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ASU's Janssen exemplifies new breed of professor

April 27, 2011

Marco Janssen has a doctorate in math, but he was never interested in being a mathematician. He also admits to teaching classes on applied methods that he has never been formally trained in – because he invented them.

“I studied mathematics as a tool to look at environmental issues,” explains Janssen, an Arizona State University associate professor. “Technology will play an important role, but it won’t solve our greatest environmental problems. These are cultural and societal issues. The social sciences have a lot of insights, but the individual disciplines lack common frameworks to actually make productive use of them. They have a tendency to debate each other without getting to the next level.”

This is where Janssen comes in, a self-described social scientist with a math and modeling toolbox, a knack for designing social experiments using computer games, and an exceptional ability to work with researchers from vastly different backgrounds. “I have questions that can’t be answered by one discipline. I have to collaborate with all of them – learn to speak their languages, understand their methods – and piece it together.” His quest, both simple and profound, is to find practical tools to address critical, real-world problems.

“Take sanitation,” says Janssen, thumbing through a book filled with pictures of bathrooms from around the world. “What seems like a technological problem with a simple solution – toilets – is really a complex cultural and social issue. It’s about perceptions of cleanliness, cultural norms, access, power, politics, equality – who uses them, who has to clean them, and how they interact with the environment. It’s a very serious subject – one of the single most important issues in global health.”

Janssen has taken up the question of sanitation while working on a research project on cooperation, social networks and global health as part of the “Late Lessons from Early History” initiative in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. Supported by the President’s Intellectual Fusion Investment Fund, the goal of the initiative is to promote transdisciplinary research that leads to better science and actionable results.

What began for Janssen as an interest in environmental problems has evolved into some of the most celebrated work on collective action problems with Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel laureate in economics. Ostrom is the founder of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the staging ground for many of their recent projects. Janssen is the director of the center and teaches in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. Along with fellow researcher Amy Poteete, Janssen and Ostrom recently co-authored a book titled “Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice.”

“Sanitation, voting apathy, management of shared resources – these are all collective action problems. Not only that, they are local problems with global impact. There are no panaceas, but they are not unsolvable either. We are having great results from our small-scale experiments,” he notes. “The next step is to scale them up into practical tools that can be applied by decision-makers. ASU offers a scale that would be beneficial to test things like how to get more people to take advantage of free flu shots to help prevent epidemics. Or take sustainability. So much is known about sustainability – so much talk. So why don’t we see more behavior changing?”

Janssen’s work focuses not only on the “why,” but also the “how-can-we-change-that.” Besides examining how individuals and institutions make and change the rules for sharing common resources, he is zeroing in on ways to go about stimulating collective action. His recent work in collaboration with media arts and computer scientist Hari Sundaram in the ASU Arts, Media and Engineering program involves testing different ways to spread cooperation in social networks via social media outlets such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

“We know from our experiments how behavioral change happens – it’s mostly when trust and peer pressure overcomes people’s old beliefs. We can study the data from experiments and model how this happens – maybe even find ways to influence it.”

Janssen’s promising approach to solving global challenges has frequently thrust him into the spotlight and garnered him much media attention over the years – presenting its own set of challenges.

“It’s not easy to describe complexity science in sound bites. So much gets misinterpreted and misused. I sense that people want simple answers, but there are none when you are dealing with complex social and environmental systems.”

Still, Janssen recognizes the importance of getting his research results on critical social phenomena into the hands of those who can use it to bring about a more sustainable future. He was recently one of 20 selected for the 2011 Leopold Leadership Fellowship based at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment. Here, the fellows receive “intensive leadership and communications training to help them engage effectively with policymakers, journalists, business leaders, and communities confronting complex decisions about sustainability and the environment.” The goal of the program is to “train academics to close the gap between knowledge and action.”

“When Elinor received the Nobel Prize, we were flooded with requests for interviews. It made me realize how important it is to know what you are doing in this area,” says Janssen. He looks forward to bringing this training back to his colleagues in the Late Lessons from Early History initiative who he says are also very interested in making their research more accessible to wide audiences. “That’s part of what the New American University is all about.”

Jodi Guyot,
School of Human Evolution and Social Change
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences