Simply Complex

Complex systems are everywhere, ranging from gene regulatory networks in a cell to food webs in an ecosystem, and from an individual human brain to the internet and social media, among thousands of other examples.

After starting on campus without a business plan, a mission statement or even the funds to provide its members coffee, CoCo is now celebrating 10 years as the hub for faculty and graduate students with an affinity for complex systems.

CoCo — shorthand for the Center for Collective Dynamics of Complex Systems — is an interdisciplinary Organized Research Center that studies the collective dynamics of various types of interacting agents as complex systems. The group works to advance member understanding of complex systems through scientific research, promote interdisciplinary collaboration among faculty, and translate understanding to products and processes to improve the well-being of all people.

Complex systems are everywhere, ranging from gene regulatory networks in a cell to food webs in an ecosystem, and from an individual human brain to the internet and social media, among thousands of other examples.

At CoCo, members study how all the different pieces of life work together and against each other, all at the same time.

CoCo Director Hiroki Sayama says there was nothing like CoCo in 2007, the year the group and its seminar series were born. It has since evolved organically as a place for colleagues to talk about their research and interest in complex systems, he says, and its transdisciplinary format is just as effective, and just as necessary, today as it was 10 years ago.

Sayama, a professor of systems science and industrial engineering, says it was the “systemness” of complex systems that drove the group together initially, since collaboration is not easily accomplished when faculty work within the confines of individual departments. This connection remains an important network for junior faculty and graduate students working in the emerging transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary fields connected to complex systems.

Pamela Mischen, associate professor of public administration, has been a CoCo member from its early days. She credits the group with helping her bring network and complexity studies to public administration. “Because of CoCo, I’ve been able to bring perspectives from outside my field of public administration to just about every course that I teach.”

Francis Yammarino, distinguished professor in the School of Management, says the work done through CoCo can improve well-being for people in a variety of ways. One example is research conducted by Yammarino, Sayama and Shelley Dionne, professor in the School of Management, through a grant from the Army Research Office about collective leadership and planning. Well-trained military leaders, capable of making fast, strategic decisions, offer clear benefits not only for the Army, but for our country.

Faculty and staff also reap the benefits of CoCo. A number of members in the University’s Center for Leadership Studies belong to CoCo. As a result, many of the center’s leadership development programs incorporate CoCo-type principles in them, Yammarino says. One of these is the Binghamton University Leadership Development Program, in which the center works with a variety of administrators and staff to improve their leadership skills.

CoCo’s unofficial mission has recently taken the group in an official direction — in two ways. One, with the development of its own peer-reviewed journal, currently in the final stages of publication. The other is through an annual conference. Initially intended as a presentation of regional papers, CoCo’s call for scientific papers received an unexpected and welcome surprise — a global response. The first annual Northeast Regional Conference on Complex Systems (NERCCS) was held this April.

Sayama says he is grateful for a decade of collegial and transdisciplinary collaboration, as well as for the University’s unreserved use of an interdisciplinary approach to teaching, learning and research. He is also mildly, but pleasantly, surprised by the interest and support CoCo has received in recent years.

When asked about his vision for CoCo’s next 10 years, Sayama says, “I hope that the transdisciplinary community and the culture of CoCo, created over the last decade, will continue to provide the future generation of faculty and students with an inspiring academic ‘home’ where they can freely explore a lot of crazy interdisciplinary ideas. I believe many innovative research programs will come out of it.”