Dirk Helbing

Dirk Helbing: the potential and the perils of Big Data

Taking control of our personal data is a key challenge of the information age

Dirk Helbing is professor of computational social science at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, where he previously held the Chair of Sociology. He is also the co-founder of ETH’s Risk Center. Moreover, he is internationally known for the scientific coordination of the FuturICT initiative, which aims to understand complex, socially interactive systems with a focus on global resilience and sustainability.

His current research is centered on complex techno-socio-economic system. Specifically, his work includes studies of the emergence, self-organisation and network-related dynamics in global systems. His focus has evolved from studying pedestrian crowds and vehicle traffic to studying social coordination, cooperation, norms, crime and conflict as well as collective opinion formation and the wisdom of crowds.

The particular ability to anticipate future societal challenges is one of his particular strengths. Back in 2011, he published a paper together with Stefano Balietti, which discussed privacy issues and innovative ways to overcome them. As we all know, Edward Snowden’s 2013 leak subsequently confirmed the issues and also their high societal relevance.


Helbing’s ability to sense societal challenges was also demonstrated back in March 2008. He then voiced concerns about the instability of the financial system in an article that he, together with colleagues, submitted to several newspapers—but it was not the time when warning voices were heard. Lehman Brothers collapsed shortly afterwards, triggering a large-scale financial crisis.

In the past few years, Helbing worked hard to bridge the gap between the theoretical insights of his research field, complexity science, and real-world problems, ranging from the European gas supply to the Israel-Palestine conflict. His new book covers issues that require our attention. It is due to be published in May 2015 and is entitled Thinking Ahead: Essays on Big Data, Digital Revolution, and Participatory Market Society. The book is an effort to bring together complexity theory and the ethical, social, and economic issues implied by the penetration of IT in many areas of life through social networks, apps, Big Data, etc.

In this exclusive interview with EuroScientist, he outlines the societal challenges lying ahead of our data-swamped society. “We need to understand what the implications are of this digital revolution, so we can use forces for us, rather than be surprised by them,” says Dirk Helbing. He sees great potential in the digital revolution to optimise processes in manufacturing, service delivery and countering diseases.

But these gains are not without risks and potential pitfalls. “We are behind in the regulation of the digital sector,” says Helbing. “Whatever we do online, and in real life, leaves digital breadcrumbs that are picked up by companies that often we don’t even know.”

According to Helbing, we live in an age where we have lost control over our personal information. We also do not know who is doing what with our data, and this needs to be changed. To address such issues, new technologies can be used such as personal data stores that give the citizen control over their personal data, and whom it is shared with for what purpose.

New technologies should come along with changes in the way we use the ‘net, including laws, regulations and sanctioning schemes. These will be ever more important in the coming era of the Internet of Things. Each object will also act as a sensor, so he estimates that in 10 years’ time there could be 150 billion sensors around: 10-20 sensors for each person on the planet. “In the hands of a single company it could be a dystopian surveillance nightmare. Then we need to make sure we operate and build the Internet of Things in a way that is consistent with the principles of democracy.”

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For this future, Helbing suggests such networks should be built as a citizen web, based on a bottom-up, open source approach that can be designed and used by everyone from science to business, and for innovation, “like a real-time open-data Wikipedia,” he says. “Based on the experience I’ve collected in 30 years, in many cases top-down approaches are not working well enough anymore. We need to combine to-down and bottom-up approaches in a new and more powerful ways.”

The digital revolution underway will bring about many fundamental changes in the way our societies and economies work. Take the emergence of 3D printers at home to make products, for example, or the sharing of information as a non-material resource. “I believe ideas will be more important in the future, because information will be a dominating force.” Helbing says we need to recognise this now and turn these changes to our advantage, so we can use them in the same way as we have learned to use the natural forces to our advantage.

Video editing Arran Frood

Cover text by Arran Frood and Sabine Louët

Featured image credit: Sabina Bobst/Copyright ETH Zurich

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Sabine Louët

Former editor at EuroScientist
Sabine has a passion for all things related to European research. A physicist by training, she has been covering stories in life science, the physical sciences, technology, policy and innovation for the past 20 years. She was previously the news editor at Nature Biotechnology. She was also involved in the creation of AlphaGalileo. She is the Founder of SciencePOD translating complex science and tech concepts into high-quality articles written in simple language.
Sabine Louët

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