The Complexity Explorer project is being developed by the Santa Fe Institute and provides online courses and other educational materials related to complex systems science. This week Maria and I were honoured to find that our book Holonomics has been accepted into the on-line resource section of Complexity Explorer and so I thought I would take this opportunity to explain a little more about Complexity Explorer, why it is important, and how their on-line courses (MOOCs) can help lead you into a deep dive of complexity science.
The Santa Fe Institute is a private, not-for-profit, independent research and education center, founded in 1984, dedicated to the multidisciplinary study of the fundamental principles of complex adaptive systems, including physical, computational, biological, and social systems. The project leaders for the Complexity Explorer are Melanie Mitchell and Ginger Richardson.
Melanie recently wrote an overview article looking at how complexity science can help evolve our world view and understanding of the concept of non-linearity. One example she gives in the article examines the inability of the majority of economists to predict the recent global economic turmoil:
In 2009, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman said, “Few economists saw our current crisis coming, but this predictive failure was the least of the field’s problems. More important was the profession’s blindness to the very possibility of catastrophic failures in a market economy.” At least part of this “blindness” was due to the reliance on risk models based on so-called normal distributions.
The term normal distribution refers to the familiar bell curve. Economists and finance professionals often use such distributions to model the probability of gains and risk of losses from investments. Figure 1(a) shows a hypothetical normal distribution of risk. I’ve marked a hypothetical “catastrophic loss” on the graph. You can see that, given this distribution of risk, the probability of such a loss would be very near zero. Less probable, maybe, than a lightning strike right where you’re standing. Something you don’t have to worry about. Unless the model is wrong.
Source: Melanie Mitchell, How Can the Study of Complexity Transform Our Understanding of the World?
It is very clear that many people in many professions rapidly need to acquire a working knowledge of complexity science. Even if your work does not involve the development of statical and computational models, for example business strategy, product marketing, business operations etc, many of us do rely on the quality and accuracy of economic, financial and many other forms of complex forecasting, and we do need to have confidence in those who profess to be the experts in their field.
In order to facilitate the dissemination of the great body of knowledge that has been developed over the last few decades at the institute, the Complexity Explorer initiative was launched, the foundation being free open and on-line courses on complexity, the first one being An Introduction to Complexity with Melanie Mitchell which launched in April of last year.
Following the success of this course, Introduction to Dynamical Systems and Chaos, run by Dave Feldman launched in January of this year. This September, two advanced courses will run: Nonlinear Dynamics: Mathematical and Computational Approaches and Mathematics for Complex Systems.
I enrolled on both of the first two courses, and in order not to repeat myself in this article, you may wish to read my two articles about them:
The great benefit of the courses of Complexity Explorer are exactly that, i.e. in addition to the theory students are given the chance both to build working models using computer simulation tools such as NetLogo, and to explore the (for me) wondrous intricacies of fractal equations interactively. (You will see actual examples of these in my two articles above).
Our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter is divided into three parts: The Dynamics of Seeing, The Dynamics of Nature and The Dynamics of Business. In Part Two we discuss chaos, the butterfly effect, attractors and strange attractors, entropy, dissipative structures, emergent behaviours, bifurcation, feedback, evolution and Gaia theory. One potential route into learning about complexity and chaos would therefore be to read Holonomics first, and then for a more in-depth study enrolling for one of the introductory courses.
If this is the route taken, a read of Holonomics could be followed up after the course with Melanie Mitchell’s Complexity: A Guided Tour and David Feldman’s Chaos and Fractals: An Elementary Introduction, both books being two of the best foundation texts on complexity and chaos.
The second route would of course be to first take one or two of the Complexity Explorer introductory courses, read the books by Mitchell and Feldman first, and then read Holonomics afterwards. In addition to covering the work of Stuart Kauffman who was faculty in residence at Santa Fe from 1986 to 1997, much of Holonomics is inspired by the work of the late Brian Goodwin, a founding member and member of the science board of the institute. Last year the book The Intuitive Way of Knowing was published as a tribute to Brian, and you may wish to read my review to find our more about his life’s work: Book Review: The Intuitive Way of Knowing – A Tribute to Brian Goodwin
As well as being the author of a number of books on complexity such as How the Leopard Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity and Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology, Goodwin had a deep interest in developing a phenomenological and hermeneutical approach to science, a science of qualities as well as quantities, a vision he described in his final book Nature’s Due: Healing Our Fragmented Culture.
In Holonomics we introduce what we call holonomic thinking, an expanded form of consciousness which integrates insights from complexity science and chaos theory into this phenomenological and hermeneutical conceptualisation of wholeness of both Brian Goodwin and his great friend Henri Bortoft. Maria and I articulate this journey into the comprehension of wholeness as it relates to both economic and ecological systems, building in universal human values of love, peace, truth, right action and non-violence as the foundation. This is the journey we feel people must take in order to comprehend a system whole.
Maria and I have been working with Holonomics in both a business and economic context for some years now, and the feedback that we are receiving is that empowering people with a higher level of consciousness enables them to break out of fixed, hierarchical-based bunker mentalities, and into a new way of seeing which is dynamic, expanded and inclusive. People are no longer seen as resources, limited in their capacity, but as fully human, fully-valued, contributing to the evolution and long-term sustainability of their organisations.
As I have already mentioned, I have taken both of the first two courses, and found them to be wonderfully engaging, broad in their scope and also deep in the level of analysis that they lead students into. As we discuss in Holonomics, computation models of complex systems are extremely important, and in these courses you will be able to explore their at times awe-inspiring dynamics and behaviours in detail.
But a model of a complex system is not the system itself. There are times when we feel a calling to plunge deeper into an exploration of the very meaning of a system, its Being, and for this we need to complement a computational approach with holonomic thinking.
To offer just one example, in order to model the complete customer experience, we do need to understand the complexity of the flow of work throughout an entire organisation. We also need to understand the complexity of multiple data bases as well as the front-end services such as web sites and smart phone applications. All of these needs to be modelled, but this modelling needs to be complemented with a profound understanding of the lived experience of the people who are all a part of this system.
What this means is that we need to master a double-hermeneutic – that is – be able to interpret the way in which stake holders within a system interpret their own experiences. We need to understand systems as phenomena as they dynamically appear to people. If we wish to truly transform our thinking, we have to transform ourselves, and this comes from encountering the authenticity of a system, its wholeness, and our embeddedness within.
About Complexity Explorer
Complexity Explorer is a web-based repository of educational materials related to complex systems science. Currently under development by researchers and educators at the Santa Fe Institute and Portland State University, Complexity Explorer hosts SFI’s online courses, as well as an extensive complex systems glossary and easily searchable databases of syllabi, citations, and other resources related to complex systems topics. Complexity Explorer will also host a “Virtual Laboratory” consisting of open-source simulation programs illustrating complex systems ideas, theories, and tools, accompanied by curricula designed for both teachers and independent learners who want to take advantage of these simulations. All content of the Complexity Explorer website will be open to anyone.
Complexity Explorer: www.complexityexplorer.org