Kate's Blog

Capital City Complex Systems Symposium 2024: Call for abstracts

Capital City Complex Systems Symposium 2024: Call for abstracts

23 November 2023

The call for abstracts for the Capital City Complex Systems Symposium 2024 has been extended to Friday 1 December 2023.

Thank you to everyone who has registered for the Capital City Complex Systems Symposium 2024. We’re really looking forward to seeing you in Te Whanganui-a-Tara in February to kōrero all things complex systems, share knowledge, and build new collaborations.

We have lined up an exciting list of international keynote speakers and are now inviting abstract submissions for contributed talks, lightning talks, and posters.

Talks will be given 15 minute slots (12 minutes presentation + Q&A). Poster presentations will also include a short mini-presentation (no Q&A) to advertise the poster, followed by a poster reception to facilitate in-depth discussions with symposium attendees.

If you would like to present at the symposium, we’re asking for a short abstract (max 250 words) on complex systems, network science, and their applications by the 24th of November.

Abstracts will be reviewed by the programme committee for rigour, significance and suitability, with a focus on balancing the programme diversity with thematic groupings and synergies.

Submission deadline (extended): Friday 1 December 2023

Notification of acceptance: Friday 15 December 2023

Submit an abstract for the Capital City Complex Systems Symposium 2024 – Google Forms

Learning to effectively engage with policymakers

Learning to effectively engage with policymakers

15 November 2023

Te Pūnaha Matatini recently held a wānanga to develop our capacity to engage with policymakers about our research.

The workshop was led by Te Pūnaha Matatini Principal Investigators Dr Shaun Hendy, Associate Professor Rhian Salmon and Jo Bailey, and Communications and Marketing Senior Adviser Jonathan Burgess.

Eighteen Te Pūnaha Matatini principal investigators and TPM Whānau participated in the wānanga. Over three days, they explored the relationship between research and policy, gained insights into effective communication of research for policy, and learned strategies for supporting evidence-informed decision-making.

Shaun shared his knowledge of the theoretical underpinnings of research-policy engagement, how research and policy operates in Aotearoa New Zealand, case studies of important examples of research-policy interaction in Aotearoa and internationally, and his immense personal experience in engaging with policymakers.

He analysed how research and policy had interacted about issues such as methamphetamine residue in Housing New Zealand homes, the Fukushima nuclear accident, the botulism scare in milk powder, 90-day employment trials, and the Covid-19 response in Aotearoa.

The workshop was enlivened by the hands-on activities created by Jo, in which participants built their dream policy tool out of cardboard, and collaborated to build a paper network of policy relationships sourced from the participants in the room.

Image: Research-policy engagement wānanga participants build their dream policy engagement tool.

Jonathan took all the participants through a guided exercise to draft a policy brief based on issues identified by their research. An expert panel of Dr Christina Hood, Philippa Yasbek and Dr Sarah-Jane O’Connor visited the wānanga to share their extensive experience of working with research and policy.

TPM Whānau member Angela Davies is undertaking doctoral research on education institution data as a source of sustainable competitive advantage. She particularly appreciated the group size, which meant that “each of our needs have been identified and addressed along the way”.

Te Pūnaha Matatini Principal Investigator Céline Cattoën-Gilbert works as a hydrological forecasting scientist at NIWA. She found the atmosphere of trust at the wānanga “refreshing and empowering” and enjoyed the balance of presentations, practical activities, discussion and rest.

Alongside their draft policy briefs, all participants left the workshop equipped with a next action to take to improve their engagement with policymakers. The collective experience over the three days of the wānanga also created a support network for all the participants to draw on as they engage with policymakers about their research.

The invisible glue holding families together during the pandemic

The invisible glue holding families together during the pandemic

7 November 2023

A collaboration between sociologist Holly Thorpe and illustrator Jean Donaldson.

Aroha* turned 16 just one week before the first nationwide lockdown in Aotearoa New Zealand. Before the arrival of Covid-19 on our shores, she had been focused on school, sport and having fun with her friends.
During the first lockdown, Aroha willingly moved from part-time to full-time work at her local supermarket to help her family out with the bills. Both her father and older brother had lost their jobs, so she had offered to increase her hours.

Initially, she enjoyed going to work because it was an opportunity to get out of her crowded home and to see some of her friends. But as time went on, she saw the strain of the pandemic on her community. She recalls being verbally abused by shoppers taking out their stress on young workers, and this seemed “really unfair”, particularly when such attacks left some of her co-workers in tears in the tearoom.

After work, she would walk home, take her uniform off at the door, and immediately put it in the washing machine — trying to limit the possibility of bringing the virus into her home. She was particularly worried about her 85-year-old grandmother, but also her mother, who had a serious heart condition. After a full day of work and washing her uniform, and having a quick play with her young nieces and nephews who were staying with them too, she retired to her bedroom to catch up on her school work.

At times, exhaustion took over and she fell asleep on her bed. Other times, the distraction of social media called. Aroha felt bad about spending so much time on her phone, but it was a way to connect with her friends, whom she missed deeply. Sometimes it was TikTok, Instagram, Netflix or YouTube that would absorb her entirely for the next few hours.

A dark blue illustration of a young woman scrolling a phone in bed in the dark.

While social media helped her to escape from the stress of pandemic life, she felt bad that she wasn’t keeping up with her school work. Before the lockdowns, she’d been in the top teams for netball and touch, and was training for an upcoming waka ama competition, but all of this was cancelled. While she understood why, Aroha was sad to miss out on these important events.


Young women played important roles in supporting their families and communities during the Covid-19 pandemic. Aroha was just one of the 45 young women that we interviewed about their experiences during the pandemic. Overwhelmingly, these young women “stepped up”.

Young women, particularly Māori, Pacific and those from diverse ethnic and migrant backgrounds, carried increased responsibilities in the home, including childcare, cleaning, cooking and shopping. Our multicultural research team found that the weight of the pandemic did not fall evenly on the shoulders of young women; gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic factors combined to impact young women’s pandemic lives differently.

"Locked down like all alone... I definitely felt very, very lonely and very, very depressed. Which I never felt before. Even though my issues were kind of insignificant... I had a roof over my head, I'm still eating everyday... To me it felt like my whole world was ruined." - Sofia

Young women were forced to grow up quickly, often taking on adult responsibilities in the home, the workplace, and their communities. While many did so willingly, this ‘double burden of care’ took a toll on their schooling, mental health and wellbeing.

Young people are now back to school, sport, and socialising with their friends, but the pandemic took a significant toll on many young women. Even after the lockdowns ended, many young women spoke of increased social anxieties, body image concerns, a loss of confidence in their educational and sporting skills, and new questions about their futures.

The radical disruption to their everyday lives and routines during a critical stage of identity development, prompted young women like Lady* to “question the future [because] you don’t really know what’s gonna happen”. Feelings of uncertainty for the future impacted upon their everyday motivation, their feelings of hope, and social connection.

"Because my parents both worked, I was looking after my brother. Trying to manage him doing his school work, as well as myself was really hard." - Angel*

Young women took on new roles and responsibilities at home, at work and in their communities. They missed key milestones and events, and critical phases of social development. Many young women continue to grieve some of these losses, and continue to struggle rebuilding social connections and aspirations. Young women were often the invisible glue holding families together, but they rarely received the credit they deserve for their efforts during the pandemic.

In a context where many want to close the pandemic chapter entirely, it is sometimes hard to see, or to speak to, the challenges experienced by our young people during this difficult time in our families, communities and collective history. But for many young women, the emotional toll of the pandemic continues to be carried today.

There is a need for greater acknowledgement and empathy for the challenges young women have gone through over recent years, and the additional support some may need to get back on their feet.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of research participants.

Explore the research behind this post


Holly Thorpe is a Principal Investigator with Te Pūnaha Matatini and a recipient of a Royal Society Te Apārangi James Cook Research Fellowship focused on women’s wellbeing during and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.

Jean Donaldson is a designer and illustrator who works with Toi Āria: Design for Public Good. She is based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. You can see more of her work at https://jeanmanudesign.com/.

New co-director for Te Pūnaha Matatini

New co-director for Te Pūnaha Matatini

6 November 2023

Te Pūnaha Matatini is thrilled to announce that Associate Professor Markus Luczak-Roesch will join our leadership team as co-director from 1 January 2024. From next year, Te Pūnaha Matatini’s directorate will consist of Associate Professor Priscilla Wehi and Associate Professor Markus Luczak-Roesch as co-directors, with Associate Professor Michael O’Sullivan as deputy director.

