Brian, now 71, is one of the most influential early thinkers of the SFI, a place that without exaggeration could be called the cradle of complexity science.
Brian became famous with his theory of increasing returns. An idea that has been developed in Vienna, by the way, where Brian was part of a theoretical group at the IIASA in the early days of his career: from 1978 to 1982.
“I was very lucky,” he recalls. “I was allowed to work on what I wanted, so I worked on increasing returns.”
The paper he wrote at that time introduced the concept of positive feedbacks into economy.
The concept of “increasing returns”
Increasing returns are the tendency for that which is ahead to get further ahead, for that which loses advantage to lose further advantage. They are mechanisms of positive feedback that operate—within markets, businesses, and industries—to reinforce that which gains success or aggravate that which suffers loss. Increasing returns generate not equilibrium but instability: If a product or a company or a technology—one of many competing in a market—gets ahead by chance or clever strategy, increasing returns can magnify this advantage, and the product or company or technology can go on to lock in the market.”
(W Brian Arthur, Harvard Business Review 1996)
This was a slap in the face of orthodox theories which saw–and some still see–economy in a state of equilibrium. “Kind of like a spiders web,” Brian explains me in our short conversation last Friday, “each part of the economy holding the others in an equalization of forces.”
The answer to heresy in science is that it does not get published. Brian’s article was turned down for six years. Today it counts more than 10.000 citations.
At the latest it was the development and triumphant advance of Silicon Valley’s tech firms that proved the concept true. “In fact, that’s now the way how Silicon Valley runs,” Brian says.
The youngest man on a Stanford chair
William Brian Arthur is Irish. He was born and raised in Belfast and first studied in England. But soon he moved to the US. After the PhD and his five years in Vienna he returned to California where he became the youngest chair holder in Stanford with 37 years.
Five years later he changed again – to Santa Fe, to an institute that had been set up around 1983 but had been quite quiet so far.
Q: From one of the most prestigious universities in the world to an unknown little place in the desert. Why did you do that?
A: In 1987 Kenneth Arrow, an economics Nobel Prize winner and mentor of mine, said to me at Stanford: We’re holding a small conference in September in a place in the Rockies, in Santa Fe, would you go?
When a Nobel Prize winner asks you such a question, you say yes of course. So I went to Santa Fe.
We were about ten scientists and ten economists at that conference, all chosen by Nobel Prize winners. We talked about the economy as an evolving complex system.
Veni, vidi, vici
Brian came – and stayed: The unorthodox ideas discussed at the meeting and the “wild” and free atmosphere of thinking at “the Institute”, as he calls the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), thrilled him right away.
In 1988 Brian dared to leave Stanford and started to set up the first research program at Santa Fe. Subject was the economy treated as a complex system.
Q: What was so special about SF?
A: The idea of complexity was quite new at that time. But people began to see certain patterns in all sorts of fields, whether it was chemistry or the economy or parts of physics, that interacting elements would together create these patterns…To investigate this in universities with their particular disciplines, with their fixed theories, fixed orthodoxies–where it is all fixed how to do things–turned out to be difficult.
Take the economy for example. Until then people thought it was in an equilibrium. And there we came and proved, no, economics is no equilibrium! The Stanford department would immediately say: You can’t do that! Don’t do that! Or they would consider you to be very eccentric…
So a bunch of senior fellows at Los Alamos in the 1980s thought it would be a good idea if there was an independent institute to research these common questions that came to be called complexity.
At Santa Fe you could talk about any science and any basic assumptions you wanted without anybody saying you couldn’t or shouldn’t do that.
Our group as the first there set a lot of this wild style of research. There were lots of discussions, lots of open questions, without particular disciplines… In the beginning there were no students, there was no teaching. It was all very free.
This wild style became more or less the pattern that has been followed ever since. I think the Hub is following this model too.
The magic formula for excellence
Q: Was this just a lucky concurrence: the right people and atmosphere at the right time? Or is there a pattern behind it that possibly could be repeated?
A: I am sure: If you want to do interdisciplinary science – which complexity is: It is a different way of looking at things! – you need an atmosphere where people aren’t reinforced into all the assumptions of the different disciplines.
