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Online course

Global Systems Science and Policy: an Introduction

Learn how Global Systems Science can inform and model the impact of social, economic, political and environmental policy making.


  • Access to the course for its duration + 14 days, regardless of when you join (this includes access to articles, videos, peer review steps, quizzes)
  • No access to course tests
  • No certificate


  • Unlimited access to the course, for as long as it exists on FutureLearn (this includes access to articles, videos, peer review steps, quizzes)
  • Access to course tests
  • A Certificate of Achievement when you complete the course

Find out more

Global Systems Science and Policy: an Introduction


Why join the course?

Policy is the art of achieving a desired outcome in the presence of constraints and differing priorities.

Policy is largely a coordination problem. Here data and models can help. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa did not spread worldwide because science-based policies were implemented, replacing ineffective policies such as restricting movement by closing borders.

Model policy problems with Global Systems Science

The science of epidemics is one of the successes of Global Systems Science (GSS) – an interdisciplinary approach to modelling the complex, multi-faceted and intertwined problems of the modern world. Another example is the use of network science in financial regulation dealing with many interconnected financial actors.

As its name suggests, most of those problems have a global context, but GSS addresses policy issues at all levels – from the individual to local communities to nations to regions.

Understand the four main elements of Global Systems Science

This free online course will help you understand the four main elements of Global Systems Science, and how they can work together to create better formulated policy with better outcomes:

1. Policy at all levels, from individuals to the world: we will begin with policy problems at global and national scales. How can these problems be tackled? How can we know which, if any, proposed policy options will work.

2. The new, interdisciplinary approach: we will explore how the science of complex social, economic, political, biological, physical and environmental systems can inform policy makers in their work.

3. Data science and computational modelling for policy makers: we will look at so-called “policy informatics” – the new, policy-oriented methods of modelling complex systems on computers.

4. Citizen engagement: a central concept of GSS is that the behaviour of social systems emerges bottom-up, from the interactions of individuals and institutions, in the context of top-down policy constraints. We will explore what this means in practice – why individual citizens must be involved in decision making and policy formulation.

Because no method can provide perfect knowledge of the outcomes of policy, we will end with a critical evaluation of Global Systems Science, helping you understand its capabilities, limitations and future development.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 5 secondsFinancial markets all around the world plunged yet again. In Rome, they made no progress on the controversial issue of biofuels. Ebola cases are now in the tens of thousands. We live in an increasingly complex, confusing, and multilayered world. Within pockets of London, there is still trouble tonight. The sheer interconnectedness of all our lives has thrown up massive challenges for policy makers. And the most controversial is that fossil fuels, like coal, to be phased out by the end of the century. But fresh thinking is allowing us to untangle complex issues and create much better models of potential outcomes of policy decisions, from worldwide to local levels. This approach is Global Systems Science.

Skip to 0 minutes and 59 secondsGlobal Systems Science brings together traditional science, social sciences, mathematics, and information and communication technologies. It finds ways of combining different kinds of data to create simulations of the impact of policies.

Skip to 1 minute and 17 secondsIn this course, you will learn the key features of the Global Systems Science approach, and how it can be applied to the areas of finance, cities, the internet, climate change, and epidemics. These are all entangled systems of systems, with unclear boundaries. Those first carriers had scattered all over the world, before anyone even knew about SARS. Let's take the case of SARS. How could the authorities best control transmission? A Global Systems Science approach brought together epidemiology, understandings of air transport, and analyses of individual behaviour to throw light on the best course of action. Now it's standard practise to use this approach.

Skip to 2 minutes and 10 secondsIn this course, case studies will help you better understand how local microdynamics interrelate with the global macrodynamics, from the bottom up and top down. But not only that, we'll also show you how computer modelling can shed new light on policy consequences before they're implemented.

What topics will you cover?

Global systems science has four main elements:

  • Policy problems at local and global scales
  • The transdisciplinary science of complex systems
  • Policy informatics
  • Citizen engagement

The course addresses the question of how policy makers can be confident that proposed policies will have the intended desirable outcomes and not have undesirable unintended consequences. Social systems have multilevel dynamics and policies interact at all levels, from local to global. Complex systems science can help to formulate and design policies, and to investigate and evaluate their possible outcomes. It does this through policy informatics, which makes its transdisciplinary theory operational through computer-based tools and new data sources enabled by information and communication technologies. These tools include computer simulation, visualisation and analytics for integrating large heterogeneous data sources. Citizen engagement is a key feature of Global Systems Science to address the local and global instabilities that can arise when citizens are distant from the policy process. While science cannot provide solutions to all problems, Global Systems Science provides ways for citizens, policy makers and scientists to work together to address the increasingly complex problems of the modern world.

