Dear NECSI Community,
A shifting and increasingly volatile landscape of global problems pose complex challenges. These conundrums are highly interconnected; their causes and solutions sometimes can seem nonintuitive or unclear. Using the insights of complexity science, we at NECSI seek to reveal the larger patterns and relationships responsible for these sources of human suffering. We call this compassionate science. Let me give you an example of how our past work can contribute to understanding current events.
For the first time since the financial crisis of 2008, the U.S. Federal Reserve cut interest rates July 31st. Administration officials just a few days ago were calling for more cuts. Speculation regarding the potential occurrence of a recession, recent panicky market behavior, and conjecture about the next major election cycle have dominated public discussion. These concerns result from an inadequate understanding of the economic dynamics that should inform monetary and fiscal policy. Our work has demonstrated that merely considering the overall supply of money to the economy is an insufficiently complex strategy to regulate growth, and neglects the balance between the consumption and wages loop, and the investment and returns loop.
My last letter to you reported on the ongoing humanitarian health crisis of the Ebola virus disease (EVD) in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and expressed the concern that without the ability to stay ahead of the outbreak, the virus would become more widespread. More importantly, EVD would not limit itself to just one country. Unfortunately, this spring and early summer, both scenarios have been realized. April and May saw a troubling spike in new cases, and in June, cases increased in areas with previously low transmission rates. Also in June, a 5-year-old Ugandan boy displaying Ebola symptoms crossed the border from DRC with his family, and subsequently he and two other family members died. A woman from DRC crossed into Uganda to sell fish, and died upon her return. A pastor visiting Goma, DRC, a city of two million people near the Rwandan border, died in mid-July. As of August 13, according to the World Health Organization, 2,842 cases have been reported, with 1,905 deaths (a 67% fatality rate). Almost a third of the cases are children; more than half are female. WHO has declared Ebola a public health emergency of international concern. We at NECSI continue to search for ways to make a difference in this situation.
New research opportunities to help heal the world’s problems impel us forward as the year progresses and we hope you will continue to engage with us. We are grateful for your ongoing interest and support, and wish you a great start to the fall.
Photo: Colorized scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus particles (green). Credit: NIAID
Did You Know?
Communication and Media
How Can We Balance the Economy to Create Sustainable Growth for Everyone?
"Our social system has changed its regime. Population growth, mass migration, global connectivity, and conflict have led to the collapse of institutions not able to cope. We cannot think of society in the same way -- the risks are huge." --@ajmoralesguzman pic.twitter.com/x1hKPtEXVx— NECSI (@necsi) February 28, 2019
Save the Date: July 26-31, 2020
This is the tenth in a series of conferences with two major aims: first, to investigate the common properties of very different complex systems; and second, to encourage cross fertilization among the many disciplines involved. ICCS 2020 will be held in the Boston area. More details will be announced soon.
Courses in Complexity
We held our annual Winter and Summer Courses in Complexity sessions earlier this year. Our students received hands-on instruction in key concepts of complex systems analysis, with direct application to their own research or work.
Watch the video above to see what participants had to say about our programs.
NECSI is hosting its Executive 2019 Fall Program in Washington, DC.
For two intense days this course prepares leaders to think, anticipate, and respond strategically in a complex environment. Complexity science allows us to accurately predict real-world events and describe unintended consequences, dynamics, and emergent behaviors in real-world social systems. Learn how to harness this framework to extract the most important information from data for advanced decision making and innovation in organizations.
Register before September 20 for an early bird discount.
NECSI in Action
Complexity science makes smooth sailing for a Navy leader
Phil Wisecup is Vice Chancellor for Strategy and Strategic Engagement at the North Dakota University System and retired from the US Navy after 36 years of active duty at the rank of Vice Admiral in 2013. The views he expresses here are his own.
The following article is based on a conversation between Wisecup and a member of the NECSI staff, whose observations are contained herein.