Markus has been a part of Te Pūnaha Matatini since 2019, and has made valuable contributions at hui, workshops and through joint research projects. He is someone who cares deeply for our mandate, ambition and people.

Markus has a strong and internationally recognised transdisciplinary research profile with a focus on complex systems modelling and analysis. He is a prominent public voice in complexity science and its relevance to Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond. He founded and leads the Complexity and Connection Science Lab at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, the only research lab at an Aotearoa university that is explicitly dedicated to complexity science.

“I’m really looking forward to working with Markus,” says Cilla, the current director of Te Pūnaha Matatini. “He brings a wealth of connections to international complex systems institutes that will be incredibly valuable to Te Pūnaha Matatini as we grow our relationships. And he also brings the humanity that we are known for.

“Te Pūnaha Matatini Advisory Board Chair Richard Aitken says that “it is a pleasure to welcome Markus into Te Pūnaha Matatini’s directorate. What impressed the Advisory Board was Markus’s strategic vision for the future of Te Pūnaha Matatini.”

“Te Pūnaha Matatini should become one of the world’s leading centres for complex systems research, while retaining its uniqueness,” says Markus. “What makes Te Pūnaha Matatini unique amongst international complex systems research centres is its grounding in Te Tiriti o Waitangi and te ao Māori, both of which embed a longitudinal and humanistic perspective into the science of complex systems and networks.”

“Together, we have a clear vision for the future,” says Cilla. “I look forward to working with Markus and Mike towards our joint vision for the future of Te Pūnaha Matatini.”

Find out more about Markus

Three new partners for Te Pūnaha Matatini

Three new partners for Te Pūnaha Matatini

Image: Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, Associate Professor Priscilla Wehi, is excited to welcome three new partners on board.

30 October 2023

Te Pūnaha Matatini is thrilled to announce that it has partnered with three new institutions: NIWA, Toha and Cawthron Institute. This enlarges Te Pūnaha Matatini’s network of partnerships to fifteen institutions across Aotearoa New Zealand.

All three of these new partner institutions have an environmental focus, which clearly demonstrates the direction that Te Pūnaha Matatini, the Aotearoa New Zealand Centre for Research Excellence in complex systems, is moving in.

Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini Associate Professor Priscilla Wehi is excited to welcome these new partners on board. “We value the thought leadership of our new partners,” says Cilla. “Their approaches to both the culture of research and engaging with communities align very much with our own.”

“Their researchers bring a wealth of experience in transdisciplinary research and approaches such as mātauranga Māori, freshwater systems and nature based solutions, which will bring depth and innovation to our future research.”

NIWA, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, is a Crown Research Institute that conducts leading environmental science to enable the sustainable management of natural resources for Aotearoa New Zealand and the planet.

Dr Rob Murdoch, Deputy CEO of NIWA, said that “NIWA is pleased to become a partner with Te Pūnaha Matatini, as the environmental issues we deal with are some of the most complex and critical issues of our time. Our principal investigators will benefit from new collaborations and approaches in their areas of remote sensing, flood forecasting and the marine food web. We look forward to developing improved solutions in the light of increasing extreme events across the atmosphere, freshwater and marine domains.”

Toha is working to bridge the gap between finance and environmental action. They have developed the infrastructure to allow regenerative outcomes to be reliably measured, quantified and traded in the market. They are convening a network to accelerate the flow of impact investment into frontline nature-based solutions to climate change with urgency and scale.

Chief Science Officer and Co-Founder of Toha, Dr Shaun Hendy, says that “The Toha Network is very pleased to partner with Te Pūnaha Matatini. As an organisation, we are both a consumer and producer of high-quality research, but this new collaboration with the leading minds in complex systems research represents a levelling up for us.”

Cawthron Institute is Aotearoa New Zealand’s largest independent science organisation. They deliver world-class science that helps to protect the environment and support the sustainable development of primary industries in Aotearoa New Zealand and worldwide.

