An Invited talk at iEMSs, Leipzig 2012 (http://www.iemss.org/sites/iemss2012).
Behaviour in society and the responses from the environment are both highly context-dependent. There is a lot of evidence that hyman cognition and behaviour depends sharply on the percieved context. Human collective and social behaviour is even more so, indeed may be structured around co-determined contexts that are then entrenched within our training, infrastructure and habits. Similarly ecological niches, where species adapt to each other can be highly specific to a particular set of environmental affordences. The response to a pertabation (e.g. reduction of a resource or introduction of a new species) depends highly on the environmental context.
However, to a very large extent, our formal models of the environment and of our interaction with the environment are context-free. It is often simply assumed that the variations due to specific contexts can be dealt with as a kind of "noise" to a main trend or interaction. Whilst this maybe sometimes the case, this assumption is rarely justified by any evidence or indeed convincing argument . Often it seems that context is ignored simply because it seems too difficult to do otherwise, so work proceeds simply on the hope that context-dependency can be treated as a kind of noise. Other strategies to avoid the issue of context include keeping to within a single, very restricted context (which prevents any general conclusions) or remaining in the world of analogy and natural language discourse (where context-dependency is masked by the innate ability of humans to reapply analogies on the fly). I argue that this must often not be the case and that a collection of context dependent interactions if treated in this way, can result in very different outcomes, especially when one needs to scale any conclusions.
I then seek to show some possible ways forward, ways to include some of the context-dependency in our techniques and models. These include kinds of agent-based modelling that include context-awareness in the agents and actors, kinds of data-mining that could be used to search for patterns in a context-dependent manner, and new techniques from the field of visual analytics to visualise and interact with data via a visual interface in a context-friendly manner.