In Leonard Read’s 1958 essay, “I, Pencil,” the renowned economist explains how making even the simplest of writing utensils requires millions of people working together in a complex division of labor. 

Fast forward to today’s modern world, and that division of labor in everything from global production lines to university bureaucracies has grown both in scale and complexity. The trend has led to what many view as an alarming increase in the use of regulatory mechanisms — such as companies hiring additional managers or government agencies performing more audits — to ensure many complex social systems run smoothly. 

“It ultimately begs the question: how much regulation is too much regulation, and what does optimal even look like?” says SFI Professor Chris Kempes. “I would say we don’t know what optimal regulation looks like nor how to evaluate it, which is surprising because pretty much all complex systems from individual cells and bacteria to large corporations and economies require some form of regulation to work coherently.” 

Kempes and SFI External Professor Hyejin Youn (Northwestern University) organized an SFI workshop that ran June 13–15 to better understand these optimal regulations in diverse fields, ranging from biology and physics to corporate management. The participants’ overarching goal was to identify commonalities among the regulatory mechanisms identified in different systems. This could ultimately enable researchers to apply optimal regulations from one field of study to another. 

“I think what is new here is that we are trying to build an overarching framework of regulatory mechanisms that can go from one disparate system such as a cell all the way to a human society,” Youn says. “The goal is really to be able to determine whether the regulatory mechanisms in something like a cell or human organ can be applied to a social system or not. Maybe yes, maybe no. We are working on developing a common typology to better answer these types of questions.”

Former SFI Postdoctoral Fellow Vicky Yang (MIT) and SFI Professors Sidney Redner and Geoffrey West also helped organize the workshop, which was funded in part by the National Science Foundation.  

Support from the National Science Foundation Grant Award 2133863 URoL:EN: Towards a unified theory of regulatory functions and networks across biological and social systems.