“Cawthron Institute was eager to join Te Pūnaha Matatini as a partner to enable our researchers to collaborate on complex and transdisciplinary research that addresses the critical challenges we’re facing in Aotearoa New Zealand,” says Chief Science Officer, Dr Cath McLeod. “There is a strong alignment of values and objectives between Cawthron and Te Pūnaha Matatini, making partnership a natural fit. Cawthron is committed to delivering research that creates a better future and we know that fostering collaboration and connection across Aotearoa New Zealand’s research, science and innovation system is critical to achieving that vision.”

All three partner institutions have researchers that are affiliated with Te Pūnaha Matatini as principal investigators, and we look forward to seeing the innovative research that comes out of these partnerships.

‘You know Granity is falling into the sea, yeah?’

‘You know Granity is falling into the sea, yeah?’

4 October 2023

An excerpt from Te Pūnaha Matatini Principal Investigator Rebecca Priestley’s forthcoming book End Times.

‘You know Granity is falling into the sea, yeah?’ says Maz.

I look past the row of houses that separates the highway from the stony beach, and nod. As sea level rises, some coastal towns are making plans to retreat, to move buildings, walkways and roads inland, and let the sea do its thing to the coastline. In Granity, there’s nowhere to retreat to. It’s home to about 160 people living on a tiny strip of land between the steep-sided hills and the encroaching sea. As you head inland from the highway, there’s the row of houses, the railway line, then the hills. We drive past St Peter’s Anglican church – I am the way the truth and the life: Jesus says a sign – and the Granity Judo Club and then a startling display on an unhitched trailer. A life-sized naked female figure, with large round breasts and no hair, reaches her arms high above her head to hold – or throw? – an angry-looking baby. Orange flames reach as high as her raised elbows. Beneath the flames are the words GLOBAL WARMING. The placement of figure and flames, and the fierce look on the woman’s face, give the impression she is about to hurl the baby into the flames, but I doubt that’s what’s intended.

At the north end of Granity, we park on a gravelly verge and walk over a mound of earth. There’s a pīwakawaka flitting about and gulls circling over the grey-green water. I walk south along the steep beach, which is covered in rounded pebbles of speckled granites and diorites. The sections backing onto the beach all have barriers. There are fences made from driftwood, others of traditional wood and wire mesh, one with fancy gabion baskets, and one concrete block. Further along the beach, a stretch of houses is protected by a long pile of sandy coloured boulders, a rock revenant or riprap. There’s a gentle roar of the ocean, a constant reminder that the tide is coming in. One section, lower than the others, has no fence. The sea has washed a river of stones and huge bleached logs over what used to be the lawn and up around the house.

I walk until I reach a tumble of broken concrete and mangled reinforcing wire. It’s impossible to tell what it used to be. A sea wall? A pier? Remnants of an earlier civilisation; the concrete and iron age. I take some photographs then turn back towards Maz, who’s sitting in the distance, hood up, looking down at her phone. A black-backed gull flies low over the waves and a yellow glow of morning sun starts to appear through grey clouds. As I’m looking at the sky a wave surges up the beach towards me. I run but the foaming water seeps through my boots to wet my socks. I shout out – ‘Maz!’ – but she can’t hear me above the tumble of rocks being dragged back by the undertow.

I join her, laughing now, and we look along the beach, to where a digger and three people in orange hi-vis are working. There are works planned here – a news article says the government has promised funding for a seawall between Ngakawau and the north end of Granity. Locals, though – one of those interviewed describes the town as being populated with ‘rednecks and creatives’ – are asking about the rest of Granity. The seawall will protect only five houses, three of which already have rock barriers.

An oystercatcher pecks at the sand, and I think of food. It’s 11:43am – high tide isn’t for another three hours.

We drive south to Waimangaroa, where we saw a sign earlier – Fresh homemade pies cooked daily. It’s an outdoor café, with a food cart and a few picnic tables next to some sort of post-apocalyptic sculpture garden. It’s been a busy summer, the woman in the food cart tells us when we ask how business is going. We’re aware things have been tough for the Coast, which relies on tourist dollars, and are happy to be spending our city folk salaries here. We order tea and pies – chickpea and pumpkin for me, steak and cheese for Maz – then go for a wander. The sculpture garden contains derelict machinery, wooden carvings and vegetation. A man called Woody makes the art, we’re told. We pass a rusted-out truck, a tractor, larger-than-life human figures carved with tā moko on faces and buttocks, driftwood carvings behind glass screens. Under a corrugated iron roof is what looks like an ancient waka. Beneath and between the sculptures the garden is wild with ponga, nīkau, grasses and pond life. We come back smiling, buzzing. We find a place to sit, and nod a greeting to a man sitting at the next table.

