Bridging academia and government to build a more resilient future
One Saturday afternoon in April 2010, I got a call from the Government Chief Scientific Adviser. Did I, he asked, know anything about volcanoes? The previous day, on the 14th April, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull had erupted. What we know now – but didn’t know then – was the profound and global effect this far-away event would have.
No, I told them. But by the end of the day there was a growing team of experts including volcanologists, and by Sunday the whole machine was running to gauge the possible effects of volcanic ash on aircraft, whilst simultaneously working with meteorologists to explore how ash was likely to behave in the atmosphere.
Of course, it rapidly became apparent that the problem wasn’t one of just volcanology or meteorology, of engineering or aviation. At least, it wasn’t any single one of these. It was a question of managing a complex system that was undergoing a transition; that single event had cascading consequences for global supply chains and economics, world finance and international politics, many of which were, at the time, all but impossible to foresee.
But perhaps the biggest problem from a governmental point of view – the thing that might have stopped us mounting a faster, more effective response – was that we had to bring together the necessary expertise from a standing start. We risked losing precious time. Cost always precludes us running at a high level of readiness to deal with all of the unexpected scenarios and we can’t necessarily have the tools, technologies or expertise in place that every unprecedented and unforeseeable situation requires.
Many of today’s challenges to our national resilience and security are every bit as complex, dynamic and interrelated as the ones posed by Eyjafjallajökull. From climate change and COVID-19 to disinformation, political polarisation, cyber attacks and grey-zone or hybrid operations by strategic competitors, the threats we face are proliferating and diversifying at pace.
Our ability to respond is failing to keep up.
In liberal democracies, we pride ourselves on our ability to remain within our moral, legal, and ethical frameworks, even when under severe pressure. But these considerations and the vast complexity of our societies all serve to slow our response when confronted by a crisis. In many scenarios, our authoritarian rivals will be less encumbered by such scruples.
It’s therefore vital that we find a way to become more agile without compromising our values – to identify challenges more quickly, analyse them more accurately, and mount a swift, effective response that’s integrated across government and society as a whole.
Central to this will be making the latest research and innovations available, useful and usable to government, and to do so more quickly and economically than is currently possible.
This, in turn, will require a closer relationship between government and academia. The people responsible for addressing the challenges we face must have access to the expertise they need. Similarly, the experts themselves must have access to the people and organisations in government that will allow them to make the greatest possible impact.
We must bring together different groups – groups that might be apparently unrelated and have zero history of collaborations. And we must give them the opportunity as well as the technologies they need, such as modelling and simulation, data analytics, AI and machine learning, to explore, experiment, test and approach challenges in new and different ways.
The Myridian programme, facilitated by Improbable, is a research initiative that aims at exactly this: to give policy makers and decision takers access to the finest problem-solving minds in the world, armed with the latest technological innovations, and to give those professional problem solvers the opportunity to make the greatest possible impact on real-world challenges.
Uniting Britain’s best minds from leading academics and research institutions
Improbable is delighted to welcome founder partners from the universities of Bristol, Durham, Leeds, Manchester and Oxford to the Myridian programme. The combined expertise in fields as diverse as computer science, geography, agent-based modelling, psychology, maths and data science is truly extraordinary.
It’s not only the breadth, depth and quality of the research conducted at institutions such as these that’s so exciting – it’s the synthesis of this research and the insights and innovations that result from that synthesis. I believe, as many others do, that it’s in the cross-pollination of disparate ideas, disciplines and technologies that the greatest potential for innovation lies. There is, after all, no single idea or technology powering this Fourth Industrial Revolution. I am certainly not the first to notice that interesting things happen when the boundaries between the digital, physical and biological worlds are blurred. Everything that is currently transforming how we live, work, travel, shop, connect and entertain ourselves is the result of existing ideas coming together in new and different ways.
Those same ideas and innovations that are transforming our societies can help ensure their security and prosperity.
For this to happen, we’re going to need expertise from across government, industry and academia. We’ll need experts in modelling and simulation, data analytics, AI, machine learning and ethics. And we’ll need those experts to work alongside the leading minds in social dynamics and human behaviour, and a wide range of related fields.
And this is where Improbable fits into the Myridian programme. The same development platform that supports virtual worlds for real-world training and operational planning can also serve as a space in which government, industry and academia can come together to explore the full spectrum of contemporary challenges to national resilience and security.
Virtual experimentation for real-world application
Computational models and simulations have been helping us understand the world for years. From engineering to economics, supply-chain management to meteorology, they allow us to experiment, explore our options, and understand the likely consequences of different actions.
Many of the models we had in 2010 when Eyjafjallajökull erupted were highly sophisticated by the standards of the time, and the relevant academic disciplines and technologies have advanced enormously in the intervening years. Not only are our models and simulations becoming more powerful and more accurate, they’re also becoming more useful. They’re capable of integrating more and more data but – crucially – they’re also capable of integrating more and more kinds of data. The latest synthetic environments can represent enormously complex systems but also whole systems of systems, feeding off live data to provide a more accurate, up-to-date representation of the world than ever before.
This convergence of virtual worlds with the real one is what lies behind the emergence of that other burgeoning phenomenon: the metaverse. Although it’s impossible to tell at this stage what the precise nature of the metaverse will be, it looks likely to me that it will have a profoundly transformative effect on our personal and professional lives.
My hope and belief is that, thanks to programmes like Myridian, similarly complex virtual environments can help re-shape the way governance and governments work. Whatever the challenges we face, whether it’s an ash cloud or a global pandemic, an environmental disaster or humanitarian one, we have the technologies and also the expertise to address and overcome them.
The Myridian programme is open to prospective industrial and academic partners with specialist expertise in social dynamics and human behaviour, computational modelling and model composition, distributed simulation performance, agent-based modelling and related fields. Please contact Improbable’s Director of Research Partnerships, RobSolly[at]improbable.io, for more information.
For press enquiries, please get in touch with DanielTarshish[at]improbable.io
Professor Jordan Giddings addresses complex challenges at the intersection of government, industry and academia, and currently leads Improbable’s innovation initiatives across defence and national resilience. Jordan holds a PhD in Particle Physics, and is a Fellow of the IET and the Institute of Physics. He is a non Executive Director of the UK Met Office, and has worked with the British government in a number of roles including Head of Defence Capability Assessment and Deputy CSA for both Transport and National Security.