He spent several years as an environmental researcher and consultant at University of Leiden where he worked on life cycle analysis and industrial ecology. In his research he specializes in applying complex adaptive systems theory and agent based modeling.
Igor Nikolic: “Tonight, when you go home, you will perform a very small, seemingly insignificant, action, which will have a dramatic global consequence. When you walk into your room you will flip a switch, and lights will go on.”
How can we understand complex adaptive systems?
Igor Nikolic: “Things that consist of many different entities, acting, reacting, to each other, without any centralised control, having emergent behaviour, creating a pattern of behaviour, that looks like something we can recognise, like a city in an industrial region.”
What properties do complex adaptive systems have?
Igor Nikolic: “There are two very important properties that complex adaptive systems have.
1. They are complex.
2. They evolve, and thus, are intractable.”
Can you explain this further?
Igor Nikolic: “Complexity, as understood by some scholars, is the inability of a single language or single perspective to describe all the properties of a system we observe. We have to have multiple languages, we have to have different perspectives, just to understand a complex system.”
What’s the consequence of this?
Igor Nikolic: “Nobody really understands everything. Nobody is in control.”
What can you tell me about intractibility?
Igor Nikolic: “Intractibility is something that evolving systems do. If we look at events in time, many things could have happened. The possibility was present. The future in the past was unpredictable, it had to be determined by events that took place, out of all the possibilities.”
So, what does this mean?
Igor Nikolic: “Two things. If we had to have a sustainable world, we have to consciously shape it. But, nobody knows what’s going on, nobody can control everything, and nobody can predict everything.”
So, what do you do?
Igor Nikolic: “As an engineer, let’s try to grow possible futures.”
How do you do that?
Igor Nikolic: “Let’s use semantic web, Web 3.0, to collect multiple perspectives, multiple ways of thinking, and bring them together, into computer entities, called “agents”.
What’s an agent?
Igor Nikolic: “An agent is a thing, that does things, to other things. We let these agents interact, do things to each other, and patterns of behaviour emerge.”
Can you give an example?
Igor Nikolic: “Let’s take the Dutch electricity sector. We can run experiments that let us identify patterns in the electricuty sector. For example, the EU electricity model, as it’s set up, is not going to work. We can identify that pattern, which shows there will not be a reduction in CO2 levels, nor will the cost of electricity be reduced. Electricity costs will be high.”
Interesting. What else can you tell us?
Igor Nikolic: “I’d like to share with you four fundamental insights, which stem from complexity theory and the theory of evolution.”
OK, go ahead. Tell me. How does one grow or evolve a sustainable, socio-technical system?
Igor Nikolic: “Bottom up: First, you have to start bottom up. Decentralised is the key. Each one of you might have that “one” idea, that if connected to others, will “bloom into something.
Fail gracefully: Second, you have to fail gracefully. We have to be able to learn from our mistakes.
Grow: Thirdly, we have to grow. This is step by step, evolving, adapting, learning.
Fourth: Finally, and most importantly, we have to do this together. Complex adaptive systems consists of many distributed elements, all acting, interacting. Only when people come together, connect in meaningful ways, can we create, big things.
Can you give me an example?
Igor Nikolic: “Wikipedia, Linux, Creative Commons.”
Thank you Dr. Nikolic. This has been fascinating.