The Science of Social Systems, and What Physics Can Contribute

March 7, 2014, 16:00, room A33
Professor Dirk Helbing, ETH Zurich

Social systems may be viewed as complex multi-component systems. But given the cognitive features and the diversity of social agents, is it possible to develop explanatory theories of social phenomena, and if so, how? What are the potentials and limitations of a quantitative approach? And how to put social theories to the test, or apply them? What can physics contribute to the progress of this field? These questions will be addressed with examples from opinion formation, pedestrian, crowd, and traffic dynamics, as well as the emergence of social coordination, cooperation and norms. It will be shown that models of social phenomena can be used to create socio-inspired technologies, and to mitigate problems such as traffic jams, failures of financial systems, and conflicts. It will also be argued that many fields of physics, from mechanics, over kinetic gas theory and fluid dynamics, up to spin systems and renormalization theory could make fundamental contributions to revealing some of the most exciting (social) scientific puzzles of the 21st century.
About the Speaker
Dirk Helbing is Professor of Sociology, in particular of Modeling and Simulation, and member of the Computer Science Department at ETH Zurich. He earned a PhD in physics and was Managing Director of the Institute of Transport & Economics at Dresden University of Technology in Germany. He is internationally known for his work on pedestrian crowds, vehicle traffic, and agent-based models of social systems. Furthermore, he coordinates the FuturICT Initiative (, which focuses on the understanding of techno-socio-economic systems, using Big Data. His work is documented by hundreds of scientific articles, keynote lectures and media reports worldwide. Helbing is elected member of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Complex Systems and of the German Academy of Sciences "Leopoldina". He is also Chairman of the Physics of Socio-Economic Systems Division of the German Physical Society and co-founder of ETH Zurich's Risk Center. Additional information on Professor Helbing may be found here: