the model as "agents".

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Simplify programming

In order for the computer to be able to simulate the decisions of the agents and their effects in the overall system, the developers have to make assumptions when programming. However, there are no generally recognized standard assumptions available to them, such as those for many scientific models. Therefore, the simulated dynamics are not always understandable, says Sarah Wolf. She therefore wants to develop basic mathematical structures with which the models can be analyzed better and faster. The programming of new models or the adaptation to varying questions should also become easier in the future.

Another niche research

Sarah Wolf inherited her interest in mathematical challenges as a "family disease", as she puts it: both of her parents had studied mathematics. After graduating from high school, Sarah Wolf moved from Essen in the Ruhr area to Berlin to study mathematics at the Humboldt University. She specialized in stochastics, i.e. probability theory and statistics. "During my studies, the applications revolved primarily around financial markets," she says. “Option prices, portfolios and profit maximization were not my world.” She came into contact with sustainability sciences through a doctoral position at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). “At the moment, using math to promote sustainability is still a niche. Expanding this area would be very worthwhile, ”she says.

Research on environmental topics is mostly interdisciplinary, so translating from one technical language into another is an important prerequisite. “At PIK, we used mathematics as a language to find unambiguous definitions for terms that are often said in the literature to be unclear. For example, what it means that an ecosystem is 'vulnerable'. "

Trying out and discussing

Even after completing her doctorate at PIK, Sarah Wolf worked in an interdisciplinary team for the Global Climate Forum. This Berlin-based non-profit association of researchers and institutes, non-governmental organizations and companies aims to stimulate open debates on climate issues. Agent-based models that are used at events in a so-called “Decision Theater”, a discussion room, have proven to be particularly effective. That is the second difference to the small CO2 calculators on the Internet: the participants don't just slide any controls, but they exchange information about how the system works and which decisions would make sense. The combination of trial and error with the model and discussion in the group, to which experts from practice are usually invited, enriches the research process. Sarah Wolf says: “One of the strengths of this modeling is that the participants can identify with the agents. With their ideas, they also help us to improve the model. "

Intended as a decision-making aid

The topic of agent-based modeling in the “Decision Theater” of the Global Climate Forum is a mobility turnaround. It is funded in the "Experimental Laboratory" line of the Berlin University Alliance. Sarah Wolf now wants to work with her research at Freie Universität to make such models faster and easier to apply to other issues. Modeling can already provide scientific support to decision-makers, for example in the discussions on the implementation of the European Green Deal. "Modeling makes a system more transparent for everyone involved," says Sarah Wolf. "This should help to shape an ecological turnaround in such a way that not only the environment, but also economy and society benefit."

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