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Photo of Kathie L. Olsen
Credit: Sam Kittner/kittner.com

Dr. Kathie L. Olsen
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation

OECD Global Science Forum
Istanbul, Turkey

"Proposal for Convening a Workshop on Complex Systems and the Science of Unanticipated Consequences and Unrealized Opportunities"

Submitted to the Seventeenth Meeting of the OECD Global Science Forum by the Delegation of the United States

October 2, 2007

[Slide #1: Title Slide]
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Before I give my formal presentation, I would first like to acknowledge several colleagues who worked cooperatively to develop this proposal and presentation, Rose Gombay, and Drs. Jacqueline Mesrazos, Raima Larter, Neysa Call and Ann Carlson. I especially want to recognize Rose Gombay providing the guidance to frame this proposal in line with OECD goals.

Perhaps an article in Science magazine captured it best. It said, "very simple ingredients can produce very beautiful, rich, and patterned outputs."

Every place we look, we see a world of complexity. From mountain ranges to the Bosphorus Straight that we saw last night and to ocean currents, and from the organization of information on the Internet to communication networks, the world is full of complexity at all levels. Paradoxical as it may appear, understanding complexity in all its guises may actually help simplify science.

When we make breakthroughs in our appreciation of complex patterns; our understanding transforms and so does our ability to deal with challenges.

The abstract pattern at the start of this talk was actually a chemical pattern which emerges as a young zebra develops its stripes. It is meant to illustrate artistically how the principle and processes of emergence can work.

Because of the transformative knowledge to be gained from studying complexity, the U.S. delegation proposes a workshop entitled, "Complex Systems and the Science of Unanticipated Consequences and Unrealized Opportunities."

[Slide #2: The Science of Complexity]
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Complexity is an integrating concept with great power and scope. The science of complexity seeks to develop tools and methods to study the emergence of collective properties in systems with large numbers of interacting parts.

Scientists and engineers are now equipped with the necessary tools and know-how to be able to understand complex systems, especially using the tools of physics and mathematics as we've already heard.

By understanding the collective properties of a system with a large number of interacting parts, the study of complexity will provide insight into the very nature of the emerging behaviors of systems.

[Slide #3: Timely and Urgent Global Situations]
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Systems that are important to us on a global scale.

The science of complexity can provide us with a much better understanding of many urgent, global problems--and opportunities.

Weather forecasting, climate change, economic and political well-being, disaster and disease management, sensors and materials that can adapt to changing conditions, and energy solutions.

[Slide #4: International Engagement and Cooperation]
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None of these issues are constrained by national boundaries or borders.

And, they are all ripe for international collaboration and cooperation. In fact, they require it.

[Slide #5: Global Science Forum Goals]
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A global science forum would be a logical first step in mobilizing the international community.

The goals of the forum are to:
Identify principles of complex systems that would help policy makers better predict the consequences of policy actions; and
Explore ways to better enable international research capacity.

[Slide #6: Predicting Unanticipated Consequences]
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Policies designed without a full appreciation of the complex reactions they will cause, sometimes lead to less-than-hoped for outcomes.

Systems-dynamics modeling and other complexity methods have led to forecasts of undesirable outcomes from some public policy initiatives which at first seem desirable.

For example, traffic management measures that lead to more traffic, or anti-smoking campaigns that encourage more people to smoke.

[Slide #7: Forecasting Behavior of Complex, Rapidly Changing Systems]
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Advances in nonlinear systems modeling are helping to improve forecasts of the impacts of climate variability on storms and coasts, and on buildings, people, and economies.

[Slide #8: Complexity Analysis]
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Complexity analyses are shedding light on conditions in which networks and communities are viable and strong. Or, conversely, when the anger and alienation of a particular group tips into conflict.

Complexity analysis also underlie efforts by engineers to develop self-managing sensors that adjust to environmental conditions. This type of work can also be applied to information systems, communications systems, and the like.

[Slide #9: Complexity of Self-organization]
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Complexity methods are helping researchers recognize conditions in brains that enable particular cognitive processes to emerge, with obvious implications for education.

Qualities in biological entities promise development of new materials or functions, such as the conversion of harmful carbon dioxide into useful substances.

Some types of biologically inspired self-assembly mechanisms may enable useful nanoscale switching for future generations of computing and drug-delivery systems, like the nanocar seen here.

[Slide #10: Analyzing Collective Behaviors]
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Researchers are using complexity analyses to analyze collective behaviors. For example, they are predicting the point at which a peaceful crowd may become a stampede.

Researchers are also using agent-based complexity models to better predict the patterns by which a disease is likely to spread into a global pandemic, and how failures in an electrical system can cascade into a large-scale black-out.

[Slide #11: Structural Tendencies]
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Complexity scientists are finding common patterns across dissimilar systems and unique qualities that arise at different levels of system complexity. Each time this science gives us insight into one type of system or pattern, insights into others become available.

The science of complexity is a broad interdisciplinary field encompassing a range of tools and methods for studying urgent global problems.

International efforts to study complexity are all ready underway, for example, the European Union's ERANET project, known as Complexity-NET, which has several international collaborators. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council of UK serves as coordinator. This proposal would extend the EC activity beyond the European partners currently involved and would bring science policy issues into the discussion.

[Slide #12: Workshop Outcomes]
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This proposed workshop would result in recommendations for the research, funding and policy communities.

Expected workshop outcomes include a concise policy-level report summarizing principles of complex systems of most use to policy makers, as well as guidelines for the research funding community seeking to enable further breakthroughs by means of science and engineering. The workshop will also enhance understanding of standard definitions, educational canon, and data formats that can enable improved international collaboration.

[Slide #13: Conclusion--Muir Quote]
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I'll close with a quote from John Muir, which captures the concept of complexity quite nicely, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."


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