‘Where’re you ladies from?’ he asks. Auckland and Wellington, we say, then Maz tells him she used to live in Westport and they have the conversation in which they identify people they know in common. Things have changed on the Coast since Maz left, he says. House prices have doubled in the last few years. ‘People are asking crazy prices for West Coast houses, and they’re selling.’

We talk about COVID-19, the vaccine rollout, and the new variants we’re starting to hear about. ‘I probably won’t take the vaccine for a while,’ the man says. ‘I’m not really into it.’

The woman from the food cart delivers our tea, a big pot of English breakfast with the kind of floral bone-china cups and saucers my Nanna used to have. She tells us her daughter is vaccinated ‘homoeopathically’, and neither she nor her daughter are going to ‘take’ the COVID-19 vaccine. She knows someone whose kid nearly died after a vaccine – he had an allergic reaction. It’s put her off, she says.

I listen, and nod, but when the man starts to query whether the Pfizer vaccine is really a vaccine, ‘since it changes your cells’, my respectful and curious listening reaches its limits. ‘I’m going to do a little plug,’ I say. ‘It is a vaccine. And it had been tested on millions, if not billions, of people by the time it got to New Zealand.’

He agrees there’s a lot of misinformation out there. ‘We’ve had the leaflet drops. They say it’s going to pre-programme you to die,’ he says. ‘Will you guys take it?’

‘Absolutely,’ we both say.

‘Are you guys nurses?’ asks the woman.

‘No, but we’re both science-trained,’ I say.

‘Personal choice,’ she says with a shrug, and walks back to the caravan to check on our pies.


End Times will be available from all good bookshops from Thursday 14 October.

Come on Barbie, let’s diversify

Come on Barbie, let’s diversify

3 October 2023

A collaboration between ecologist Will Godsoe, educational theorist Kirsten Locke, and illustrator Jean Donaldson.

One of the amazing things about nature is the sheer diversity of living things. There are thousands of species of birds, hundreds of thousands of species of insects, and countless varieties of microbes that scientists are still learning how to name, let alone study.

Does this diversity matter? Many scientists think so, but after generations of research the answers we come to often seem abstract. We can say things like “on average plants seem to grow better in a community with a variety of other species”. But going deeper than that requires a lot of experimental design, calculus and information theory.

Perhaps what we actually need is some popcorn.

The 2023 Barbie movie explores diversity in a glorious Technicolor shade of pink. It can be seen as a narrative for the importance of diversity in the social world: for diversity of ideas, for social justice outcomes, for political representation, for empathetic and other understandings of difference, inclusion and acceptance.

Focusing on the experiences of the characters also highlights why diversity can be so important in ecology. Diversity is important for both plants and people. Deepening and applying our understanding of the nature of diversity can improve both social and ecological outcomes.

The Barbie movie highlights how a lack of diversity can limit the ability of a community to change. In Barbie Land all power is controlled by Barbies. This lack of diversity (or “Kennergy”) limits what is possible in Barbie Land. A running joke of the movie is that Ken realises these limitations when he comes to visit the ‘real world’ and experiences a taste of patriarchy.

Ken is so intoxicated with this power that he seeks to change Barbie Land so that the Kens are in control. The problem is that this new Ken World lurches into misogyny and tips the power balance so that only the Kens can thrive at the expense of all the Barbies. Diversity hasn’t been achieved, and so Ken World is just as (if not even more so) unstable than Barbie Land.

An illustration in pink showing lots of Kens and only a few Barbies.

The Barbie movie shows us that communities that lack diversity are unable to adapt in the face of challenges and that lack of diversity can have harmful effects that affect all members of a community.

In nature, a lack of diversity can also keep ecological communities from adapting. A term ecologists use for this is the ‘portfolio effect’. Like an investment portfolio that balances risk with a range of different forms of investment, a community that includes a diverse array of species will be better able to change in the face of challenges. A community where one species dominates is going to be susceptible to disasters.