A high-risk, large-scale operation like the hunt for Osama bin Laden seems tailor made for the big picture insights of complexity science. Fortunately, one of its most enthusiastic proponents was part of the action.
Vice Admiral James P. (Phil) Wisecup (Ret.) has spent the better part of his professional life applying complexity science to national security challenges whose careful solutions, it is no understatement to say, could and have had far-reaching consequences for the future of warfare, for the workforce, and for ethics, among others.
The small town boy who graduated from the Naval Academy, earned three master’s degrees (one as an Olmsted scholar at the University of Strasbourg), married his French love and became fluent in her language, and sailed around the globe protecting U.S. national security, has lived anything but a small town life.
The values consistent with his roots, however, are evinced outwardly in his hearty laugh, quick wit and amiable demeanor. Such an easygoing relational style, readily putting those around him at ease, segues naturally into acumen at leading and mentoring, ability to learn from others even as he teaches, enthusiastic creativity, and passion for ethics.
Though Wisecup has held a number of positions on land, deep at heart, his love is the sea. When recounting his career, he occasionally paused to say with a grin, “I miss going to sea,” or, “given my druthers, I’d stay at sea, but…”
In retrospect, his interest in complexity science began after he graduated in 1998 from the Naval War College (later he became its president) and was assigned to NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, during the build up to the conflict in Kosovo. Working with an international military staff, he and a small team of officers established a makeshift computerized operations room, which was capable of controlling an increasing amount of information flow in the 24-hour news cycle—this was his “first real taste” of complexity.
His second practicum came as a destroyer squadron commander, part of a second wave of ships that went to the North Arabian Sea after 9/11 during the commencement of operations in Afghanistan and supporting the search for Osama bin Laden. Five aircraft carriers from four countries, using classified networks and secure chat systems, and coordinating the rules of engagement for many different nations that sent a large number of ships to support coalition operations in Afghanistan during a period of Pakistani/Indian tensions, counts as a complex operation.
In Summer 2002 Wisecup went to Newport, RI, appointed as a fellow to the Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group (CNO SSG), where he met NECSI President Yaneer Bar-Yam, and worked closely with CNO SSG Director James Hogg and his deputy, Bill Glenney, as part of the first “post-9/11” group of fellows.
“Not only was it the end of the Cold War, but we were now facing a different kind of fight,” the 36-year Navy veteran said, “trying to figure out how to deal with the new situation we found ourselves in after 9/11.”
Warfare was no longer only “big violence, like World War II, or force on force,” he added, “it was also all this new stuff. We had to do both.”
His first test of what he had learned at the SSG came as the Director of the White House Situation Room from 2003 to 2005. One of his tasks was to work with a team to give the space its first redesign in decades. Adapting the spaces and processes to the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission was a tall order, along with coordinating 13 government agencies with responsibilities in the White House.
“It really was a great team effort across the various organizations of the White House staff and government agencies; we had lots of help,” he said. The result was an ergonomic redesign based on work flow, expanding the number of conference rooms and connected work spaces, and adding a plethora of new technology. The space upgrade was executed and completed after his departure, by 2007. Compounding the challenge were numerous security issues and other considerations.
“If I didn’t think complex systems were important then, I never would have thought they were important,” he quipped.
A small part of the updated facility was shown in the famous photo taken when Osama bin Laden was finally found in 2011.
A decade after his first stint at the CNO SSG, this time as its director, Wisecup called on NECSI as his “ace in the hole” when they were stuck on seemingly intractable problems, with “camps” of people “at loggerheads.” As he tells it, “Each time that happened, we would call NECSI, and Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam would listen to the sides and eventually point out to us where we were thinking about the problem incorrectly, and then show us the math.”
“With a group of mostly engineers,” he said with a wry grin, “we loved seeing the math.”
