Check my updated website here: vvvasconcelos.net.

In this era of Complexity, I seek to explore the emergent properties of complex systems and their interconnectedness. From climate change to global misinformation, our collective inability to manage these systems results in a multitude of systemic crises.

I employ a variety of mathematical and computational methods, coupled with experiments and observations, and delve into the intricacies of systems involving humans, resources, and governing institutions. My ultimate aim is to utilize this knowledge to address some of society’s most pressing problems.

I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Amsterdam, working at the Computational Science Lab at the Informatics Institute (IvI), collaborating with a great team locally and many great fellows around the world. I co-lead the Polder initiative at the Institute of Advanced Studies and coordinate the development of a new Master’s program in ‘Complex Systems and Policy’ at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies.

Previously, I was a Visiting Research Scholar at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment and the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, at Princeton University, where I also did two postdocs. I finished my Ph.D. in Sciences at the University of Minho, in Portugal, in 2017.

Research areas

I work on a set of diverse problems with a set of amazing people (see my local team!). The research agenda is centered on managing complex systems, and it branches off of the interdisciplinary fields of Computational and Mathematical Socioecological Sciences.

Computational Governance of Socioecological Systems

Climate agreements

Summary Climate Agreements My research in climate change governance focuses on promoting cooperation among different levels of society, from local communities to nations1. This work employs evolutionary game theoretical models to describe dynamic decision-making paired with behavioral experiments. We've shown how small group decisions can significantly enhance the prospects of climate conservation, advocating for a decentralized management approach1, but a timely switch to global institutions can be benefitial2. Our studies also delve into wealth inequality's impact on decision-making processes in developed and developing countries3. Additionally, we've analyzed the role of co-benefits and overlapping coalitions of increase Regime Complexity in fostering cooperation4,5. Our latest project reveals a critical relationship between the scale of public good and decision-making levels, demonstrating how providing information can either undermine or stabilize sustainable self-governing cooperative groups6. We're currently exploring the interplay between decision-making dynamics and the dynamics of goods and resources in social-ecological systems.
Key References

1. Vítor V. Vasconcelos, Francisco C. Santos and Jorge M. Pacheco, A bottom-up institutional approach to cooperative governance of risky commons, (2013) Nature Climate Change, 3 (9) pp. 797-801 (link)

2. Karatayev, V. A., Vasconcelos, V. V., Lafuite, A. S., Levin, S. A., Bauch, C. T., & Anand, M. (2021). A well-timed shift from local to global agreements accelerates climate change mitigation. Nature communications, 12(1), 2908.

3. Vítor V. Vasconcelos, Francisco C. Santos, Jorge M. Pacheco and Simon A. Levin, Climate Policies under Wealth Inequality, (2014) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 111 (6) p2212-2216 (link)

4. Phillip M. Hannam, Vítor V. Vasconcelos, Simon. A. Levin, Jorge M. Pacheco, Incomplete cooperation and co-benefits, (2015) Climatic Change, 1-15, Springer (link)

5. Vítor V. Vasconcelos, Phillip M. Hannam, Simon. A. Levin, Jorge M. Pacheco, Coalition-structured governance improves cooperation to provide public goods, (2020) Scientific Reports. 10, 9194 (link)

6. Vítor V. Vasconcelos, Astrid Dannenberg, and Simon A. Levin. Punishment institutions selected and sustained through voting and learning, (2022) Nature Sustainability 5 (7) 578-585

Resource management

Summary Many social-ecological systems are comprised of ecological resources that are extracted by humans. Feedbacks between the environment and individual behavior are common. In a collaboration with Dr. Andrew Tilman, we model a broad range of ecosystem resources and consider the effect of different levels of information on those resources as well as different forecasting abilities of its dynamics, for understanding their impact in resource sustainable management. When individuals consider the future state of the resource in their (selfish) decision-making process, the resource tends to be stabilized only in certain cases. When, additionally, individuals try to forecast others’ behaviors, they give rise to a large number of instabilities. Our results are based on a general analysis, of which a number of prior studies on joint strategic-environmental dynamics, across a range of disciplines, can be understood as special cases. We discuss the implication of our results for fields ranging from ecology to economics.
Key References

Barfuss, W., Donges, J. F., Vasconcelos, V. V., Kurths, J., & Levin, S. A. (2020). Caring for the future can turn tragedy into comedy for long-term collective action under risk of collapse. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(23), 12915-12922.

Tilman, A. R., Vasconcelos, V. V., Akçay, E., & Plotkin, J. B. (2021). The evolution of forecasting for decision making in dynamic environments. arXiv preprint arXiv:2108.00047.