The reason this metaphor works is that individual experiences of diversity (like in the Barbie movie) echo the way diversity works in many other circumstances. The ways that diverse ecological communities adapt to challenges can parallel the ways that human society can benefit from multiple insights and different perspectives available in diverse communities.

At the risk of spoiling the plot for you, Barbie is able to rescue Barbie Land from the ludicrous grip of the Kens. The balance of power and the resilience of that world are strengthened by the inclusion of multiple forms of representation where even Weird Barbie and Allan have meaningful contributions – alongside Ken, when he’s not busy doing ‘beach’.

There are unique features to diversity in ecology that don’t translate so easily to the social world. Characters like Ken and Barbie have the capacity to tell us about their experiences in communities that lack diversity. Plants… not so much.

When the plants can’t speak for themselves, visiting Barbie Land gives us a creative opportunity to consider the conditions in which both plants and humans can flourish.


Will Godsoe is a Principal Investigator with Te Pūnaha Matatini who seeks to better forecast how species will respond to climate change and other environmental disturbances

Kirsten Locke is a Principal Investigator with Te Pūnaha Matatini who applies a history of educational ideas to current social and educational challenges and issues.

Jean Donaldson is a designer and illustrator who works with Toi Āria: Design for Public Good. She is based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. You can see more of her work at https://jeanmanudesign.com/.

A raindrop hits the ground

A raindrop hits the ground

4 September 2023

A collaboration between scientist Céline Cattoën-Gilbert and illustrator Jean Donaldson.

It’s Sunday 14 August 2022, and I’m sitting in front of my computer. I feel a surge of numbing emotions and prickly memories gushing through me. My eyes scan the river forecasts for Westport, mentally tracing and mapping the ominous contours of rising water levels.

I research how to develop, improve and communicate flood forecasting models. Today the models have made me pause. Some of the highest predicted scenarios look like what occurred in 2021, when widespread flooding devastated Westport. Thousands of people had to be evacuated, and insurance companies paid out $97.2 million in damages.

I breathe and tentatively remind myself that uncertainties are still very large. We are five days ahead of a massive storm – known as an atmospheric river – hitting the West Coast and Tasman regions. We have time.

The Covid-19 pandemic thrust modelling into the public consciousness in Aotearoa New Zealand. Models are simplified representations of real-world processes. They are one of the tools available to decision-makers facing tough choices. For flood forecasting, we’re working with an unfathomably complex system to try and make predictions across many scales: from atmospheric to catchment to the human scale.

Flip flops. The supercomputer clocks.

It’s Monday morning. I lean forward watching my screen, and feel a mix of relief and frustration. The models are flip flopping between a widespread urban flooding scenario and a less severe rural flooding scenario for Westport. With each forecast update, I am mesmerised by the oscillation of the worst case scenarios between river forecast updates: one world where the storm heads on to the West Coast and a parallel one where it moves north, hitting Nelson. The following day the West Coast declares a regional state of emergency, enabling a strategic and coordinated response. We still have time.

A hand-drawn illustration showing two scenarios: widespread urban flooding or less severe rural flooding.

Flip flops. The rain drops. The supercomputer continues to clock.

In 1922, Lewis Richardson attempted to solve weather prediction equations — by hand. A century later, we have bigger, faster and more advanced supercomputers — powerful machines capable of processing enormous amounts of data and performing complex calculations. We have technology advances in observations with satellites. Breakthroughs in modelling the pathway of rainfall from the atmosphere to the rivers. We now have access to unprecedented and enormous improvements in our predictions. But despite all our efforts and advances, it is still difficult to predict and prepare for floods.

Enter chaos, the butterfly effect, and the human mind.

In the 1960s, Edward Lorenz was bewildered by his failed weather modelling experiments. Using the same computer model, and the same initial conditions but rounded to three decimals, two dramatically different results occurred. The weather is predictable, but given ever so slightly different conditions at the beginning of the simulation, the forecast will deviate over time. Dramatically. Chaotically. Known as the butterfly effect, the amount of difference in the starting points of the two scenarios is so small that it is comparable to a butterfly flapping its wings.

Flip flops. The rain continues to drop. Now the ground begins to soak. Relentlessly, the supercomputer clocks.

When a raindrop hits the ground, it faces a myriad of options to travel through the landscape to reach the river. Sliding over the land, percolating below the surface, gushing through tiny holes from bed rocks, roots, urban stormwater pipes. Knowing the correct pathway will tell us how fast and how high the river roars, where the water rises, and where help may need to go.

