How Can We Make it all Work?

There is a lot going on at PSU! In addition to our most important day-to-day work of teaching, research, community engagement and service, this year we find ourselves engaged in quite a few exciting initiatives:


Questions have emerged
How do these all relate to one another (or not)? Are we trying to do too much? What is the right sequence? What is the overlap? Will any of it make a difference?

PSU: A Complex System

The conversations, initiatives and decisions that need to be made by PSU (those listed above and others) seem to occupy a tight space and be running on compressed timelines. I am guessing I am not alone in wanting the world to stand still to make order of things. However, as many of us know, we do not live or function in a sequential space or time. We are a complex organization that has, and will always have a set of linked initiatives happening at the same time.
I am almost done reading Complexity: A Guided Tour written by one of our faculty members, Professor Melanie Mitchell in Computer Science. Melanie teaches and studies complex systems and although she does not use PSU as an example in her book, she certainly could. I learned from Melanie’s book and from viewing a number of her MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) lectures on the same topic, that complex systems have interrelated parts that have differentiated relationships both inside and outside of an organization.
Again and again in the book Melanie provides evidence on how interdependent yet self-interested organisms come together to cooperate on solving problems that affect their survival as a whole. By studying a complex system you can begin to understand the symmetry, nodes, interrelationships, and relative magnitudes of how pieces or actions relate to one another.
Mapping it Out
As I examine all of PSU’s initiatives I see them mapping onto a network–a complex system.  Of course, as many of you know, my training is in cartography (mapping) and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) so I see most things as having a spatial connection.
I can understand why individuals might believe “there is too much going on” or it is “too complicated.”  The Latin origin of the word complex—complexus—signifies “entwined,” “twisted together.” What we need to do is embrace that we are a complex system and sort through the networks, connections and interrelationships. As Melanie points out, interdependent organisms can come together to cooperate on solving problems that affect the survival as a whole.
I challenge everyone to use one of the models illustrated in this post (or one of your own) to think about how various initiatives at PSU map onto a network.  What are the symmetry, nodes, interrelationships and relative magnitudes?
I invite ideas on what those connections look like, so that we can create a network map that works for PSU.

2 thoughts on “How Can We Make it all Work?

  1. There was a blue-sky comment a couple of days ago on the rethink PSU proposal page about an imagined synergy between the geography and sociology departments combining their expertise in GIS, mapping and such topics as computational sociology and spatial sociology. Being a quant, I am partial to such approaches.. There could even be a Center created with an appropriate name and also a certificate or minor.. This is not a new idea..Stanford has something like it…. An exciting aspect of such proposals whether they turn out to be practical given real-world resources, is that they all create “markets” of a sort in intellectual commerce and actually kickstart a supply of answers that, retroactively, can create the questions we didn't know to ask! The tail does wag the dog in complex networks!


  2. Sona, Thanks for the plug for my book! I agree that PSU initiatives form a complex network and it would be a great exercise to try to map out the many different types of connections. Maybe an exercise for my University Studies “Exploring Complexity” class! In any case, I'll look forward to seeing what others think about this and hope for further conversations on this.


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