Academic Lecture Series Continues With Discussion on Complexity Science by Dr. Anne Barker

Dr. Anne Barker on Complexity Science

Dr. Anne Barker on Complexity Science

News Story: February 1, 2012

On Wednesday, February 15, Dr. Anne Barker, representing the College of Health Professions, gave the second in a series of four lectures that make up Sacred Heart University’s Academic Research Showcase. The Showcase is part of this year’s Presidential Inaugural Lecture Series.

Barker’s topic was Complexity Science: A Theoretical Model to Inform New Beginnings, and she discussed the ways that looking at things “through the lens of complexity” could impact life at Sacred Heart University. She started by explaining that before complexity science, the underlying assumption was that the world, including organizations and people, worked like a machine or “clockwork.” This included a belief that the world was knowable and that by dissecting discrete parts, scientists could reveal how the whole system works and even improve quality of life. As a result, she said, organizations have been designed based on the machine metaphor and that influences how we view Sacred Heart University and our role in it. 

Next she shared the roots of complexity science – the science of the 21st century. They are:

  • Chaos theory – the study of nonlinear dynamics,  where seemingly random events are actually predictable from simple deterministic equations
  • Fractal geometry – non-regular geometric shapes that have the same degree of non-regularity on all scales
  • The butterfly effect – a small change at one place in a nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state
  • Complex adaptive systems – a collection of individual agents who have the freedom to act in unpredictable ways and whose actions are interconnected such that the action of one agent changes the context for another agent

Complexity Science suggests that we can’t predict and control our environment, and there is more to being human than we know, Dr. Barker said. She encouraged the audience to view Sacred Heart University as a complex adaptive system or, as she put it – “one big mob.” Such a view, she suggested, could lead to a variety of interesting changes in the way we interact. Those include making connections that don’t currently exist, connecting the disconnected, employing self-organization and being present.

She told a story about a problem at a hospital between emergency room staff and psych nurses. After switching roles for a day – or making a connection that didn’t currently exist – the two groups were more empathetic when it came to one another’s challenges. To connect the disconnected, she recommended thinking through who should actually be at the table when resolving a particular issue. She used her own team as an example of self-organization, sharing a story of a lab coordinator resigning just before classes started while she was in Europe. “My staff got together and took care of the problem without direction from me. They self-organized to get the work done.”

While complexity science is still very new and there is much more to discover, Dr. Barker believes it may be the answer to President Petillo’s challenge to the SHU community to “be present. Connecting students and faculty in different ways and more informal ways could lead to very different relationships and perspectives,” she said.

For those who are willing to embrace complexity science, she recommends the following:

  • Remember control is an illusion
  • Accept unpredictability
  • Don’t look for linearity in a nonlinear world
  • Keep in mind that change more often occurs in small, incremental steps
  • Take action at the microsystem level

She concluded by showing a video clip of swallows that demonstrated how they work together, have a goal and fly in patterns. “A few will straggle then come back; they don’t run into each other,” she said. “There is still a great deal to learn about complexity science, but I believe the concepts it offers can inform us as we have our new beginnings at Sacred Heart.”