Complex Systems Science

Even though the public and private sectors have spent billions of dollars encouraging Americans to adopt healthy lifestyles, it’s still difficult to predict which policies and programs will have the greatest impact and allow resources to be invested efficiently. 

To unravel this mystery, the Nova Institute supports innovative work that uses tools and techniques from complex systems science. This approach takes a holistic view of communities rather than focusing on individual parts and helps researchers understand the links between health determinants—the biological, behavioral, socioeconomic, and environmental factors that shape our health.

Complex Systems Modeling

Complex systems modeling illuminates how health determinants work together and helps researchers identify key relationships between factors. That information can be used to predict the impact of different policies, such as increasing student-teacher ratios or adding new bus routes. It also helps researchers pinpoint gaps in information as well as key tipping points. Building bridges between techies, academics, policy makers, and the general public, complex systems modeling transforms information into powerful insight that can drive more efficient, effective changes in community health and public policy.

Nova Institute Scholar George Kaplan is using complex systems modeling to take large sets of data and simulate scenarios in hypothetical communities. For example, as part of a larger study, he examined what would happen to the body mass index (a health indicator) of residents if good food stores were introduced in their neighborhoods. Other Scholars working in this space include David Lary, who is using machine learning to integrate and evaluate complex data, as well as Claudia Witt, who is studying how clinical research can generate better evidence.

In October 2007, we hosted a conference on complex systems and complementary and alternative medicine research, and Fellow Andrew Ahn published a white paper summarizing the results in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

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