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Understanding Complexity

Understanding Complexity

Professor Scott E. Page Ph.D.
University of Michigan
Course No.  5181
Course No.  5181
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Course Overview

About This Course

12 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture
Recent years have seen the introduction of concepts from the new and exciting field of complexity science that have captivated the attention of economists, sociologists, engineers, businesspeople, and many others.

These include

  • tipping points, the sociological term used to describe moments when unique or rare phenomena become more commonplace;
  • the wisdom of crowds, the argument that certain types of groups harness information and make decisions in more effective ways than individuals;
  • six degrees of separation, the idea that it takes no more than six steps to find some form of connection between two random individuals; and
  • emergence, the idea that new properties, processes, and structures can emerge unexpectedly from complex systems.
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Recent years have seen the introduction of concepts from the new and exciting field of complexity science that have captivated the attention of economists, sociologists, engineers, businesspeople, and many others.

These include

  • tipping points, the sociological term used to describe moments when unique or rare phenomena become more commonplace;
  • the wisdom of crowds, the argument that certain types of groups harness information and make decisions in more effective ways than individuals;
  • six degrees of separation, the idea that it takes no more than six steps to find some form of connection between two random individuals; and
  • emergence, the idea that new properties, processes, and structures can emerge unexpectedly from complex systems.

Interest in these intriguing concepts is widespread because of the utility of this field. Complexity science can shed light on why businesses or economies succeed and fail, how epidemics spread and can be stopped, and what causes ecological systems to rebalance themselves after a disaster.

In fact, complexity science is a discipline that may well hold the key to unlocking the secrets of some of the most important forces on Earth. But it's also a science that remains largely unknown, even among well-educated people.

Now you can discover and grasp the fundamentals and applications of this amazing field with Understanding Complexity. Professor Scott E. Page-one of the field's most highly regarded teachers, researchers, and real-world practitioners-introduces you to this vibrant and still evolving discipline. In 12 lucid lectures, you learn how complexity science helps us understand the nature and behavior of systems formed of financial markets, corporations, native cultures, governments, and more.

What Makes a System Complex?

What defines a system as complex, as opposed to being merely

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12 Lectures
  • 1
    Complexity—What Is It? Why Does It Matter?
    Learn what the experts mean when they talk about "complex" systems. Discover why these networks of diverse, connected, and adaptive entities acting in interdependent ways are so powerful, and why understanding them is crucial to so many disciplines. x
  • 2
    Simple, Rugged, and Dancing Landscapes
    Using the concept of a mountainous landscape as both metaphor and mathematical object, you begin to grasp the ways in which concepts like "rugged" or "dancing" landscapes—where adaptation and learning are vital for survival—can be visualized even by nonmathematicians. x
  • 3
    The Interesting In-Between
    You develop your understanding of complexity's key components of interdependence, connectedness, diversity, and adaptation/learning. And you learn—by figuratively dialing the strength of each of these components up or down—why the proper balance between them is essential if a system is to be complex. x
  • 4
    Why Different Is More
    Variance and diversity have very different meanings in the world of complexity theory. Grasping that difference puts you on the way to understanding how complex systems achieve diversity and why diversity enables them to be both innovative and robust, maintaining functionality even when the system is disturbed. x
  • 5
    Explore Exploit—The Fundamental Trade-Off
    Actors in complex systems face a constant tradeoff. Do they exploit the knowledge already learned in past explorations to achieve a solution? Or do they continue to explore, seeking an even better solution? Learn the pros and cons of each, and how the best balance can be achieved. x
  • 6
    Emergence I—Why More Is Different
    One of the most fascinating ideas in complexity theory is that of emergence, the spontaneous creation of order and functionality from the bottom up, with no "central planner" putting them into place. You gain an appreciation of the two kinds of emergence and why each is a source of wonder. x
  • 7
    Emergence II—Network Structure and Function
    Continuing the discussion of emergence, you see how emergence applies to networks and why network theory has become such an active discipline. And you understand how modern complexity theory adds to the study of networks the previously ignored element of space. x
  • 8
    Agent-Based Modeling—The New Tool
    Agent-based modeling—in which computers model complex systems from interdependent agents—may be complexity theory's most promising tool. Its full potential hasn't yet been realized, but this lecture offers a taste of what it can already achieve in disciplines as disparate as fire prevention and disease transmission. x
  • 9
    Feedbacks—Beehives, QWERTY, the Big Sort
    Drill even deeper into the implications of interdependent agents as you focus on the idea of feedbacks—both the positive ones, in which "more creates more," and the negative ones, in which "more creates less." x
  • 10
    The Sand Pile—Self-Organized Criticality
    Complex systems often create large events. Using the example of how a single unscreened passenger in Atlanta delayed flights and passengers across the nation, you are introduced to one of the key concepts that explain how complex systems can be so powerful. x
  • 11
    Complexity versus Uncertainty
    There is a vast difference between thinking of events as "random" and recognizing them as the output of a complex system. Explore three conventional explanations of randomness before turning to a fourth—the interdependent rules-based analysis offered by complexity theory. x
  • 12
    Harnessing Complexity
    Although complex systems can't be controlled, we may well be able, with proper respect, to harness them. Learn why conventional decision theory doesn't work in complex environments and what a proper use of complexity theory might promise us instead. x

