Complexity as a game changer: Reflections on the 2016 NTU Winter School

The Winter School on Complexity Science will be opening its doors once more in March 2017.

Organized by the Nanyang Technological University, it will provide an overview of complexity and complex systems science and help participants apply related ideas in their own domains.

In the piece below, Andrian Gajigan, MSc Marine Science student  at UP Diliman, talks about his experiences as Winter School 2016 Travel Fellow. 

This article first appeared in the Complexity Institute Newsletter, Issue 2, April 2016.

Insights on the 2016 NTU Winter School of Complexity
By Andrian Gajigan

Almost every aspect of our life and society, from molecular biology, ecology, economics, urban planning and human behaviors to health systems involve complex systems. Complexity science is revolutionizing the way science is being done, by bringing to fore the adaptation and evolution aspects of such complex systems, and by investigating the most daunting questions of our modern society through ‘big data’ mining and computer simulations. Complexity science is expected to facilitate the discovery of novel ideas, and open doors to exciting new scientific frontiers.

I was overjoyed when I received news that I have been selected to be a Travel Fellow for the NTU Winter School for Complexity Science. It is fitting for the Winter School (WS2016) to be held in Singapore, the home of the Helix Bridge, lotus-inspired ArtScience Museum, and the iconic NTU Hive. These are all architectural designs inspired by nature, consistent with the universality of complex systems across life and society. To be honest, my acceptance to the WS2016 was a surprise as I consider myself a newcomer to the field. I was first exposed to the marvels of complexity in research collaboration between Marine Science Institute and the Institute of Physics in the University of the Philippines (UP).

From that collaboration, I recognized that complexity science seeks to uncover patterns and elucidate relationships from empirical data that one cannot gain from simply looking at the parts of a system, be it a cell or an ecosystem. I was further exposed to complexity at the pedestrian level when I took courses on Biological and Social Structure and Gene Regulation at UP. For me, learning the basics of complexity in WS2016 is like setting foot in a place I have never been to before.

Imagine my bliss and amazement, when equation that used to be cryptic were made clear before an audience with diverse backgrounds. Self-organized criticality, tipping points, non-linear dynamics, information theory and network science were discussed by Assoc Prof. Lock Yue Chew, Asst Prof. Siew Ann Cheong, Assoc Prof. Colm Connaughton, Dr. Rick Quax and Asst Prof. Michael Lees respectively. I came in with the impression that complexity science goes against Occam’s razor, where things are made more complicated than they should be. I was surprised to learn therefore that complexity scientists like Geoffrey West actually seek to find simplicity in seemingly complicated systems in the form of scaling laws, like those found in biology, and also in cities. Haifen Chen (NTU PhD student &
WS2016 participant) shared his insight on “a crude look at the whole” as an accurate description about complexity theory.

It was rather illuminating to see economics in the lens of complexity. According to Prof. W Brian Arthur, most practitioners are guilty of the neoclassical shortcut by looking at “behaviors that are consistent with the outcome of the interaction” rather than “how agents react to the outcome they together create.” This speaks out to me since we have looked for data that fit the theory instead of looking at emerging patterns. I learnt that it is important to ask if our experiments are good approximations of our target complex system, so that we may also obtain surprising emergent behaviors. I am in constant awe of how complexity approaches help to address multiscale problems.

CI Co-Director Prof. Peter Sloot described their HIV decision support system which coupled analyses from the molecular level to the sociological level; from genetics, drug affinity, and immune response to the dynamics of spread. What he gave was a clear and vivid example of how complexity science might influence policy making. This particular relevance of complexity science to crafting policies motivates me to apply this approach on the question of whether the marine environment is resilient against climate change. I imagine that we can investigate the molecular biology aspects of robustness and adaptation, and how these affect resilience at the ecosystem level. Specifically, I am interested in how the interplay between species, populations and their biogeochemical environment eventually feedback onto the sociological aspects of human defilement of nature. I have read theoretical papers on this subject, but these do not yet present clear pragmatic solutions. Complexity science might pave the way to address the issue. Also timely and relevant is the work by Dr. Chris Monterola and Dr. Erika Legara on urban planning and human mobility, an area of research very applicable to a developing country like ours. Having an impression that complex systems are impossible to control and critical transitions impossible to forecast, I’m surprised by Asst Prof Justin Ruths and Asst Prof Cheong, who talked about controllability and predictability in complex systems.

So what is the take-home message? Well, there have been several game changers in science, and complexity is indeed the game changer of the modern era. I see complexity as an indispensable tool for scientific inquiry into the future. Charlotte Tan (NTU SPMS student) felt that “complexity is at the heart of some of the world’s major social, technological, environmental and economic challenges.” She believes that “in this ever-changing and hyper connected world, the study of complexity can bring clarity and insights to many complex problems and provide explanations or justifications to these problems where traditional approach to scientific research failed.”

In addition to the lectures and labs, there were plenty of opportunities to engage in creative discussion with other participants. Natkamon Tovanich (Thailand participant) said “I’m inspired by insightful talks from leading researchers, many of them pioneers in the field.” Not only did WS2016 strengthen his motivation to pursue advanced studies, he also benefited from “productive discussions with interesting people from various disciplines.” Lastly, Ling Welianti (Singapore Institute of Management Student) mentioned WS2016 stimulated her interest to explore and learn more about complexity. She said “the speakers are all
experts in the field and they really inspired me to do research related to complexity in business/economy in the future.” 

With complexity, we are charting a new territory. It’s oceanic, with its madness and uncertainty, with its beauty and elegance. I invite everyone to come onboard the complexity ship!