“Planetary Hopes”: Digital solutions for the challenges facing Earth, Nature and Society

Goethe University Frankfurt’s Center for Critical Computational Studies (C3S) unveils new research focus at high-profile event

The new Center for Critical Computational Studies (C3S) at Goethe University Frankfurt presented its “Earth-Nature-Society” research focus at “Planetary Hopes”, a public event held on June 13, 2024. The key question discussed by the Frankfurt-based scientists and their guests was whether and how computational and data-based methods can contribute to coping with planetary polycrises.

Science Minister Gremmels immerses himself in the geology of the Kellerwald-Edersee Nature Park using VR glasses.

A result of global warming, rising sea levels are making coastal cities uninhabitable, while the loss of biodiversity and the climate-induced immigration of species are changing agriculture. These developments not only pose massive economic burdens, they also result in migration movements. What is the connection between the two, and in how far are we humans, our economic practices and our social structure responsible for these changes to our planet? How can we overcome planetary polycrises? Computer models can help us to not only understand the complex interrelationships at the interfaces between geophysics, ecosystems and society, but also critically examine potential solutions.

Goethe University Frankfurt’s Center for Critical Computational Studies (C3S) conducts research into the interrelationships between digitality and democracy and the dynamics of change. “The pace of social change is accelerating and our actions as humans are having an increasingly drastic impact on our planet’s stability. I began my term as president of this university with the idea of founding a future research institute that addresses the increasingly urgent challenges of our age – in which change plays such an important role – in a special, interdisciplinary manner,” Goethe University President Prof. Dr. Enrico Schleiff said in his opening remarks at the “Planetary Hopes” event. “Digitality is not only a driver of social and economic transformation, it is also a tool that can help us better understand the world and shape our future, always keeping the wellbeing of people, society and nature in mind. To understand and better influence the so-called polycrises takes knowledge and the joint approaches of different disciplines. But it also takes highly developed models as well as calculation methods and techniques, and necessarily always involves questions of justification and justice. I am proud that we at Goethe University have embarked on this path – both in terms of the research we conduct and the facilities we will offer with the planned renovation of the former botany and zoology buildings in Siesmayerstrasse.”

At a press conference ahead of the event, Hessian Minister of Science Timon Gremmels placed C3S in the context of related Hessian institutions: “We have a unique scientific ecosystem in place here in Hessen, especially in the fields of IT, high-performance computing, quantum computing, artificial intelligence and big data.” Speaking about C3S and its focus on “Earth-Nature-Society”, he emphasized: “The way in which the center brings together digitality and the Anthropocene, i.e. our current era, which is so significantly shaped by humans, sets standards. I am particularly fascinated by its interdisciplinary nature: C3S brings together the rather obvious IT-related scientists, such as bioinformaticians or algorithm specialists, with lawyers and educational scientists. I am both pleased and proud that such an innovative institution emerged out of a Hessian university.”

“These ‘Critical Computational Studies’ build bridges between academic disciplines as well as between academia and society,” explains Prof. Dr. Christoph Burchard, C3S founding spokesperson and Chair of German, European and International Criminal Law, Comparative Law and Legal Theory at Goethe University Frankfurt. “Critical not only means we develop and apply computational and data-supported methods in a scrutinizing manner. It also means we pay particular attention to significant, i.e. critical, events, such as manmade global warming or AI’s effects on democracy. This is the only way we can help shape our digital futures and at the same time investigate that which we can no longer fully control. At C3S, we are tackling the essential, and therefore critical, tasks of our time, in which the relationships between humans, technology and nature are becoming increasingly frayed.”

There is also a teaching, learning and educational component to C3S, which aims to teach critical computational literacy, i.e. the skills and attitudes required to use and further develop computational and databased technologies in a knowledgeable and responsible manner. Among others, Prof. Dr. Hendrik Drachsler, one of C3S’ principal investigators, also serves as head of Goethe University’s studiumdigitale central e-learning facility and thus connects both units. Two examples of digital teaching methods from the “Future Learning Spaces” project (abbreviated as “fuels” and headed by Prof. Dr. Alexander Tillmann) were on display at the “Planetary Hopes” event. Funded by the Hessian Ministry of Higher Education, Research, Science and the Arts, “fuels” is a joint project by Goethe University Frankfurt, Technical University of Darmstadt, and Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences to develop innovative teaching and learning scenarios. Its GeoVR virtual reality (VR) application allows users to immerse themselves in the development of the Edersee/Kellerwald region’s landscape and environment. Another simulation game, “Artificial Intelligence Act – Europe”, uses VR to enable learners to slip into the role of EU parliamentarians in the plenary chamber.

