Tag Archives: complexity science

Can Universities Be Small Worlds?

 It's A Small World WD-2 from TTucker 8.0 2010

It's A Small World WD-2 from TTucker 8.0 2010

Students in my Networks and the Creative Process class have been thinking about what constitutes the most appropriate network architecture for fostering creativity. Following the work of Grannovetter, Strogatz, Watts, and Burt, as well as others, who advocate a small world network, we have been comparing various contextual architectures to each other as well as to that of a small world.

students compared the architecture of a city to that of the brain.

For example, in our last blogging assignment, students compared the architecture of a city to that of the brain, commenting in each case on how the architecture influences creativity. An interesting exercise, to be sure!

Perhaps I should say a word about small worlds, and why their architectures are assumed to facilitate creativity or–as Ron Burt would say–good ideas. Small world networks are characterized by dense clusters (comprised of close associations, or strong ties) that are linked to other clusters within a network by weak ties (or loosely coupled relationships). According to the theory, dense relationships within the clusters give rise to trust and collaboration, which enable collective action, thereby allowing members to more easily execute tasks.

old hat (from  Fabrizio Savoca)

old hat (from Fabrizio Savoca)

However, ideas within a cluster tend to become old hat–that is, because members are so closely associated, they tend to reinforce old ways of thinking and discourage new ideas. To garner new ideas and be creative requires outreach, based on weak ties, and the brokering of ideas across clusters.

At first glance, universities appear to be small worlds.

How does this idea apply to university settings? At first glance, one might assume that universities are ideal small worlds. Indeed, divided up into departments that are grounded in disciplinary practices and domains, the university is constituted of relatively independent departmental clusters, which are linked only indirectly through structurally equivalent ties to the university administration–an organizational paradigm that dates back to the post civil-war research university (Clark Kerr).

Medieval University (courtesy of Wikipedia

Medieval University (courtesy of Wikipedia


Although universities have long clung to their autonomy and independence from outside influences, of late, growing economic pressures have led them to reach out to their larger socioeconomic environment for financial support through grants, alliances, joint ventures, and patent pools. These outreach efforts have not only been favored by Government but also supported through legislation, which allows faculty members to claim proprietary rights over research sponsored by public funds. As Henry Etzkowitz has described it in his book The Triple Helix, the university is evolving from an ivory tower to an entrepreneurial paradigm.

As the university, as a whole, has reached outward, how have the local clusters–the disciplinary departments–fared? It is here that one might raise a red flag.

 Red Flag Day from Ridock

Red Flag Day from Ridock

Recall that for small networks to encourage creativity, outreach is not enough. External exploration requires in-group exploitation, a point that Robert Axelrod makes in his book Harnessing Complexity. However, a search of the university literature yields sparse evidence that external ideas are being capitalized upon collectively among departmental faculty.

..the overall departmental learning (and the knowledge base of the university as a whole) will likely stagnate.

To the contrary, the modus operandi within academic departments appear to be based not on collaboration but rather on competition–competition for salaries, for grants and funding as well as for peer recognition. Hence, the overall departmental learning (and the knowledge base of the university as a whole) will likely stagnate over the long term. To boot, as Carl A. Raschke has noted, new technologies will exacerbate this situation, serving to fray the ties both within the university community as well as those directed outside.

For a preview of the future, one need only consult M. Mitchell Waldrops’ book, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. In it Waldrop describes how individual scholars, who were in many cases at odds with their disciplinary departments, came together in a very synergistic fashion at the Santa Fe Institute to create the New Science of Complexity. To achieve these kind of synergies, universities might have to consider making some architectural changes to their small worlds.

Ring Out The Old. . .

Happy New Year from Lake.Sider

Having made our New Year’s resolutions, my husband and I sat down to our New Year’s breakfast–eggs benedict–which Brock had specially prepared for the occasion.We held up our glasses, filled with champagne, and toasted the New Year: “Welcome Yule.”

While this is an annual event for us, I was struck on this occasion by the passage of time.

I was struck by the passage of time. 

The old song, “
Ring Out the Old, Ring in the New
,” came to mind, and hearing the words resound in my brain, I was taken aback. The tune goes like this:

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow;
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Perhaps my surprise reflected my feelings about aging and the totality of life. For unlike Father Time, I am not prepared at my ripening age to take my leave as yet .  In this, I am reminded of my mother who–especially as she got older–would recite Lewis Carroll’s poem from Alice in Wonderland, “You Are Old Father Williams.”, as if to mock her fate and give herself permission to simply be herself.  As each day passes, I come to appreciate the poem’s significance–as well as my mother–more and more.

You are old, Father William’, the young man said,
   ‘And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head —
   Do you think, at your age, it is right?’

‘In my youth’, Father William replied to his son,
   ‘I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
   Why, I do it again and again.

Nonsense poems are no longer in vogue. So I wonder, what might my mother say, were she here today. How would she phrase her pleasure in being alive.? Assuming that she had read all about complex systems, she might have taken great pleasure referencing all the non-linearities that such systems afford. As well, she might have pointed to the works of Brian Arthur and Stuart Kauffman, recalling that life is full of synergies and increasing returns, And, of course, she would have mentioned fat tails–that is to say how the richer get richer, and the elders have more fun!
Dip's fat tail. by caysee

So before lifting my glass and having another sip of champagne, I will take a brief respite. The first thing I will do is to stand on my head. Then I will ride down the fat tail slide. Want to come along? All Aboard!