When major social changes happen around the world how do we understand them? These dramatic events arise from the web of dependencies that connect human civilization into one global system. Global interactions have become increasingly complex. The way to understand them is through complex systems science. A new video series by Motherboard highlights NECSI’s investigations into the origins of earth-changing events. The first installment examines the Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring was the result of the unrecognized, indirect effects of policy decisions. Decisions made in one country can start a cascade of effects that spread across the global network of interdependencies. If we want to improve this global decision-making process, we need the mathematical models of complex systems science. These methods capture the most important behavior in the system, identifying the most effective targets for interventions.

The riots and revolutions of the Arab Spring were the result of two policy decisions made in the United States. Ethanol regulation, which converts food into fuel, is single-handedly responsible for doubling global food prices. Deregulation of the commodity markets in 1999 and 2000 also led to dramatic spikes in food prices in 2007/08 and 2010/11. The Arab Spring occurred at the pinnacle of the second peak. We sent a warning to the U.S. government four days before the first events of the Arab Spring began in Tunisia.

Complex systems mathematics have identified the key factors in the global system that led to the Arab Spring. This knowledge is essential to intervening in the global decision-making process and preventing future violence.