This freedom is crucial to excellent science altogether. It worked out not only for Santa Fe. Take the Rand Corporation for instance, that invented a lot of things including the architecture of the internet, or the Bell Labs in the Fifties that invented the transistor. The Cavendish Lab in Cambridge is another one, with the DNA or nuclear astronomy…
The magic formula seems to be this:
First get some first rate people. It must be absolutely top-notch people, maybe ten or twenty of them.
Make sure they interact a lot.
Allow them to do what they want – be confident that they will do something important.
And then when you protect them and see that they are well funded, you are off and running.
Probably in seven cases out of ten that will not produce much. But quite a few times you will get something spectacular – game changing things like quantum theory or the internet.
Don’t choose programs, choose people
Q: This does not seem to be the way officials are funding science…
A: Yes, in many places you have officials telling people what they need to research. Or where people insist on performance and indices… especially in Europe, I have the impression, you have a tradition of funding science by insisting on all these things like indices and performance and publications or citation numbers. But that’s not a very good formula.
Excellence is not measurable by performance indicators. In fact that’s the opposite of doing science.
I notice at places where everybody emphasize all this they are not on the forefront. Maybe it works for standard science; and to get out the really bad science. But it doesn’t work if you want to push boundaries.
Many officials don’t understand that.
In Singapore the authorities once asked me: How did you decide on the research projects in Santa Fe? I said, I didn’t decide on the research projects. They repeated their question. I said again, I did not decide on the research projects. I only decided on people. I got absolutely first rate people, we discussed vaguely the direction we wanted things to be in, and they decided on their research projects.
That answer did not compute with them. They are the civil service, they are extraordinarily bright, they’ve got a lot of money. So they think they should decide what needs to be researched.
I should have told them – I regret I didn’t: This is fine if you want to find solutions for certain things, like getting the traffic running or fixing the health care system. Surely with taxpayer’s money you have to figure such things out. But you will never get great science with that. All you get is mediocrity.
Of course now they asked, how do we decide which people should be funded? And I said: “You don’t! Just allow top people to bring in top people. Give them funding and the task of being daring.”
Any other way of managing top science doesn’t seem to work.
I think the Hub could be such a place – all the ingredients are here. Just make sure to attract some more absolutely first rate people. If they are well funded the Hub will put itself on the map very quickly.
By Hannu Halinen, special advisor to the director general and CEO of IIASA
The Harpa Center at Reykjavik Harbor is the scene for one of the biggest annual gatherings of Arctic researchers, politicians, business representatives, indigenous peoples, nongovernmental organizations, and students; the Arctic Circle Assembly. Under the roof of this architectural landmark some two thousand participants spend a long weekend discussing a multitude of Arctic issues. This year there was an added attraction next door to the Harpa Centre: Finland, as a part of her 100 year independence celebration, had brought the multipurpose ice breaker “Nordica” to Reykjavik. A number of the assembly events were held on board the vessel, and everybody—both assembly participants and Icelanders— wanted to take the rare chance to see this impressive ship. The sea around Iceland is ice-free thanks to the Gulf Stream; hence no need for ice breakers.
The official assembly program consisted of a few high-level plenary sessions and many parallel break-out sessions. IIASA and the Arctic Futures Initiative (AFI) were introduced at the assembly in 2015, and I was busy at that time introducing Pavel and Anni to my Arctic colleagues. I can safely say that the time then was effectively used to build and strengthen the network between IIASA and Arctic actors.
By 2017 we were many steps ahead, as AFI has become a well-known Arctic endeavor and launching the collaboration between IIASA and the Arctic Circle was a major development. I have had the privilege to be associated with AFI over three years now, and one of the challenges for me all along has been to explain to those interested what AFI is about. Because my background is as a diplomat and a civil servant, the concept of a research project has been something new to me—and to many other decision makers and business leaders as well.
Everybody is asking what new angle can the AFI bring, and what’s in it for me? The collaboration between the Arctic Circle and AFI is a prime example on how to respond to the question. A wealth of insights and information is provided in hundreds of interventions at the assembly. What is missing is the analysis, follow up and possible implementation of the inputs during the Assembly. Here AFI can give the crucial assistance needed through systems thinking, models, and scenarios.
