The wild west of complexity science is being settled

"Science has explored the microcosmos and the macrocosmos; we have a good sense of the lay of the land. The great unexplored frontier is complexity." - Heinz Pagels

I’ve just got back from 10 days in Singapore. I was doing a course on complexity science at NTU, one of Singapore’s universities. And it was fab.

Photo - Michael Lees - NTU Complexity Institute

Photo - Michael Lees - NTU Complexity Institute


So, two minutes on Complexity Science and why it’s important…

Complexity is a term for the behaviour of any system in which agents interact and adapt to one another. A murmuration of starlings is the classic example, where the behaviour of the whole emerges from the interaction of the parts. A single starling, no matter how determined, cannot murmur; a single synapse cannot think; and so on.

Complexity can occur in any sort of system: natural, social, technological, political, organisational and combinations thereof: quarks to companies, starlings to stock-markets and the Internet to cities.

The Science part, like science generally, is about understanding the patterns of these behaviours and exposing the mechanisms that cause them. There’s a growing canon of equations and (importantly) algorithms that offer the prospect of making this scientific Wild West tamer.

Complexity science started to be a thing around the mid-80s. The landmark was the establishment of the Santa Fe Complexity Institute - as it happens in the once-wild New Mexico. And it was an unusual thing. Like complexity itself, it emerged from the interaction of some diverse agents from a slew of sciences. People like Murray Gell-Mann - the chap who gave us the quark - along with a bunch of other eminent scientists and economists. Things have since moved on: universities are beginning to establish complexity departments and complexity techniques are finding their way into general use.

Modern computers have made a huge difference. It’s now possible to model complex systems cheaply. We can experiment more reliably with things that it’s hard to experiment with in real life. Like the global economy. The Bank of England for example, is using a technique called agent-based modelling to, amongst other things, attempt to make sure the 2008 financial crisis doesn’t happen again.

Governments have been regularly crashing Airbus-sized change programmes. With some decent complexity simulators (and the wisdom and will to use them) there’s prospect this will happen less in the future.

I was impressed by my hosts in Singapore. Peter Ho a previous head of the Singapore Civil Service, who was instrumental in the setting up NTU’s Complexity Institute, spoke at the opening of the course. The government there has put much both into complexity research and into training. Half of the forty people on the course were Singaporean civil servants.

Complexity science is the much-needed science of how our wild world really works. And it’s on its way to being as important as physics.

More information

Books about complexity