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Data modeling and simulation are necessary tools for taking on society’s largest and most complex problems, including public health and climate change, but unless scientists can change the mindsets of policy makers and the world’s citizens, the world’s in a heap of trouble. That was the loud and clear message today from John Sterman, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, at IBM’s Almaden Institute 2010 conference in San Jose, Calif.

The two-day conference, which started today,  is focused on using modeling and simulation to improve public health. Sterman and his colleagues at MIT’s System Dynamics Group have created a model and visualization techniques for analyzing and displaying the potential effects on global warming of policy changes by the world’s leading nations,  The model makes it possible for leaders to run what-if scenarios and see the effects of decisions within seconds–so the tool can be used at the negotiating table when they’re hashing out potential solutions to global warming. Sterman argued that while sophisticated technologies are necessary, they’re not sufficient, and warned:  “We are laying a table for our children and grandchildren that will be impoverished, and we need to do something about it.”

Here’s a clip from the end of his keynote speech, when he argued that successful approaches for solving large problems will be less like the Manhattan Project and more like the civil rights movement. For more info about what Sterman is up to, click here.

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