Two years ago we had one break-out session at the assembly. This year AFI was presented by Pavel and the former President of Iceland Olafur Grimsson at a plenary, as well as in three well-attended break-out sessions covering how systems analysis perspective can be invaluable to the challenges and opportunities that the Arctic faces; how the opening of the Northern sea route might impact global trade, and Arctic fisheries assessments.
The network is now largely built, the project development phase is coming to the end, and the focus of the work is shifting to carry out the project itself. But many issues still need to be tackled: who will organize and carry out the work, for example, how to solve the funding issues, and so on. I have believed in this project from the beginning. With wise and decisive action the remaining questions can be solved.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
Lauren Hale, now professor of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine talks about her time at the IIASA Young Scientist Summer Program in 1996, and her new role as part of the IIASA US National Member Organization.
As a professor at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, I study how sleep is a mechanism through which policy and social factors can affect mental and physical health. I find that differences in sleep patterns across the population are contributing to disparities in health and wellbeing. My current study of nearly 1000 teens from across the USA seeks to understand the contributing factors (including school start times and screen-based media) of insufficient sleep and health concerns among the young. In addition, I serve on the board of directors of the National Sleep Foundation, and I’m the founding editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Sleep Health, which, ironically, has cut into my own sleep health.
Out of the thousands of colleges and universities in the USA where I could have ended up, it is a fortuitous coincidence that, just across the road, my initial IIASA mentor Warren Sanderson teaches in the Economics Department also at Stony Brook University. He still visits IIASA for three months every summer and continues to play a supportive role in my professional life.
I might never have pursued postgraduate work had it not been for my early experiences at IIASA. I had the unique opportunity to join IIASA for the Young Scientists Summer Program while still an undergraduate (long story). It was an incredible opportunity, as a college junior, to find myself within a week of my arrival in the summer of 1996, seated around a table with the world’s top demographers at an international workshop on world population projections. I credit Wolfgang Lutz for being so inclusive with the YSSPers. I found everything about systems dynamics and population modeling novel and exciting. For my summer project, I modeled the dynamics of tourism and fish populations off the coast of the Yucatan. Thankfully, I had enormous guidance and support from my mentor Warren Sanderson, and co-YSSPer Patricia Kandelaars. Patricia and I were both Aurelio Peccei scholars and invited back for a second summer, during which we pretended we were still in the YSSP program, joining for many heurigen evenings and other memorable weekend excursions.
Thanks to my positive experiences at IIASA, I entered a PhD program at Princeton University to pursue population studies, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at the RAND Corporation, in Santa Monica, California. Although population sleep health research seems far afield from the interplay between fish and tourism in Mexico, I see a link to my experiences at IIASA, which is where I was introduced to systems thinking with policy relevance. Recently, I was honored to be invited to join the US National Member Organization for IIASA. Once again, I sought advice from Warren Sanderson, who encouraged me to accept the opportunity. I’m looking forward to giving back and reconnecting with IIASA.
Johanna Mair is a professor of Organization, Strategy and Leadership at the Hertie School of Governance, Academic Editor of Stanford Social Innovation Review, Co-Director of the Global Innovation for Impact Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, and Academic Co-Director Social Innovation and Change Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School. Mair is also a member of the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group, which holds its annual retreat this weekend on the sidelines of the European Forum Alpbach.
At the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group retreat this weekend, you will be joining a discussion on governance and institutional transformation towards sustainability. What do you see as the biggest barriers to sustainable development? Sustainability challenges typically require a concerted effort to achieve impact. We still lack the appropriate governance and accountability mechanisms that ensure implementation of well-intended strategies and commonly devised goals.
As an expert in social entrepreneurship and innovation, what new developments have you seen that you think could drive a transformation towards sustainability? Could you give examples of successful innovations that have taken hold? We do see innovation on many fronts. Especially in governance technology has enabled a number of useful and helpful innovations that allow for more transparent and accountable processes. At the same time we still face enormous challenges that cannot be fixed by technology and require us to face deeply rooted relational and cultural problems. The prevalence of open defecation and lack of sanitary infrastructure in India is just one example.