Food systems

Summary Climate Agreements Modern day human civilizations are confronting rapid and extreme environmental, social and economic changes. As droughts, floods and other extreme weather events increase, food production in rural areas, and the food security of large urban populations are becoming increasingly threatened. Predictions suggests that global food access must double to satisfy the increasing demand of world population by the year 2050. Yield enhancement relies heavily on the use of nitrogen fertilizer. However, excess nitrogen fertilizer results in high loss into the atmosphere and/or waterbodies, causing pollution, public-health issues, and long-term greenhouse effect. Climatic disasters such as drought are predicted to pose further threat to agricultural production. Countries will likely further increase nitrogen fertilizer use in the face of climatic risks to ensure crop yield. Many questions arise from this rapid changing food system, envolved in a nexus with energy and water. Working with Wenying Liao (https://www.wenyingliao.com/), we look for designing a global food system where food security is ensured and nitrogen loss is minimized (or kept at a reasonably low level). In that context, we explore the utility of a central, voluntary food bank with a price on nitrogen polution. We show how such institution could provide shelter for climate risk and then use it to decrease total global nitrogen input. We discuss the political implications and feasibility of its creation. Check our talk at the ESA Annual Meeting.
Key References Liao, W., Vasconcelos, V. V., Levin, S. A., & Hedin, L. O. (2018, August). Central food bank: A possible path to ensure food security and reduce global nitrogen pollution under future climatic risk. In 2018 ESA Annual Meeting (August 5--10). ESA.

Coral reefs

Summary Coral Reef Coral reefs are the epicenter of marine biodiversity and one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world. To assess the reef- and network-scale response of corals to thermal perturbation in this region, in a work lead by theoretical ecologist Prof. Lisa C. McManus (https://lmcmanus47.github.io/), we have developed a metacommunity model based on coral-algal competition coupled with seasonal larval dispersal.1 With this model, we have explored the sensitivity of the CT system to a range of future temperature regimes, from 0.5 to 2.0 degree C increase in the system by 2054. Time to reef collapse and total change in percent coral cover varied widely across the region, in response to this warming, with some reefs experiencing local extinction while others remaining virtually unchanged. The magnitude of thermal stress as well as recruitment-based metrics are significant drivers of these patterns, signifying the importance of linking ecological processes across multiple spatial scales to fully characterize the resilience of a reef network perturbed by climate change. Additionally, we have explored heat tolerance as a heritable trait throughout the CT to facilitate coral adaptation. We have found that warm-adapted reefs can provide a regional protective effect against bleaching-related mortality through larval connectivity. Last, the interaction between intra- and inter-patch processes under different magnitudes of thermal stress can be complex and nuanced, resulting in counterintuitive coral cover trajectories.2 This framework can be extended to accommodate a wide array of life history characteristics that can further elucidate the adaptive capacity of corals.3
Key References

1. Lisa McManus, James R. Watson, Vítor V. Vasconcelos, Simon A. Levin, Stability and Recovery of Coral-algae Systems: the Importance of Recruitment Seasonality and Grazing Influence (2018) Theoretical Ecology, p1-12

2. Lisa C. McManus, Vítor V. Vasconcelos, Simon A. Levin, Diane M. Thompson, Joan Á. Kleypas, Fredric S. Castruccio, Enrique N. Curchitser, James R. Watson. Extreme temperature events will drive coral decline in the Coral Triangle (2019) Global Change Biology 14972

3. Lisa C. McManus, Vítor V. Vasconcelos, Simon A. Levin, Fernando P. Santos, Diane M. Thompson, Joan Á. Kleypas, Fredric S. Castruccio, Enrique N. Curchitser, James R. Watso. Larval dispersal facilitates coral adaptive response on a spatially realistic network. (2023) In preparation for PLOS Computational Biology.

Computational Sociology


Summary Polarization has many shapes. Typically seen as some people believing one thing and others believing the opposite, it is also associated with how these beliefs are distributed in the social fabric. Here, we ask the question: When is polarization 'bad?' How does it affect individuals' strategic choices in pursuing subjectively better outcomes? We take an extreme case in which individuals agree on the best course of action but to different extents. We show that, while the diversity of opinions is, in fact, catalytic of social change—by triggering cascades of trust that others will enable one's best outcomes—their segregation reduces the opportunities for individuals to achieve higher gains, even when all individuals agree on an optimal choice. Read more here.
Key References

1. Vasconcelos, V. V., Constantino, S. M., Dannenberg, A., Lumkowsky, M., Weber, E., & Levin, S. (2021). Segregation and clustering of preferences erode socially beneficial coordination. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(50), e2102153118.

