Investigating Collective Action

Photo: Gregor Hübl / University of Bonn

May 22, 2023.  

Sustainability research: Wolfram Barfuss appointed new Argelander professor at the University of Bonn

How can people work together to forge new, environmentally sustainable paths in a complex system? This is the question being tackled by Jun.-Prof. Dr. Wolfram Barfuss, the new Argelander professor in the Innovation and Technology for Sustainable Futures Transdisciplinary Research Area (TRA Sustainable Futures) at the University of Bonn. He is developing mathematical models for collective learning and linking different research areas, including complex systems, artificial intelligence and social ecology, in order to identify key levers for easing the transition to sustainability. Barfuss and his team are based at the Center for Development Research (ZEF).

“If we are to preserve our environmental livelihoods, people have to join forces and work together,” Jun.-Prof. Dr. Wolfram Barfuss says. How exactly such collective behavior is fostered, however, is a question that still needs answering. To find out more about it, Barfuss is developing a number of innovative mathematical models aimed at gaining a better understanding of how intelligent actors in complex environments collectively search for ways to improve their well-being. These “intelligent actors” can be states, cities, companies or households, for example. In each case, they have to choose their actions from a range of options, such as political measures, ways of using technology or lifestyles. “With this, we’re investigating the conditions that create sudden social tipping points,” Barfuss explains.

Although these tipping points are first reached by minority sections of the population, they can trigger fundamental changes in the collective behavior. Examples include innovative mobility concepts and carbon pricing mechanisms as well as individual decisions, such as to eat more plant-based foods or take more staycations. One mechanism that has been much studied is the “infection principle”: people are influenced by others’ changes in behavior, observe them and copy them. But what other mechanisms exist? “I want to reshape how we model human-environment systems in order to identify critical leverage points to enable transitions to sustainability,” Wolfram Barfuss says.

Together with his team, therefore, he is devising mathematical models for collective learning and combining ideas from various research areas—including complex, adaptive systems, cognitive science, artificial intelligence (particularly multi-agent learning) and social ecology. The aim is to create a new human-environment modeling tool that is to be made freely available and constantly expanded to permit its use by researchers from different disciplines.

The Argelander professorships crossing discipline boundaries

Wolfram Barfuss’s Argelander professorship comes under the TRA Sustainable Futures at the University of Bonn. The Argelander professorships for early-career researchers (named after the Bonn-based astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm August Argelander, 1799–1875) are geared toward expanding the research profile of the University’s six TRAs, where researchers work together to tackle issues of great relevance to the future across subject and faculty boundaries.

Prof. Dr. Jan Börner, Speaker for the TRA Sustainable Futures, explains: “We’re hoping that the new Argelander professorship will give us some new opportunities for collaboration, both with the basic sciences, such as in the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, and with applied research and technology development, such as in the Faculty of Agriculture.” The modeling of complex systems is a particularly promising area for this, he adds. “As well as some highly topical questions in the context of sustainability research, like how to transform food and energy systems, there are also exciting methodological developments here that we can bring together in this way.”

Wolfram Barfuss is in no doubt: “Partnerships with other research groups are crucial to the success of this project. The University of Bonn offers a great many starting points for this in terms of both developing the methodology and applying it.” At the ZEF, he is establishing close links with the practical challenges of ongoing sustainability transformations. Also in the pipeline are partnerships with the TRA Modelling, the PhenoRob Cluster of Excellence, several Collaborative Research Centers and other University of Bonn initiatives.


After studying physics at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Wolfram Barfuss completed his doctorate at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, where he laid the foundations for his current research. He then went on to work as a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences in Leipzig, the School of Mathematics at the University of Leeds in the UK and, most recently, the Tübingen AI Center at the University of Tübingen, where he grew his network further and worked with colleagues from other countries and disciplines. Since 2019, he has also been a member of the Earth Resilience and Sustainability Initiative, a joint undertaking by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Princeton University and the Stockholm Resilience Centre. His research findings have been published in numerous high-profile journals.

Press Release by University of Bonn:



Jun.-Prof. Dr. Wolfram Barfuss
TRA Sustainable Futures
Center for Development Research (ZEF)
University of Bonn
Email: wbarfuss(at)
Phone: +49 228 73-1835

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