In human society, one of the great constants is change. Societies experience eras of innovation, integration, and cooperation, and others defined by polarization, fragmentation, and collapse. How can we understand the dynamics of societies? And critically, how can we train the next generation of researchers to do so, with an eye toward preventing disintegration? This summer, 38 Ph.D. students from the U.S. and Europe gathered in Vienna, Austria, for SFI’s first Complexity-GAINs international summer school to address these questions. Coming from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, students used the approaches of complexity science to consider how to better understand and prevent social polarization and fragmentation. It’s no small task; as SFI Professor and program co-director Mirta Galesic says, “We see the summer school as a small step towards a new way of doing social science, where core disciplines are still important, but where a new generation of scientists learn how to collaborate across boundaries to solve important issues facing societies today.”
Reviving SFI’s history of international schools, the two-week program was held in collaboration with the Complexity Science Hub Vienna. Faculty included researchers from SFI and four partner institutions in Germany, Austria, Italy, and the Netherlands (hence, GAINs) with expertise ranging from emotional dynamics to statistical physics.
SFI External Professor Henrik Olsson, another co-director, invited faculty and students to identify the most pressing issue in social science today, and identify what we need to understand in order to prevent disintegration. Answers ranged from addressing concerns about intelligent technologies and unintended consequences to spreading optimism and reaching disaffected members of society. Galesic emphasized the need for collective adaptation, and to uncover why society is stuck where it is and what we can do to nudge it toward a better state. “We need to understand the path dependencies that got us here and how we can get out,” she says.
Discussions challenged the idea that polarization is necessarily bad. Several faculty cited evidence from collective decision-making that disagreement and dissent are beneficial in bringing to light a lack of information or confounding biases and arriving at good outcomes. SFI External Professor Han van der Maas (University of Amsterdam) pointed out that polarization around one topic is not necessarily bad, but that correlations across multiple issues can become dangerous.
Student projects echoed the theme of group decision-making and the value of diversity — both in the research questions they addressed as well as in the research process itself. “The students chose a wide range of topics for their projects, and the groups benefited greatly from their diverse experiences and skills,” notes Olsson. “Their work, and the final project reports, showed how working in diverse teams can lead to integration of theoretical ideas, formal modeling, and empirical investigations across traditional disciplinary boundaries.”
SFI Postdoctoral Fellow Tamara van der Does, who served as a teaching fellow for the program, observed, “Many students voiced that they felt isolated in their respective institutions — that no one there understood their cross-disciplinary work — and so they were especially happy to meet other like-minded researchers who would bounce off ideas without judgment.” SFI External Professor Stefan Thurner (Medical University of Vienna; Complexity Science Hub Vienna), the program’s third co-director, ended the summer school with an invitation to students: “We need to understand the collapse quicker than it is happening. Who can do this? It’s us. It’s great to know that you’re all working on this and interested in these topics. Let’s keep working together.”
This program was made possible through the support of the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 2106013 (PI David Krakauer), IRES Track II: Complexity advanced studies institute - Germany, Austria, Italy, Netherlands (Complexity-GAINs). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the investigator(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.