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Complexity in the Real World


Professor Ros Sutherland, Professor of Education, Graduate School of Education
Professor John Hogan, Professor of Mathematics, Department of Engineering Mathematics

Complexity science is increasingly being used to study and model systems within the real world, for example the stock market, chemical reactions, animal colonies, the immune system, public services and leadership in organisations.

The main characteristics of complex systems are that they are adaptive (i.e. they can change their own structure adapting to the environment) and emergent or self-organising (i.e. agents can spontaneously come together into unities that have potentialities that are not represented by the individual agents themselves). As such they are ‘learning systems’ that show intelligent behaviour, i.e. they can produce innovative responses to novel circumstances (Varela et al., 1991).

Whereas EPSRC investment in the research base (for example the Bristol Centre for Complexity Science) has begun to embed Complexity Sciences tools in the Physical and Biological sciences, there remains a substantial gap between the theoretical tools of Complexity Sciences and their application in the Social Sciences domain. 

For example scientists and engineers develop computational models of complex dynamic systems, whereas social scientists tend to use theoretical ideas from complexity science in a metaphorical way. Of course real-world social systems, with adaptive humans ‘in the loop’, are much more complex and complicated than systems that are purely in the physical domain.

This IAS research workshop series has the aims of:

Workshop 1: Overview of the workshop series (June 2010)

From rules to mechanisms: the emergence of territoriality (1.5MB, PowerPoint). Luca Giuggioli, Department of Engineering Mathematics

Highway Traffic Modelling: its recent past as a `forward' complexity science problem and its future as a `reverse' complexity science problem. Eddie Wilson, Department of Engineering Mathematics

Complexity, poverty and social exclusion (672KB, PowerPoint). David Gordon, School for Policy Studies

Workshop 2: The Social Complexity of Immigration and Diversity

Friday 1 April, 1 - 4 pm, Graduate

Speaker: Nick Shryane, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester


The aim of SCID is to develop and apply novel tools and techniques from complexity science to model and understand social processes relating to ethnic diversity and immigration. A central issue to be confronted is the tension between descriptive complexity and analytic tractability.

In essence, if models of social systems are made realistic (in the sense of describing how people actually behave) they becomes very complex, which make the models hard to understand. If they are made simple enough to understand and rigorously analyse they can be too abstract to mean anything useful in terms of real social systems.

SCID aims to get around this by making “chains” of related models, starting with a complex, ‘descriptive’ model and then simplifying in stages, so that each simulation is a model of the one “below” it. The simpler models help us understand what is going on in the more complex ones. The more complex models reveal in what ways the simpler ones are accurate as well as the ways in which they over- simplify.

In this way this project will combine the relevance of social science with the rigour of the “hard” sciences, but at the cost of having to build, check and maintain whole chains of models.

Project website: http://scidproject.wordpress.com/


13.00 – 13.30   Lunch

13.30 – 13.35   Rosamund Sutherland, Graduate School of Education: Introduction to the Workshop

13.35 – 14.35   Nick Shryane, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester: The Social Complexity of Immigration and Diversity

14.35 – 15.15   Round table

Rosamund Sutherland, Graduate School of Education (chair)
Gregor McLennan, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies
Luca Giuggioli, Department of Engineering Mathematics
Nick Shryane, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester

15.15 – 15.45   Open discussion

15.45 – 16.00   Drinks

Download abstract and programme.

For more information on this research workshop series, please contact Dr Federica Olivero (Fede.Olivero@bris.ac.uk).

Workshop 3: The Complexity Turn: a pragmatic perspective

10.30 – 14.00, 19 October 2011,  Room 1.20, Graduate School of Education
In this workshop Jean Boulton will outline a complexity ontology, the key characteristics of a complex world; she will outline the differing traditions within the field of complexity. And she will consider what this means for social research, and also for leadership, strategy and managing organisations.

Workshop 4: Making sense of the subtle complexity of teachers' disciplinary knowledge

13.00-15.00, 9 December 2011, Room 4.10, Graduate School of Education
The question of what mathematical competencies a teacher must have to teach the subject well has been of longstanding interest among mathematics education researchers. Despite decades of focused effort, however, surprisingly little progress has been made on the matter. In this session Professor Davis draws on a few complexity-oriented studies in education to offer accounts of teachers' shared work and the structures of mathematical understanding that, he argues, might offer a more productive route into researching the subtle complexity of what teachers (need to) know.