The Stanford Complexity Group

Project Summary

The mission of the Stanford Complexity Group (SCG) is to serve as an interdisciplinary forum for discussion of the findings, tools, and philosophical and cultural implications associated with the study of complex systems.  This forum will include a centralized website, mailing list, invited speaker series, regular discussion sessions, and courses offered through Stanford University. Unlike similar organizations, such as The Santa Fe Institute, the purview of this group will not be limited to the sciences (or to cultures of knowledge striving to be science-like) but will traverse the bridges of complex systems thought to all fields touched by the systems view, including the arts and humanities. From a broader perspective, the recent focus on complexity in the sciences is only one manifestation of a general conceptual shift in which distributed control, contingency, and pluralism have been increasingly recognized as fundamental to fields as diverse as history, philosophy, and literature, among many others. The Stanford Complexity Group will offer a rare opportunity to expand beyond our disciplinary boundaries and talk with one another in a common language of general principles related to complex systems, thus stimulating both innovative approaches to research and novel ways of understanding of our world.


“Complexity”, in this context, refers to a systems-based perspective that serves as a complement to the reductionist approach which has traditionally sought understanding through mechanistic deconstruction. At the root of the word Complexity is the noun, complex, meaning “an integrated whole,” and at the root of the Complexity perspective is the recognition that certain types of tightly integrated systems cannot be fully understood by studying their parts in isolation. A complex systems approach instead focuses on relationships between parts, elucidating patterns as a function of the dynamic interactions of components as constrained by system-level and environmental feedbacks. The rich collection of concepts and analytical tools that have been developed in the course of the study of such systems, including self-organization, emergence, autopoiesis, and the mathematics of graph theory, fractal geometry and nonlinear dynamics, have the potential to provide a common language and frame of reference for the integration of vastly divergent realms of knowledge.


For instance, one might ask what the coordinated behavior of ant colonies, where no ants are in charge, could possibly have to do with the production of thought in brains, and how both of these phenomena may relate to ancient notions of “spirit” and “soul.” One way to approach such questions is through the application of Complexity concepts such as emergence and self-organizationEmergence refers to novel system-level properties that arise from the interactions of system components.  This process is said to be self-organized when it results from internal dynamics.  Coordinated ant colony behaviors are emergent and self-organized in this sense as they arise from within the colony through the interactions of individuals.  In a similar way, thought emerges from the interactions of neurons within brains.  In neither of these cases are the emergent properties in question to be found at the level of the individual ant or neuron.  Furthermore, short of fleshing out mechanistic details, no additional fields, entities, or essences need be invoked to explain these higher-level phenomena. This perspective helps to demystify a number of formerly perplexing natural phenomena.  Even the élan vital of biology, that poster child of extraneous explanation, may be understood in a similar way:  the quality we call life is simply an emergent property of the self-organized interactions of molecules within cells.  With this last insight, scientific discourse begins to converge with at least one traditional notion of a “spirit”, which can now be understood as a global pattern arising from the self-organizing dynamics of a complex system.


These brief examples demonstrate the applicability of Complexity concepts to divergent fields of inquiry. Other complex systems concepts bridge fields as diverse as computer science, physics, management theory, and economics, and as the previous paragraph implies, there are even tie-ins to theology. Thus we see concepts such as emergence and self-organization applied to understand global patterns of Internet use, the emergence of order in decentralized business organizations, the maintenance of form in dissipative structures such as whirlpools, and even the ontological nature of Adam Smith’s famous “invisible hand.”  Indeed, one of the strengths of systems theories is that the focus on relationships between objects of study rather than inherent “properties” of the objects themselves means that systems can be flexibly defined.  It is this portability which offers the approach’s greatest potential value, the facilitation of communication across traditionally specialized realms of knowledge.


Stanford is brimming with brilliant students and faculty actively researching complex systems, yet few forums with appeal outside of specific disciplines exist to share findings with the wider academic community.  We believe this dearth of intellectual exchanges with wide appeal is due at least in part to an issue of translation; it is difficult to explain domain-specific knowledge to individuals who are unfamiliar with the details of specific fields.  The concepts and analytical tools of Complexity offer a unique opportunity for us to talk in a common language about our research and thus have the potential to lead to fruitful integrative breakthroughs and collaborations. Many researchers are not even aware of many of the tools of complex systems thinking, though they may use them by different names every day. The SCG aims to remedy this situation by serving as an organizational nexus for initiatives related to Complexity as well as a catalyst for the building of intellectual bridges across the entire academic community.

The SCG will approach this effort by assuming three interdependent roles.  The first will be as a focal point for knowledge, organization and logistics; the second will be as an initiator of educational programs; and the third will be as an implementer of public outreach programs.  In its role as a focal point, the SCG will maintain a centralized website and mailing list and will conduct regular strategy meetings with its constituent bodies.  This website will contain original articles by SCG members, as well an events calendar and links to relevant readings lists, courses and other resources spread across the Web.  Our regular strategy meetings will serve as an inclusive forum to determine our scope and priorities. In our role as educators, one of our main challenges will be to inform the academic community about the current state of complex systems thinking and about the concepts and tools that we hope will form the core of our common language.  To this end, SCG members will lead a series of seminars exploring the basics of Complexity.  This will include an Introductory Course in Complex Systems open to all Stanford students and faculty, as well as reading groups devoted to more focused topics, such as the mathematics of graph (network) theory.  The capstone of the SCG initiative will be its outreach program, which will take the form of an invited quarterly speaker series.  Given that the success of the entire SCG initiative will be both predicated on and defined by diversity and wide participation, these speakers will be selected on the basis of both their appeal to multiple groups as well as their contributions to their respective fields.


The Stanford Complexity Group believes that it can make a valuable contribution to the intellectual environment of the University and fill an important interdisciplinary niche.  Our goal is to catalyze the assembly of a vibrant community of scholars engaged in intellectual exchange across a diversity of research interests.