Recently, we shared our podcast interview with Yaneer Bar-Yam who is a complexity scientist, researcher, author, professor, and founder of the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI). Yaneer received his PhD in Physics from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has an extensive background in using principles and insights from complex systems science to better the world. He is the author of two fantastic books, a textbook called Dynamics of Complex Systems and Making Things Work , which applies complex systems science to solving problems in healthcare, education, systems engineering, international development, and ethnic conflict. He is also the author of over 200 research papers in professional journals and has 3 patents.
We felt very fortunate to have received an introduction to Yaneer from our former co-host Stacy Hale, who has attended the winter school program offered with NECSI. Stacy described NECSI as “the leader in producing the research that tells us how complex systems science can be applied to real-world challenges, specifically challenges dealing with policy decisions and how they have unintended consequences that can happen globally”. She shared her learning experience with us in a conversation, which we aired along with the first half of our interview with Professor Bar-Yam. We chose to divide Bar-Yam’s interview into two parts in order to cover multiple topics with him, and we’re very glad we did. He has the ability to explain complex systems science so gracefully that even the most inexperience complexity thinkers can easily tackle the principles, methods, and concepts he presents.
In the first half of his interview, which was our 50th episode (insert happy dance), Bar-Yam talked about how we can understand complex systems science by applying it across all of the systems we interact with in our society today. A large part of our discussion was about how societies, organizations, and communities should be organized in order to manage complexity. He advocated for the importance of flatter, team-oriented design when dealing with complexity, stating in his interview that “hierarchical organizations become ineffective in a complex world, and the basic reason for that is the collective behavior of the organization is too linked to what one individual can do and individuals have a limited degree of complexity that they can cope with”.
Bar-Yam also clarified some common misconceptions about complex systems, stating “when you study complex systems more carefully, you realize that having a strongly connected system will actually limit the ability of the system to have complex behaviors”. We were surprised by this statement, because admittedly, we’re guilty of assuming that more connected networks and systems are more powerful than those which have fewer connections. Bar-Yam explained that “complex systems actually have a structure that has different levels of organization, so there are small groups and then larger groups that include the small groups, and yet larger groups, all the way up to the system as a whole”, so it turns out the structure of complex systems are, well, complex. We learned that there are more important elements than connection that comprise systems. A system's power often lies in the way in which its organized and the function of the system itself will often dictate its structure.
Think about your brain, for example. Your brain is a complex system with millions of neurons that connect with each other, but there are also many subsections in the brain. Just by glancing at a human brain, you will notice it appears to be split into two sides. Functions within the brain are segregated into substructures, and this design actually makes our brains more powerful than they would be if they were fully connected networks where every neuron is connected to every other neuron. And, this highly functional design is an example for why Bar-Yam advocates for teams and networks, calling them the ideal structure for managing or working within complexity.
We greatly enjoyed our conversation with Professor Bar-Yam and are now big fans of his work, especially his book, Making Things Work. We believe it is a must read for anyone who wants to learn practical approaches to complex problem solving. And, his independent research center and school, NECSI, is a gift to science and society, for much of their research is freely available to anyone. We highly recommend following the work of this amazing man!