Lecture Titles

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Scott E. Page
Ph.D. Scott E. Page
University of Michigan

Dr. Scott E. Page is Leonid Hurwicz Collegiate Professor of Political Science, Complex Systems, and Economics at the University of Michigan, where he has taught since 2000. The holder of a master's degree in Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin and a Ph.D. in Managerial Economics and Decision Sciences from Northwestern University, Professor Page has also been Professor of Economics at the California Institute of Technology and at the University of Iowa. For the past 15 years, he has maintained an active involvement with the Santa Fe Institute-the interdisciplinary think tank recognized as the nerve center of research into complexity theory-where he is an external faculty member. His many honors as both scholar and educator include teaching awards earned at Cal Tech, Northwestern, and Michigan. The author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies and the coauthor of Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life, Professor Page has also lectured, consulted, and published across a diverse range of disciplines, including economics, political science, ecology, physics, management, public health, and computer science.

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Reviews

Rated 4.5 out of 5 by 86 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent Introduction This is an excellent introduction to the subject of complex systems. The professor does a very good job relaying an intuitive understanding and appreciation of the subject matter. I would love to see a follow up to this lecture with one that does get a bit deeper, but I guess I will need to refer to the recommended readings instead. As an aspiring biologist, I believe this should be a required subject for all biologists. August 14, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Great Course This is a great course but would likely be most enjoyed by a person oriented toward mathematics, economics or computer science. It is somewhat technical and challenging for those us more used to the "softer sciences". An engaging and understandable instructor. DVD is well worth the cost. Recommended ! May 4, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Phenomenal: Makes Complexity Easy This course is absolutely perfect for the nonscientist or nonmathematician who wants to acquire the concepts and framework of complexity theory. Professor Page is down to earth, engaging, and an excellent presenter who uses vivid, accessible examples from many fields of study. The ideas conveyed have already started to affect my thinking in my areas of concern. Bravo! January 17, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by I thoroughly enjoyed this excellent course and it left me wanting to hear more about the subject. Having covered the fundamentals of the subject in twelve lectures there was no time for actual case studies where the material was applied and how well it worked. I would love to see a followup course with 12 more lectures. I wish that anyone planning to go into politics would watch this course to learn that society is a complex system and that attempts to control rather than guide can bring disaster, no matter how well intentioned. For those of you who picked this course hoping for context for Dr. Strogatz' Chaos course be aware that the links between the two are tenuous and that this course is offered as a business selection, not a math or science one. That being said I am glad I bought this course. I found his discussions of entropy measures, power law distributions and emergence particularly fascinating. I had always felt there was more to Conway's game of life than meets the eye and it is awaiting the right person to dig into it. Dr. Page is a very trained and practiced speaker using hand gestures, movement and variations in speaking style to maintain interest. It comes across as natural for him, not forced. November 30, 2013
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