At the beginning of the event, held on Westend Campus with the additional option of joining via Zoom, C3S founding director Prof. Dr. Juliane Engel explained the different perspectives of the center’s new thematic focus. Keynote speeches were delivered by Prof. Dr. Sabine Andresen, Goethe University’s Vice President Equal Opportunities, Career Development & Advancement, Diversity and Gender Equality; Frankfurt City Counselor for Digital Affairs Eileen O’Sullivan; and Dr. Nico Wunderling from Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who addressed the predictability and interdependence of different systems’ tipping points.

In her keynote on “Socio-metabolic conflicts in the Anthropocene”, Ilona Otto, Professor of Social Impacts of Climate Change at the University of Graz’s Wegener Center for Climate and Global Change, examined conflicts between social groups with different energy and resource consumption under the auspices of global environmental change. Prof. Dr. Klement Tockner, Director General of the Senckenberg – Leibniz Institution for Biodiversity and Earth System Research (SGN), spoke about the One Health approach, which is based on the premise that the health of humans, animals and the environment is closely interwoven. Moderating the keynote speeches were Goethe University’s Prof. Dr. Thomas Hickler, Professor of Quantitative Biogeography, and Prof. Dr. Jochen Blath, Head of the Stochastics Group at Goethe University’s Faculty of Mathematics.

A panel discussion moderated by Prof. Dr. Indra Spiecker genannt Döhmann from the University of Cologne brought together Thomas Langkabel, National Technology Officer of Microsoft Germany, Dr. André Ullrich from the Weizenbaum Institute, and Professors Otto and Tockner, among others.

Closing the event was C3S founding director Prof. Franziska Matthäus, who thanked the audience and the participants for the lively debate and provided an outlook of the steps to follow.  

C3S was launched in April 2023 as a central academic institution at Goethe University Frankfurt. Its founding members are:

Prof. Dr. Christoph Burchard, founding spokesperson. Burchard is Chair of German, European and International Criminal Law and Procedure, Comparative Law and Legal Theory at Goethe University Frankfurt and head of the Normative Orders research network.

Prof. Dr. Franziska Matthäus, founding director teaching. Matthäus holds Goethe University Frankfurt’s Giersch Professorship for Cellular Bioinformatics, which is linked to two faculties, that of Computer Science and Mathematics, and that of Biological Sciences.

Prof. Dr. Juliane Engel, founding director transfer. Engel is Professor of Educational Sciences with a focus on schools and cultural change. Her research focuses on educational processes and learning in the context of social transformation dynamics.

Prof. Dr. Ulrich Meyer, founding director research. Meyer holds the Chair of Algorithm Engineering at Goethe University Frankfurt and researches both theoretical and experimental aspects of processing large data sets using advanced computational models.

Together with other internal and external researchers, at least twelve new professorships are to be set up at C3S to develop Critical Computational Studies into an independent research profile that also extends to teaching and training. A new and innovative feature of the appointment process: In preparation, Goethe University will hold workshops to sound out outstanding potential colleagues and exciting ideas. The process is both open-rank and open-discipline, meaning there are no predetermined specific disciplines for researchers interested to join, and the final salary classification will depend entirely on the candidates’ qualifications and experience. Selection committees will oversee the appointment procedures.

C3S seeks to establish research teams in a variety of fields, including interfaces between classical network science and deep learning; calculations of tipping elements and their interactions as global warming progresses; modeling of the social and/or socio-economic drivers and impacts of ongoing climate change as well as those of ecosystems and/or biodiversity and their interrelationship with it; critique of computing; critical data science; ethics of data processing; science and technology studies; science, philosophy and history of computer technology; predictions in complex systems; as well as advanced simulation in the life sciences and in the social sciences.

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