A hand-drawn illustration showing a single raindrop suspended above a hilly rural landscape with rivers and trees.

Flip flops, flip flops, flip flops. The rain pours onto saturated ground. The supercomputer delivers new scenarios. Which one will unfold?

The butterfly effect means that we need to capture uncertainties at each step of the prediction process. Instead of relying on just one computer model to predict floods, ensemble forecasting uses a whole bunch of them. These scenarios consider small variations in rainfall, river levels, and how much water is already in the soil. Each model might give a slightly different prediction based on its own initial state, assumptions, and calculations. By looking at all these different predictions together, we can consider a range of possible outcomes to prepare for.

Tick tock. The humans talk.

Science is meant to help people foresee the invisible. To imagine how rising forecasted river levels could transform into a chest-height wall of water or an ocean of mud at their doorstep. Humans must be able to imagine that the worst-case scenarios of the forecasts could occur. Even when the rain outside has stopped, the rushing river upstream may still be bursting through its banks.

But the human mind can struggle to envision the possibility of an extreme flood forecast becoming reality, even after it’s occurred. The sheer devastation of Cyclone Gabrielle was far beyond what I could possibly imagine as I drove north of Gisborne Tairawhiti recently. Witnessing its aftermath with my own eyes months later, I was astounded by the massive volumes of sediment obscuring the severely eroded riverbanks. The trees and trunks uprooted and scattered in seemingly random locations. The roads scarred and interrupted by countless landslides. My heart sank at the sight of the hilly landscapes disfigured, marred by erosion over kilometres and kilometres of land. I still can’t imagine the nature of forces at play needed to cause such a profound and lasting impact on the land.

We are running out of time. By Tuesday, exhaustion runs through my body and my mind. I impatiently check updated river forecasts and scrutinise every nuance in our scenarios. A pattern is emerging from the chaos. The latest modelling is reassuring and indicates an easing in predicted intensity for Westport. But the next day, north of Westport, the Maitai River in Nelson city will burst its banks. More than 200 homes will be evacuated and numerous landslides will be triggered.

Aotearoa has experienced some serious floods over the last few years, and we’re going to have more. For those whose lives and homes have been devastated by these floods, the recurring threats of floods surpass imagination with a haunting memory. The mere sound of a raindrop, the scent of damp streets can trigger a rush of fear. The chatter of past emotions can overwhelm the human mind in an instant. So, when the river’s forecasts hint at receding waters from a second front for Westport during that August flood event, a distinct kind of strength emerges for Coasters. It takes incredible mental stamina, clarity of communication, trust in the science, the responders, the authorities, and the unity of the community to divert emergency efforts to their neighbouring catchment — where help is most urgently needed. Emergency responders, with their unyielding commitments, are unsung heroes of our changing climate.

Working with decision-makers has been an invaluable personal and professional growth experience. Through this, I have learnt that models don’t need to be perfect to be insightful. I have peeked into some of the complex pathways from predicting floods to decision-making for early actions. From that experience, I see that we urgently need improved integrated predictions across disciplines of science, natural hazards, forecasting, human behaviour communication and social science.

We must continue to move towards a world where we better weave together our science, our people, our community, our values and our imagination to effectively enhance flood preparedness.


Céline Cattoën-Gilbert is a Principal Investigator with Te Pūnaha Matatini who focuses on forecasting floods.

Jean Donaldson is a designer and native bird fanatic based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. You can see more of her work at https://jeanmanudesign.com/.

Halcombe, we have a digital twin

Halcombe, we have a digital twin

3 August 2023

On Tuesday 14 April 1970, astronauts on the spacecraft Apollo 13 let Houston know they had a problem.

An oxygen tank had exploded, and there was damage to the main engine. With the clock ticking, NASA employed multiple simulators to see what had caused the failure. Back on Earth, the astronauts had trained for their mission in a physical model of the spacecraft they were now in. NASA extended this model to include digital components, which meant they could import and analyse data from space to see what had caused the explosion, and explore scenarios that could get the crew safely back home.