Sometimes it seems like there are many great ideas, but adoption is slow. What do you think is necessary to make the leap from innovative idea to widespread practice? “Most new ideas are bad ideas” as Jim March from Stanford University would say. We must stop praising innovation and start to think and act on linking innovation and scaling as two distinct process to create impact. Innovation is an investment and creates the potential for impact. Scaling enacts and grows this potential and transforms innovation into tangible outcomes – improving the lives of marginalized people and communities and making progress on stubborn societal and environmental problems.
How do innovation and governance go together? What are the challenges and opportunities for bringing new ideas into institutions and governments? Governance needs to exert an enabling role. We need to craft and design governance systems that foster innovation. At the same time, governance systems need also make sure that the potential and usefulness of innovation can be tested along the way. This requires reflecting on markers of success that are process and not outcome focused.
The Alpbach-Laxenburg Group brings together leaders from business, and young entrepreneurs, along with government leaders and science experts. What do you think can be gained from a meeting of this type? The most important outcome will be a shared understanding of priorities, pathways, and markers of success for this journey.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
By Daniel McMurray, BA LLB MIL Global Event Lead – Impact Hub, Managing Director & Global Head of Communications – Enterprise IQ Pty Ltd
“It is paradoxical, yet true, to say, that the more we know, the more ignorant we become in the absolute sense, for it is only through enlightenment that we become conscious of our limitations. Precisely one of the most gratifying results of intellectual evolution is the continuous opening up of new and greater prospects”.
– Nikola Tesla
It is hard not to feel that we live at a pivotal moment in history, with the world racing toward an epochal crossroad.
In one direction lies the path of reason, science, community and progress. A world where growing systemic challenges like climate change, resource scarcity, overpopulation, inequality, and environmental degradation can be addressed through logic, evidence, and rational, creative, and collaborative action. Where the ingenuity, collective genius, and relentless optimism of humanity can resolve complex problems such as poverty, disease, and ecological collapse, creating abundance of energy, health, education and well-being for all.
In the other direction, lies a different path. One of regression, unreason, and parochialism. A fact-free, fearful and frightening world of separation, science denialism, and superstition, ruled over by demagogues offering glib, unworkable solutions, convenient scapegoats to blame, and soothing illusory retreat into fragmented tribal realms.
Which path we collectively choose to follow will determine the trajectory of the 21st century and beyond. Will we choose the enlightened path of working together collectively, collaboratively, and consciously for the greater good? Or will we choose the path of darkness, disintegrating into unconscious, unreasonable and irrational behavior that hastens systemic collapse?
At such a pivotal moment, the choice of “New Enlightenment” as the theme for the recent European Forum Alpbach was a timely, prescient and crucial framing.
Attending the forum with my European-based colleagues from Impact Hub – a globally connected network of social entrepreneurs, innovators, and change-makers as official partners for the event – inspired hope that the path of enlightenment, reason and collaborative action is fundamentally achievable.
One of the highlights of the event for our contingent was a facilitated hike into the Tyrolean alps with Pavel Kabat (Director General & CEO of IIASA) and other key thought leaders from the Alpbach Laxenburg Group – including Jeffrey Sachs (Director of The Earth Institute from Columbia University), Tarja Halonen (the former President of Finland), Björn Stigson (former President of the WBCSD), Justin Yifu L in (Director of the Centre for New Structural Economics at Peking University), Pascal Lamy (former Director-General of the WTO), and many more cross-sectoral leaders from business, government, NGOs and civil society.
Gathered together in the scenic environs of the Boglalm Chalet, this diverse and eclectic group focused our discussion around how we can work together to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
Professor Sachs’ definition of an “entrepreneur” struck a chord. He described entrepreneurs as those with the vision to take elements from diverse sources, creatively combining and re- combining in new ways, key insights from different sectors, research fields, technologies, or existing systems to present a new solution or way of thinking.
In that group, representing a mix of the established elite and the challengers of tomorrow, the old and the new from business, government, science, social enterprise, and civil society, it was refreshing to feel the positive energy and inspired thinking that can come from embracing and making space for an open, cross -pollination of ideas.
