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Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative widens scope

May 14, 2009

Van der Leeuw joins Poste as co-director

An ASU initiative to leverage key university research strengths against complex global challenges is expanding its scope and leadership to more tightly integrate the natural sciences and technology with social sciences and the humanities.

Sander van der Leeuw, director of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, will join founding director George Poste in co-directing ASU's Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative.

The Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative, or CASI, is focusing ASU's growing interdisciplinary strengths on large-scale problems where an integrated effort is essential and likely to require creation of entirely new technologies and scientific directions.

Poste, a Regents' Professor who joined ASU in 2003 as director of the Biodesign Institute, was tapped to lead the new initiative last year and, with recruitment of his successor at the Biodesign Institute, formally launched CASI in March. His charge is to use strategies that have proven successful in aligning large interdisciplinary research teams in the Biodesign Institute to address major global challenges.

Initial objectives for the Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative include amplifying ASU's capabilities in the areas of synthetic biology and sensor development – rapidly advancing fields that could contribute significantly to improving health care and dealing with environmental problems.

Poste's role and responsibilities remain the same, but CASI will be expanded to include social sciences and the humanities. This new aspect of the initiative will be overseen by van der Leeuw, who will continue to direct the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

"Sander brings years of experience in working with a complex adaptive systems approach," says ASU President Michael M. Crow. "The School of Human Evolution and Social Change is among the first social science programs to include the complex adaptive systems perspective in its research and teaching. Sander is a distinguished and accomplished scholar and we are excited to have him join this important initiative."

Crow adds that CASI provides ASU with an incredibly robust transdisciplinary platform to accelerate ASU's momentum in use-inspired research. He explained that far-reaching challenges including the current economic crisis, global climate change, shortcomings in healthcare systems and global infectious disease involve complex combinations of technological and social dynamics.

"This initiative will help us better understand how complex systems function and help us to develop practical solutions addressing multiple aspects of a problem, while doing a better job of avoiding unintended consequences," Crow says.

An advisory group of experts will to be engaged to provide strategic input.

Fields such as biology, medicine, chemistry, engineering and physics often are described as natural sciences, while social sciences and the humanities include, among others, anthropology, law, economics, history, sociology and psychology. Formal sciences, such as mathematics, logics and computer technologies, are often grouped within both of the other categories.

Yet, each of these fields has something to contribute to understanding and solving complex problems, Poste and van der Leeuw say.

Van der Leeuw's role in the initiative will include oversight of a new Consortium for Biosocial Complex Systems. This new group will bring together three existing research units in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity; the Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity; and the Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center.

"Integration is the key to being a leader in solving complex challenges," van der Leeuw says. "You must be able to look at problems holistically, and not just at one point in time, but across time. The consortium's goal is to position ASU as leader in research, education and application of complex system concepts and methods across living and social systems. By bringing it within the larger construct of the Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative, we can bring the expertise of the consortium to bear on the problems Dr. Poste and I will be attempting to address."

Van der Leeuw was one of the first to systematically apply the complex adaptive systems approach to socio-environmental challenges in a series of projects funded by the European Union while he was at Cambridge University and at the Sorbonne in Paris. Since then, he has joined the Santa Fe Institute as external professor and co-directed a large research project on the Information Society as a Complex System, equally funded by the European Union.

"The value of the initiative's expanded approach is the convergence of expertise across multiple domains," Poste says. "It recognizes that today's most urgent challenges are dynamic and complex, with multiple causes and effects impacting continuously. It is counterproductive to reduce these problems to component parts the interactions are what need to be understood."

Poste and van der Leeuw note that the study of complex systems theory and its applications requires new approaches and tools, the establishment of entirely new research areas such as synthetic biology, and development of advanced computer modeling that can begin to mimic the dynamic nature of changes in complex systems that can create sudden and unexpected outcomes.


Kimberly Ovitt,
Biodesign Institute