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Complex Systems

Complex systems are all around us. Some were created by nature, such as ant colonies, gene networks, ecosystems and brains. Other were created by us, such as political systems, stock markets, language, technology, and cities. In this course we will explore the relatively new interdisciplinary field of complex systems theory that aims to gain deep insights into how real world systems work. Along the way, we will study the tools of complex system theory that include chaos and fractals, game theory, networks, agent based models and information theory. These tools will help us approach some important questions in new ways, and find common features that span across complex systems.  How do these systems emerge or self-organize? How are they more than the sum of their parts? How do they develop and adapt, but eventually decay? What does it mean for a system to be health or sick? What does it mean for a system to be diverse? Are their general principles that might apply to all complex systems? How do we design complex systems? A particular focus will be made on health care, economic and organizational systems.

This course the the driving force behind writing An Introduction to Complex Systems: Making Sense of a Changing World.

Course Objectives

The purpose of this course is to provide you with new perspectives and tools to evaluate and understand a variety of complex systems that you will be immersed in during your life. Although we will use specific historical and current topics, both natural and man-made, to drive the course forward, a course grounded in specific topics would likely be obsolete before you even graduated. In a world that is moving very quickly, the primary objective of the course is for you to take away a framework that will arm you with the ways of taking in what you see, hear and read and then decompose the driving forces that cause a system to change.

Individual assignments and class discussion are targeted toward more specific learning objectives. At the end of the course you will be able to:


  1. Use the terminology of complex systems in writing and discussion

  2. Map the general patterns of complex systems in real world systems and organizations, both current and historical.

  3. Read literature in the interdisciplinary field of complex systems.

  4. Describe the various driving forces that make particular complex systems dynamic and adaptive.

  5. Deconstruct a particular system using complex systems theory

  6. Map complex systems theory to your own personal model of the world

Friday Discussions

The entire class will engage in a discussion on a topic of the instructor’s choosing. The goal of discussions will be to make connections between real world systems, material from other courses and the tools and concepts introduced in the text and class. Topics will emerge during the course, but may include:

  • Internet of Things and Big Data

  • Robotics and Artificial Intelligence

  • Leadership, Management and Corporate Structures

  • Privacy and Security

  • Evolution of Technology

  • Moral Systems

  • Policy, Law and Governmental Systems

  • What it means for a system to be healthy

  • Educational Systems and Learning

  • Cultural - Art, Language Entertainment, Literature and Cooking


Throughout the course we will strive to develop a general understanding of complex systems, supplemented by concrete examples. A semester long, individual, open-ended project will be a significant portion of this course and will provide you with a chance to explore one particular system in much more depth. Throughout the project you will adopt several different “hats” from complex systems theory to analyze your systems. For example, you may view your system through the lenses of game theory, non-linear dynamics and network theory. The assignments below are designed to guide you, from identifying your project topic through presenting your findings to the class. In addition to the opportunity to learn, it is worth pointing out that many breakthroughs, or even the creation of entirely new fields, have often begin when someone applies tools from one discipline to the questions of another discipline. You will be scored on your presentation and artifact(s) as well as your process and progress. Students who attempt to complete their project at the end of the semester will score low on process and progress.


The final deliverable for the project is up to you but must be of one (or perhaps a combination) of types of scholarship outlined in the Boyer model of scholarship (Boyer, 1990):


  • The scholarship of discovery is original research that advances knowledge or the means of creating knowledge.

  • The scholarship of integration is the synthesis of information across disciplines, across topics within a discipline, or across time.

  • The scholarship of application is the practice of disciplinary expertise that advances the intersection of a field with the real world.

  • The scholarship of teaching is the systematic study of teaching and learning processes of transferring knowledge about the discipline to future generations.


The medium of your final deliverable may therefore take many forms and you are encouraged to be creative. Some possibilities are review papers, software, educational tools, original research articles, policies, a documentary, an invention, or a play. Of critical importance, however, is that your contribution must fall at the intersection of the tools and ways of thinking we study in class and your particular system.


A primary goal of the class is that you will develop your own “philosophy” about how the world works. Of course this is a lifetime pursuit but one that is critical to take seriously as a graduate of a liberal arts institution. Complex systems theory provides a coherent framework for developing a view the world. It is not the only one, and we will challenge the ideas of complex systems theory throughout the class. But I will be asking you to gain insights into your own personal views using complex systems theory.

One of the primary ways in which this will be achieved is through an electronic journal. Your journal will be composed of several parts:


  1. All prompts and activities that are due on Sunday

  2. Reflections (called Meditations) on your prompts, due each Sunday

  3. Two Meta-Reflections


These will be checked periodically and commented on at the instructor meetings.



The prompts will be responses to various questions or statements that will accompany the weekly topic. They are expected to connect the tools and ways of thinking about complex systems to some more specific system. They are meant to help you explore connections between content. You can in fact think of writing them as insightful blog posts that are meant to bring the ideas from the book and class to life with more specific examples. You are encouraged to look for more information, perhaps online, if you so choose. In your prompts you should think about making some key point (a hypothesis or thesis statement) and then try to back it up. With that said, you are encouraged to speculate, to bring up new ideas or possible areas for new work that might provide additional insights.



Each Sunday, you will be asked to generate a reflection (called a Meditation by philosophers) that will extract various levels of meaning from the prompts that you write. These meditations are meant to be your own personal interpretation of what your prompts mean to you and how they might be a part of your own personal philosophy. In general meditations will be explorations of the patterns you see in your own thinking.


To help you with your meditations I offer a tool that you can use called the Reflection Ladder, which we will discuss in class.



If the response to prompts are a first order way of thinking, and meditations are a second order way of thinking, then meta-reflections are of a third order. They are of a different kind and therefore will move even deeper into your own worldview. I expect that you will wrestle with this. Not everything will fit together perfectly. Rather, view your meta-reflections as a prototype of your views that you will continue to develop after the class. For your meta-reflections I suggest the following process.


  • Read over you all of your previous entries.

  • Write 4-5 pages, perhaps a stream of consciousness.

  • Narrow your ideas to 2-3 pages by focusing on 3-5 insights that you have gained.

  • Include examples from past entries to support these insights.


A few points are worth noting:

  • Often in systems thinking the phrase is used, “the output can only be as good as the input”. The input to you meta-reflections are your weekly meditations. Therefore the better job you do with these meditations the easier it will be to write your meta-reflections.

  • A meta-reflection is not a summary. It is part analysis, part synthesis and part evaluation. Focus on how your views have changed or shifted, or perhaps become more (or less) crystalized.

  • A meta-reflection is about your own thoughts, perspective and emotions. You are not going to use dictionary definitions or be citing the work of others.

  • You are not writing an essay with the intent of convincing someone that you are “right”. With that said, your writing should convince a reader that you have had deep and personally meaningful insights.

  • It is okay if you find yourself conflicted. Sometimes the most powerful insights are the recognition that a previous assumption has been shaken, leaving behind the stimulus to keep learning more.

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