Open programme Complexity: can it be simplified?

Complex systems

1 – Introduction

What do economic crises, traffic jams and flocks of birds have in common? They can be described as complex systems.

Complexity is the common denominator, that connects an increasing number of scientists from natural-, life-, and social sciences who are studying complex systems, networks and behaviours. This new approach to reality takes its roots in mathematics and computational science but has become popular in past decennia and has developed further in various scientific disciplines. It has become a promising, multidisciplinary approach to reality.

Complexity is a characteristic of processes that are driven by parts or actors that form relationships or dynamic networks with each other and in doing so also alter themselves. In other words: not only is the whole more than the sum of its parts but when changes occur in the behaviour of the whole and in the relationship between the parts, the characteristics of the parts themselves change as well. The lack of a central driving force is another characteristic. Examples are: ecological systems,  cooperative behaviour of monkeys, embryological development, climate change, stock markets, epidemics, criminal networks, neural networks and human organisations. 

2 – Complexity Science

According to its practitioners, this new complexity science is necessary to ‘understand the totality of nature and the cosmos, human species, cultural and societal processes’. Practitioners say that even though the ‘classic’ science may have provided insights into individual pieces of the puzzle, it does not take the complexity of its objects of study sufficiently into account. This is due to its subdivision into disciplines and reductionist approach. The new complexity science calls into question traditional notions and basic assumptions such as objective knowledge, absolute truth, reductionism and causality.

This course provides insights into the objects of study of complexity science: adaptive, self-regulating or destructive processes that are not driven by an apparent core but still show regularity and structure. Complexity researchers try to explain, quantify and predict these complex processes, using mathematical and computational methods, models and simulations. Central notions that are used to do so are: emergence, tipping points, phase transitions, non-linear processes, hysteresis, resilience, bifurcation, chaos and noise.

The program of the course has been compiled in close collaboration with the brand-new Institute for Advanced Studies of the UvA:

3 – Learning objectives

  • The student shows insights into the coherence between processes studied by the researches from natural sciences, biology and humanities and can think in terms of ‘and-and’ instead of ‘either-or’. So no longer nature versus culture but cultural changes that occur within or under conditions of biological and physical processes. This will give the student a more adequate representation of the dynamic reality that he or she is a part of.
  • The student can describe ways in which prominent researchers from different scientific fields research the complexity of reality, complex networks and processes.
  • The student can describe in his or her own words the definition of the basic principles and basic methods that are used in the field of complexity science.
  • The student can provide a critical evaluation of the usefulness and necessity of the current complexity science.
  • The student can show relations between the methods and concepts used in complexity science and those used in their own field of study.

4 – Lectures, workshops and practical sessions

The programme consists of a series of lectures of 1,5 hours (including a 15 minute interview with the researcher and 15 minutes for questions) given by researchers from natural sciences, biology and humanities. The series starts at the end of September and continues until December 14th when a closing forum will take place with several researchers and students. The lectures will be given in English.

A few students get the opportunity to play an active part in interviewing the guest lecturer at the start of their lecture.

In October, there will be three ‘workshops’ from 18.00 until 19.00 before the lectures. Participation to these sessions is on a voluntary basis. In these meetings specific questions about the literature will be discussed and (mathematical) notions and concepts will be elucidated and explained. The workshops are meant to stimulate mutual exchange of knowledge and experiences and offer help in preparing the interim exam.

Halfway through the course, a maximum of 15 UvA bachelor students get the opportunity to participate in a 3-hour practical ‘modelling’ session led by Michael Lees, a computational sciences PhD student from the University of Amsterdam. 

5 – Literature

The students will read a general text of about 100 pages as well as a specific article by each guest lecturer before the corresponding lecture. The literature will be available in a digital reader, and – for a fee – on paper.

6 – Examination

Halfway through the course, October 26th there will be an interim exam. The course will be concluded with a take-home exam consisting of (half) open questions.

Lecture schedule:

Wednesday from 19.30 to 21.00

28th September:         Peter Sloot (computational sciences)

5th October:               Marten Scheffer (aquatic ecology)

12th October:             Charlotte Hemelrijk (biology)

19th October:             Peter Schall (physics, traffic jams)

26th October:             Interim exam

2nd November:          Cars Hommes (economy)

9th November:           Henk Dijkstra (climatology)

16th November:        Han van der Maas (psychology)

23rd November:        Jeroen Bruggeman (sociology)

30th November:        Henkjan Honing (musicology and computational science)

7th December:           Koen Frenken (innovation studies)

14th December:         Closing forum

21st December:         Deadline submitting final take home exam

Workshop schedule:

5th October, from 18.00 until 19.00

12th October, from 18.00 until 19.00

19th October, from 18.00 until 19.00

Practical modelling

November 23rd: from 14.00 until 17.00 


UvA-students can register themself from Thursday 16 June 2016 (look for code 5512COMP6Y in SIS) until a week before the start of the course. If you have any trouble while registering please contact:

Other parties, such as contract students or students from other institutions, interested can register from 1 June 2016 through the registration form.


Check the website.


The week before the course starts, 19 – 22 September, there will be a Conference on Complex Systems in the Beurs van Berlage in Amsterdam:

Many hot shots of complexity science from all over the world will give lectures. Students of the course Complexity: Can it be simplified? may take part in this international conference in exchange for small organizational jobs during the conference. If you want to join the conference, please send an email to with your name, address and telephone number before July 20. 


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Published by  Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies