Outside all the boxes

September 23, 2005

Complexity theory makes room for both Newton and disorder, say Jan Bogg and Robert Geyer

For years everyone has been trying to promote interdisciplinary research.

Yet despite a good deal of money and effort, little takes place. Research between neighbouring disciplines is common, but what about more multidisciplinary interaction between three or more disciplines or even research between natural sciences, social sciences and arts? Why is this so rare?Can anything be done other than throwing money at it?

At first glance, we all know why it is so rare. Most universities, research councils and even government policies are conceived on subject-specific lines. For individual academics, particularly younger ones, it is safer to stay within disciplinary boundaries.

But there is a deeper reason. Most modern universities are based on an 18th-century Newtonian model of science where knowledge is reduced into definable, departmentalised parts. Universities are divided into separate departments that act as internalised pyramids of expertise setting the boundaries of their disciplines. When a new field emerges, a new department is formed.

However, the core problem remains. Knowledge is segmented and departmentalised. To bring about real change, we have to re-evaluate the paradigm that structures our universities through the lens of complexity theory.

Complexity theory is a broad term for understanding a range of complex systems and phenomena emerging from the physical sciences in the mid-20th century and increasingly spilling over into the social sciences and arts.

Fundamentally, complexity argues that the world is composed of interwoven orderly, complex and disorderly parts. Rigid rules and laws help to explain the nature of orderly phenomena but exhibit only limited causal and predictive power for complex cases. For example, fundamental physical rules set the boundaries of the weather in Liverpool. However, tracing the causal chain and predicting the exact temperature in Liverpool two weeks from now, let alone two years, is impossible. In this way, complexity recognises both the strengths of the orderly Newtonian framework and the unpredictability of complex and disorderly phenomena.

Complexity thinking views traditional universities in a similar fashion.

They are good at orderly and reductive problems but struggle to deal with more interdisciplinary ones. At the Centre for Complexity Research/Complexity Network at Liverpool, we have applied the rules of complexity to our own structure with impressive interdisciplinary results, attracting more than 550 members from every major discipline and from more than 40 countries. Our first Complexity, Science and Society conference, held last week, had 18 different subject strands, ranging from art to electrical engineering and health to social theory, with participants from 30 countries. What did we do and what lessons have we learnt? Outcomes matter but so do interactions. Instead of trying to draw together a group of elites, we made it easier for disparate actors to interact through our web portal, conferences and workshops. Openness and adaptability to the different needs of distinct disciplines were key.

Don't departmentalise interdisciplinary strategies. Since our founding, we have been under constant pressure to create some form of complexity department. Departmentalising interdisciplinary themes such as complexity would instantly destroy them. Interdisciplinary initiatives such as complexity need a stable framework - but not a restrictive one.

Don't pick winners, support exploration. A common mistake is to pick an interdisciplinary theme, throw lots of money at it and hope that something happens. Nothing could be more Newtonian and against the complexity of interdisciplinarity. Not only is there no way of knowing if that theme is the right one, but you are also restricting the normal exploration processes. Supporting those processes, lowering their costs and allowing them to develop in distinct ways is much more likely to keep you on the cutting edge.

Exploration and learning demand risk and failure. In the risky and unpredictable field of interdisciplinary research, one must expect failure and even make it acceptable. For example, when we were choosing subject areas for the Complexity, Science and Society conference we issued a general call for subject co-ordinators and then allowed them to develop their own subject streams. Some succeeded wonderfully; others faltered.

Allowing for failure was part of the process.

Obviously, this is not a complete list of lessons, merely a few indicators to show that making interdisciplinary research really matter takes much more than money.

Jan Bogg and Robert Geyer are co-directors, at the Centre for Complexity Research, Liverpool University.

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