Some Think Completely Different: Complex Adaptive Systems

Complex Adaptive System (Credit: Google images)

Dr. Igor Nikolic graduated in 2009 on his dissertation: co-evolutionary process for modelling large scale socio-technical systems evolution. He received his MSc as a chemical– and bioprocess engineer at the Delft University of Technology.

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?

Complex Adaptive Systems (Credit: Google images)

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.

About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
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2 Responses to Some Think Completely Different: Complex Adaptive Systems

  1. Igor Nikolic says:

    Hi there Profesorbaker !

    Thank you for the wonderful writeup ! You really distilled the essence of the message I was trying to get across. As you noticed, the visuals got messed up during the talk. The entire presentation, including all of the movies, is available for download under the creative commons licence here

    If you or your readers are interested in learning more about CAS, I offer a Open CourseWare Course on Complex Adaptive Systems online.

    Greetings !
    Igor Nikolic


    • Hi Igor,

      Firstly, thank you for visiting.

      I found your talk very informative, enlightening, and surprisingly, easy to understand, despite the complexity of Complex Adaptive Systems. I came away convinced that I genuinely understood what CAS is all about.

      I beg your forgiveness for the “imagined interview format”. I have only recently realised how powerful a dialogic approach can be to improving my understanding. Having your recorded TED talk allowed me to identify questions which you were answering. This somehow gets me into a position to walk away with a great understanding.

      Interestingly enough, I believe this only works (for me) with something that has already been written, or in your case, already recorded.

      Again, let me thank you for taking the time to stop by, offer further resources, and information. Your work is absolutely amazing, and it was a great pleasure to have had the opportunity to learn from you.

      Best regards,


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