This was the first digital twin. A digital twin is a virtual representation of a product, system or process, and they are now commonplace. Digital twins allow manufacturers to optimise their production processes, hospitals to complete more surgeries, and commuters to find the best way home during rush hour.

Half a century later, in Aotearoa New Zealand, the digital twins approach pioneered by NASA is now making an autonomous shuttle between Marton and Feilding possible for Ngā Iwi o Te Reureu.

Graeme Everton, the project manager for Māori economic development agency Reureu Kotahitanga Ltd, wants to improve connectivity for Ngā Iwi o Te Reureu. Graeme approached Atawhai Tibble from Te Pūnaha Matatini’s advisory board about using digital twins to develop and validate his plan for an autonomous shuttle running on rail tracks between Marton and Feilding.

Associate Professor Mike O’Sullivan, deputy director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, has worked with digital twins in healthcare. He brought Dr Yang Zou from the University of Auckland on board to use light detection and ranging (LiDAR) to scan the rail track and convert it into a 3D model. In partnership with Ryan Curry from KiwiRail and Gordon Lyall from iLinks, Graeme and Yang have now successfully captured the first six kilometres of rail track between Te Reureu Valley and Halcombe.

The next step is to add a realistic model of an autonomous rail shuttle to the digital twin and implement a control system for how the shuttle would operate in practice. Once the digital twin of the track between Te Reureu and Halcombe has been validated and de-risked, a second capture will be done between Marton and Feilding.

This combined data will provide a digital twin to test and showcase a fully autonomous rail service on the network. Graeme can use this digital twin to support the business case for the real-world infrastructure necessary to have an autonomous rail service running between Marton and Feilding by 2027.

The approach pioneered by Graeme, Yang and the rest of the team can also be extended across Aotearoa New Zealand’s entire rail system to provide a digital twin for evaluation, management and innovation into the future.

This work was funded and supported by Waka Kotahi through the Hoe ki angitū – Innovation Fund.

Masters scholarship on conservation technology

Applications are invited for a masters scholarship at either Massey University or Victoria University of Wellington to work on a project developing conservation technology methods for bioacoustics.

The project involves the development of techniques to monitor wild bird species in the field. We will work with brown kiwi, a ground-dwelling species that is threatened by introduced mammals. Brown kiwi management, and that of many other species under conservation management, depends on reliably estimating the numbers of birds present in an area. We are developing new, easier-to-use techniques to estimate the number of birds using passive acoustic monitoring. In order to calibrate these methods we also need to re-develop the way that radio telemetry is used.

You will help develop a system linking the identification of birds wearing micro-recorder transmitters (that record the vocalisation of these individuals) and autonomous recording units (located in the area where these birds live) leading to ways to calculate kiwi densities using spatial mark-recapture statistical methods.


We are happy to consider students from a diverse range of fields including engineering, computer science, mathematics, statistics, conservation biology, and zoology. This project involves the development of techniques to monitor wild bird species in the field. An interest in electronics will be an advantage for this project. The successful candidate will hold, or expect to complete soon, an undergraduate degree in the sciences.

Applicants from all backgrounds are actively encouraged to apply. Members of under-represented groups are very welcome, as are students with families. Our research group aims to achieve work-life balance within a productive scientific environment.


You will be based at either Victoria University of Wellington in Wellington, or Massey University in Palmerston North, and will work with Professor Stephen Marsland and Professor Isabel Castro.

You will be part of Te Pūnaha Matatini, the Aotearoa New Zealand Centre of Research Excellence for Complex Systems. Te Pūnaha Matatini brings together ‘many faces’ – different disciplines, ways of thought, methods, and crucially, people – to define, and then solve, society’s thorny interconnected problems. Te Pūnaha Matatini has an active whānau group which supports early career researchers, committed to the Te Pūnaha Matatini values of manaakitanga and whakawhanaungatanga, offering supportive tuakana / teina learning environments.


If you have any questions, please contact:


Financial details

• Full domestic tuition fees
• Stipend of NZ$17,000 per year for a year (tax free)

Start date

The start date is flexible, but would preferably be February or March 2024.

How to apply

Send an email expressing your interest, along with a CV, academic record, and list of three potential referees to i.c.castro@massey.ac.nz and stephen.marsland@vuw.ac.nz.

Due date

Applications will be considered until the position is filled. Applications received by November 2023 will receive full consideration.