When would you like to start?

  • Date to be announced

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you'll be able to...

  • Explain how Global Systems Science integrates policy, complex systems science, policy informatics and citizen engagement
  • Identify a policy challenge and explain how the science of complex systems can inform policy makers addressing that challenge
  • Explain how policy informatics can be applied to policy problems
  • Suggest ways of encouraging citizen engagement in the policy making process
  • Identify classes of people involved in policy making
  • Identify how multidisciplinary teams collaborate to find solutions to complex policy problems
  • Experience participating in crowd-sourced data collection
  • Explain that policy options must be 'satisficed' rather than 'optimised'.

Who is the course for?

No prior knowledge is required for this course. It is aimed at:

  • policy makers;
  • officials in the European Commission;
  • UNESCO officials and field workers;
  • members of local, national and international charities and NGOs;
  • national and local government civil servants and politicians;
  • social scientists;
  • information and communications systems developers;
  • students with the UNESCO UniTwin Complex Systems Digital Campus;
  • or anyone interested in how new scientific approaches can support policy.

Who will you learn with?

Jeffrey Johnson

I am Professor of Complexity Science and Design at the Open University & Deputy President of the UNESCO UniTwin Complex Systems Digital Campus. I am interested in interdisciplinary science for policy.

Evangelia Panagakou

I am a postdoctoral researcher at the MOBS lab, Network Science Institute, Northeastern University in the US and a visiting research fellow at the Open University of UK. Education is my passion.

Jorge Louçã

I teach Computer Science at the ISCTE-IUL - Lisbon University Institute. My research interests concern modelling complex social systems through intensive data collection and analysis.

Sarah Wolf

Senior researcher at the Global Climate Forum; background: maths, focus: economic modelling for understanding green growth; involved in the Centre of Excellence for Global Systems Science (

Who developed the course?

The Complex Systems Digital Campus is an international network of individuals and institutions working together to promote research and education in complex systems science and in integrative sciences


  • Access to the course for its duration + 14 days, regardless of when you join (this includes access to articles, videos, peer review steps, quizzes)
  • No access to course tests
  • No certificate


  • Unlimited access to the course, for as long as it exists on FutureLearn (this includes access to articles, videos, peer review steps, quizzes)
  • Access to course tests
  • A Certificate of Achievement when you complete the course

Find out more

Get extra benefits, upgrade this course. For $64 you'll get:

Unlimited access

Upgrading will mean you get unlimited access to the course.

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  • Take the course at your own pace
  • Refer to the material at any point in future

If you’re taking a course for free you have access to the course for its duration + 14 days, regardless of when you join. If you upgrade the course you have access for as long as the course exists on FutureLearn.

Access to tests

When you upgrade you’ll have access to any tests during the course.

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  • Validate your learning
  • Ensure you have mastered the material
  • Qualify for a certificate

To receive a Certificate of Achievement you need to take any tests and score over 70%. You don’t get access to tests if you choose to take a course for free.

Certificate of Achievement

Upgrading means you’ll receive a Certificate of Achievement when you complete the course.

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  • Prove your success when applying for jobs or courses
  • Celebrate your hard work
  • Display on your LinkedIn or CV

To receive a Certificate of Achievement you need to mark 90% of the steps on the course as complete, and score over 70% on any course tests.


Still want to know more? Check out our FAQs

Course highlights Get a taste of this course before you join:

  • Policy Makers including presidents, directors of NGOs, and citizens
    Policy makers

    In Global Systems Science this article defines policy makers are defined to be politicians, their officers, citizens and other stakeholders.

  • Prediction and the policy dilemma
    Prediction and the policy dilemma

    The Policy Dilemma involves policy makers trying to predict if their policies will work. This article explains why prediction is so hard.

  • Policy design
    Policy design

    In this video Jeffrey Johnson explains that policy, like design, is a coevolution between problem and solution involving compromise and satisficing.