Multiscale systems that are characterized by a great range of spatial–temporal scales arise widely in many scientific domains. These range from the study of protein conformational dynamics to multiphase processes in, for example, granular media or haemodynamics, and from nuclear reactor physics to astrophysics. Despite the diversity in subject areas and terminology, there are many common challenges in multiscale modelling, including validation and design of tools for programming and executing multiscale simulations. This Theme Issue seeks to establish common frameworks for theoretical modelling, computing and validation, and to help practical applications to benefit from the modelling results. This Theme Issue has been inspired by discussions held during two recent workshops in 2013: ‘Multiscale modelling and simulation’ at the Lorentz Center, Leiden (http://www.lorentzcenter.nl/lc/web/2013/569/info.php3?wsid=569&venue=Snellius), and ‘Multiscale systems: linking quantum chemistry, molecular dynamics and microfluidic hydrodynamics’ at the Royal Society Kavli Centre. The objective of both meetings was to identify common approaches for dealing with multiscale problems across different applications in fluid and soft matter systems. This was achieved by bringing together experts from several diverse communities.