Visualizing Systems

Visualizing Systems

Last week, Kovas Boguta gave us a unique glimpse of the Egyptian uprising in the form of Twitter messages across the Middle East. That political unrest is now rippling across the Arab world, from Tunisia to Libya. For many in the political sphere, the uprisings presage a new wave of democracy in Mesopotamia. But for business interests, upheaval in the global oasis of oil brings some less inviting news.

According to Reuters, crude oil is now at a price not seen since the recession began—climbing to $110 a barrel on Wednesday, with some speculators predicting further increase. If Algeria joins Libya in this "land of chaos," notes the Wall Street Journal, oil prices could shoot to more than $220 a barrel.

Higher crude prices inevitably translate into higher prices at the pump: Gasoline has jumped an average of 6 cents a gallon over the past week, with consumers across the US now paying an average of $3.17 a gallon. But in our petroleum-based economy, the effects of oil prices run far and wide, with both short and long term effects.

This visualization, aptly titled "Connecting Distant Dots," illustrates the complex ways in which energy, climate, food, and human behavior, among other variables, relate to one another. Created by designer Tyler Lang for Seed Magazine, it begins with a set of concentric circles with the most fundamental influences — such as population growth, increased oil prices, deforestation — positioned at the core. The effects ripple outwards with red lines depicting reinforcing relationships and blue lines showing inhibitory forces.

Rendered this way, we can begin to see how oil prices might contribute to continued global unrest in the form of food riots, for example. Or that it may spur an uptick in biofuel production, which could in turn lead to global grain shortages, higher food prices, and hence food riots (once again!) Alternatively, long-term increases in the price of oil could lead to increased environmental awareness, with behavioral effects that put a damper on climate change and its own constellation of effects such as desertification, Arctic melt, biodiversity loss.

For sure, it's a stretch to suggest that Qaddafi's demise will save any ice-floe ridden polar bears. But plotting the drivers of ecological and social change onto a page, even abstractly, allows us to appreciate — and potentially act upon — the bigger, interconnected picture.

Upload your own visualization of a complex system.

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