In the interim years, Wisecup moved back and forth between naval command and executive positions, using complexity science at every opportunity: Commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Korea, where he advised U.N., ROK and U.S. Combined Forces; Commander, Carrier Strike Group Seven; President of the Naval War College; and finally as Inspector General of the Navy, where he traveled annually to many U.S. Navy bases around the world to monitor facilities and operations and to report to the Secretary of the Navy. He left active duty in 2013, but continued to serve the Navy as Director of the CNO SSG. He received his share of awards, from the Navy and from the President of Korea, for example, but he is most proud of his Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale Award for Inspirational Leadership, which he pointed out “is a peer-nominated award—comes from your buddies who know you and your reputation at sea.”
Once the CNO SSG was disbanded in 2016, Wisecup continued to look for “work that matters.” He once more left his native Ohio to assume a different kind of position—as the Vice Chancellor for Strategic Engagement and Strategy for the North Dakota University System’s 11 campuses and 45,000 students, where he has been for the last two years.
With a small population but now the second largest petroleum producer in the U.S., and a leading producer of many agricultural products, North Dakota presented Wisecup with yet another complex challenge. There he is tasked with thinking about the future, this time with regard to providing quality education for young adults and those who need to retool for the coming work environment, providing a quality workforce for the state and providing ideas on how the state might diversify its economy. With a wave of digitization, robotics, cyber, and other technology fast approaching, North Dakota is on the leading edge of unmanned aviation technology and seeking to determine, for example, what will be the impacts of Artificial Intelligence/Machine learning, protecting consumer data privacy, and automated decision making on the workforce of the future.
After 40 years of public service, Wisecup is well equipped to monitor the tricky balance between human and machine using his knowledge of complexity.
“You don’t want the tech to run away with you,” he said. “I work hard to stay aware of the second- and third-order consequences, something I learned from the CNO SSG processes and NECSI over many years—and that’s the way I have been conditioned to approach these very complex issues we often referred to as ‘wicked hard problems.’”
Don’t expect this quintessentially modest father of five to take the credit for innovative warfare ideas or White House improvements. According to Wisecup, he always had “lots of help from people much brighter than me.” This fortuitous relationship with complexity science was transformative, and he will tell you he was often simply in the “right place at the right time to see it demonstrated.”
—Peggy J. Bowers
NECSI postdoc Olha Buchel received the 2018 Best Paper Award from the Journal of World Business for her co-authored article, “Interactive visualization for research contextualization in international business.” Buchel and her co-authors, Tatiana Lukoianova (University of Calgary) and Andreas Schotter (Ivey Business School), introduce a novel methodology for interactive visualizations, and explain the applications to international business phenomena in multiple contexts. As part of their work, the authors created a set of web tools for interactive visualization that can be used in research and teaching methodology or visualization construction.
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Will Jaekle joined us as a summer intern, with primary research interests in migration theory and the analytics of immigrant community dynamics. He is a student at Bates College majoring in mathematics and physics, and loves solving problems in electrical engineering and computer science in his spare time. A resident of Jackson, Wyoming, Will is an avid skier and squash player.
Owen Lynch spent a summer internship with us as part of his mathematics studies at Brown University. He specializes in multiscale information theory and its applications to coordination systems. Owen worked on a tool for designing multiscale systems. He also analyzed a classic treatise on failed large-scale authoritarian plans as it relates to multiscale theory. His project for HackMIT 2017 created a simulation of a traffic routing algorithm to evacuate natural disasters. To unwind, Owen is a violinist with the Brown University Orchestra, and other chamber groups and pit orchestras.
Lena Papadakis was our spring/summer intern and a human physiology major at Boston University. She assisted with several research projects. In line with her pre-med aspirations, she hopes to mesh her knowledge of pathology and immunology gained from past experience in wet-labs with her emerging understanding of complex systems. An interesting fact: the New Hampshire native is a triplet; one of her sisters is identical and the other is fraternal.
NECSI offers heartfelt congratulations to former postdoc Rachel Rigg and her husband, Reid Beels, now of Portland, Oregon, on the birth of their son, Maxwell Simon, on July 24th.