Complex systems science: expert consultation report

Johnson, Jeffrey; Bourgine, Paul and Hales, David (2009). Complex systems science: expert consultation report. The European Commission, Brussels, Belgium.



Executive Summary

A new programme of research in Complex Systems Science must be initiated by FET

The science of complex systems (CS) is essential to establish rigorous scientific principles on which to develop the future ICT systems that are critical to the well-being, safety and prosperity of Europe and its citizens. As the “ICT incubator and pathfinder for new ideas and themes for long-term research in the area of information and communication technologies” FET must initiate a significant new programme of research in complex systems science to underpin research and development in ICT. Complex Systems Science is a “blue sky” research laboratory for R&D in ICT and their applications. In July 2009, ASSYST was given a set of probing questions concerning FET funding for ICT-related complex systems research. This document is based on the CS community’s response.

Complex systems research has made considerable progress and is delivering new science

Since FET began supporting CS research, considerable progress has been made. Building on previous understanding of concepts such as emergence from interactions, far-from-equilibrium systems, border of chaos and self-organised criticality, recent CS research is now delivering rigorous theory through methods of statistical physics, network theory, and computer simulation. CS research increasingly demands high-throughput data streams and new ICT-based methods of observing and reconstructing, i.e. modelling, the dynamics from those data in areas as diverse as embryogenesis, neuroscience, transport, epidemics, linguistics, meteorology, and robotics. CS research is also beginning to address the problem of engineering robust systems of systems of systems that can adapt to changing environments, including the perplexing problem that ICT systems are too often fragile and non-adaptive.

Recommendation: A Programme of Research in Complex Systems Science to Support ICT

Fundamental theory in Complex Systems Science is needed, but this can only be achieved through real-world applications involving large, heterogeneous, and messy data sets, including people and organisations. A long-term vision is needed. Realistic targets can be set. Fundamental research can be ensured by requiring that teams include mathematicians, computer scientists, physicists and computational social scientists.

One research priority is to develop a formalism for multilevel systems of systems of systems, applicable to all areas including biology, economics, security, transportation, robotics, health, agriculture, ecology, and climate change. Another related research priority is a scientific perspective on the integration of the new science with policy and its implementation, including ethical problems related to privacy and equality.

A further priority is the need for education in complex systems science. Conventional education continues to be domain-dominated, producing scientists who are for the most part still lacking fundamental knowledge in core areas of mathematics, computation, statistical physics, and social systems. Therefore:

1. We recommend that FET fund a new programme of work in complex systems science as essential research for progress in the development of new kinds of ICT systems.

2. We have identified the dynamics of multilevel systems as the area in complex systems science requiring a major paradigm shift, beyond which significant scientific progress cannot be made.

3. We propose a call requiring: fundamental research in complex systems science; new mathematical and computational formalisms to be developed; involving a large ‘guinea pig’ organisation; research into policy and its meta-level information dynamics; and that all research staff have interdisciplinary knowledge through an education programme.

Tangible outcomes, potential users of the new science, its impact and measures of success

Users include (i) the private and public sectors using ICT to manage complex systems and (ii) researchers in ICT, CSS, and all complex domains. The tangible output of a call will be new knowledge on the nature of complex systems in general, new knowledge of the particular complex system(s) studied, and new knowledge of the fundamental role played by ICT in the research and implementation to create real systems addressing real-world problems. The impact of the call will be seen through new high added-value opportunities in the public and private sectors, new high added-value ICT technologies, and new high added-value science to support innovation in ICT research and development. The measure of success will be through the delivery of these high added-value outcomes, and new science to better understand failures.

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