It brought to mind a universal truth – that humanity is at its best when we work together collaboratively, breaking down barriers, dissolving silos of thought and entrenched interests and, like Professor Sachs’ concept of real entrepreneurship, combining ideas in new, innovative and creative ways. The path of enlightenment is not the domain of any one group. Political leaders can’t fix things alone – lacking the power, methodologies, community currency, and instruments required. They need business leaders, scientists, innovators, and change-agents from the social sector and civil society to bridge the gaps in dialogue, bring fresh insights and recombine them in radically new ways.
As Albert Einstein famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”. The path of enlightenment can only be reached through collaborative action. It is a conscious choice and one that we must come together to choose in order to avert catastrophe.
“Really, the only thing that makes sense is to strive for greater collective enlightenment”.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
How does Vienna and its scientific research community benefit from the presence of the two institutions and vice versa?
Henzinger: Vienna is a hub for scientific research in Europe. There are a number of universities and institutions in Vienna and they all have an important part to play in the research ecosystem. In the end this profits everybody because as the critical mass of research grows the easier it is to hire people. It’s like gravity — big centers attract more of the best researchers from around the world. The Science Ball is a — uniquely Viennese — sign of this. We are now firmly “on the map”, and in Vienna you show that by hosting a ball!
Kabat: I agree. IIASA has a number of fruitful connections with Viennese institutions. For example, IIASA and OäW have worked together to organize a series of public lectures and debates with prominent scientists for the Viennese academic and political community. Our scientific collaborations with researchers in Vienna and Austria as a whole are also very strong, and have resulted in the publication of over 1050 scientific papers since 2008.
The Science Ball, bringing together Vienna’s diverse scientific community.
Vienna is known as the “City of Music” because of its musical legacy, but why is science not also an important part of the city’s image?
Kabat: This is something close to my heart. IIASA is doing top-level science on transitions towards sustainability; the world is now at a cross-roads and we need to be taking steps in sectors from energy and water all the way to financial systems. Communicating this can be very difficult, so we are using new and unusual collaborations that are made possible by this fantastic Viennese environment. We are working with music, ballet, and the opera. We have partnered up with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, for example, and with dancers from the State Opera to communicate these complex concepts. Science and the arts both have a vital part to play in Vienna’s past and future. I dream of a scientific tour through Vienna featuring collaborations between theatres, museums, and scientific institutions.
Henzinger: There is a lot of history between the golden age of science in Vienna and today, and I think there is a large amount of effort and also a lot of progress in reviving Vienna as a city for science. Science by its very nature is one of the most borderless activities of humanity there is and it can only thrive in a completely open environment. It is no surprise that the glory days of science in Vienna were when it was the hub of a multi-national empire. I think we can only get back to that by becoming much more open-minded and much more international as a country.
The city of Vienna is not legally responsible for science funding, but it is a central research hub and the biggest university city in central Europe. What can the city do to improve its image as a center of scientific excellence?
Kabat: I think a change is needed in the portrayal of Vienna as a whole. There is promotion of music, dance, and the arts. All these are great, but institutions like IST Austria and IIASA should also be used to show that Vienna really is one of the major science hubs of Europe and the world. Emphasizing this would require very little investment but would benefit both Vienna and science in the city. All the components are here, what it needs is a coordinated effort and a vision.
Henzinger: Vienna has an enormous advantage in that is known as a fantastic place to live. The city needs to actively attract not only world-class researchers but all kinds of science-related businesses and organizations. Vienna as a whole must make concerted effort to advertise itself as an attractive location for students, companies, and professionals from all over the world.
Students do not know that if they come to study at Vienna University, for example, they may also be able to benefit from collaborations with scientists working IIASA and IST Austria, who may be able to advise or even co-supervise them. This dynamic and varied environment is a key part of what Vienna can offer, not only the individual institutions. The ball is the perfect step in that direction. It is very clearly an effort that transcends any particular institution.
Kabat: We should continue this talk, not just with the two of us but with all leaders of Viennese scientific institutions, and the mayor, to have a free and frank discussion. Science brings a huge amount to the city of Vienna and it should be recognized. The ball, as you say, is an excellent occasion to bring together Vienna’s vibrant scientific community and celebrate it!