2. Santos, F. P., Levin, S. A., & Vasconcelos, V. V. (2021). Biased perceptions explain collective action deadlocks and suggest new mechanisms to prompt cooperation. Iscience, 24(4), 102375.

3. Vasconcelos, V. V., Levin, S. A., & Pinheiro, F. L. (2019). Consensus and polarization in competing complex contagion processes. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 16(155), 20190196.

Peer-influence in technology adaption

Summary Peer influence shapes adoption curves beyond simple logistic growth or the traditional technology adoption curves. We aim to further understand the role of heterogeneity of individuals and social influences in determining who and when adopts different technologies. This is crucial also for the energy transition.
Key References

Vasconcelos, V. V., Levin, S. A., & Pinheiro, F. L. (2019). Consensus and polarization in competing complex contagion processes. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 16(155), 20190196.

Rapid Switch

Summary Decarbonization of the world’s energy systems is arguably the most critical global technological infrastructure transformation anticipated during the next few decades with tremendous implications for human and natural systems. Crucially, the energy sector is tightly connected to the food and water sectors through what has been coined as the Water-Energy-Food (WEF) nexus. In consequence, the technological innovation entailed in decarbonization would not only be massively disruptive of existing infrastructure and the economic and political interests linked the energy sector but also to water and food. We can therefore expect political resistance, which, in democracies, will generate electoral and legislative struggles. The outcomes of these struggles depend in substantial part on the preferences of citizens with respect to different policy alternatives involving different degrees of reliance on renewable energy (RE) as opposed to fossil fuels (FF). To different degrees, RE and FF energy industries deeply influence natural systems and impact biodiversity and ecosystem services, the most direct being water reserves, which also create distinct preferences in direct and indirect users of those services. A physical coupling between human and ecological systems does not imply necessarily a coupling in human preferences. This coupling between human and natural systems, regarding human preferences, has been caricaturized many times but not directly measured in the context of such a prevalent nexus. In response to these challenges, we propose to integrate a cross-disciplinary exploration involving political science, other applied social and behavioral science, and environmental science. Our purpose is to expand and deepen our understanding of pathways to decarbonization supported by users, while understanding the impact in human populations and in their use of natural resources. This work is just happening, and I count with the collaboration of an incredibly diverse team. But see my class on this topic, "Rapid Switch: The Energy Transition Challenge to a Low-carbon Future", which I developed with an interdisciplinary team of scientists.

Computational Health Science

Social determinants of Health

Summary We have several projects with the Center for Urban Mental Health on understanding the onset of depression at the individual level as well as the overal role of precarity in mental health disorders. Health-related behavior more generaly has been shown to be highly culturaly dependent and those social determinants affect even the spread of infectious diseases.
Key References

Yang, L., Constantino, S. M., Grenfell, B. T., Weber, E. U., Levin, S. A., & Vasconcelos, V. V. (2022). Sociocultural determinants of global mask-wearing behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(41), e2213525119.

Pandemic Preparedness

Summary We are working on a project called PanAdapt with the Radboud UMC that aims to develop evidence-based tools and processes for policy makers for future adaptive pandemic management. Read more: here.
Key References

Qiu, Z., Espinoza, B., Vasconcelos, V. V., Chen, C., Constantino, S. M., Crabtree, S. A., ... & Marathe, M. V. (2022). Understanding the coevolution of mask wearing and epidemics: A network perspective. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(26), e2123355119.

Yang, L., Constantino, S. M., Grenfell, B. T., Weber, E. U., Levin, S. A., & Vasconcelos, V. V. (2022). Sociocultural determinants of global mask-wearing behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(41), e2213525119.

Theory of Complex Systems

Summary Most of my fundamental work on the theory of complex systems is focused on statistical mechanics, though my interest in resilience lately brought me back to the realm of tipping points and phase transitions. I'm particularly interested in rate-induced transitions.
Key References

Vasconcelos, V. V., Santos, F. P., Santos, F. C., & Pacheco, J. M. (2017). Stochastic dynamics through hierarchically embedded Markov chains. Physical Review Letters, 118(5), 058301.

Vasconcelos, V. V., Raischel, F., Haase, M., Peinke, J., Wächter, M., Lind, P. G., & Kleinhans, D. (2011). Principal axes for stochastic dynamics. Physical Review E, 84(3), 031103.