"Apollo in his Chariot Transforms Night into Day" by Jean-Baptiste Huet (c. 1800). Courtesy of Smithsonian Open Access.

In 2008, as the world grappled with a financial crisis, SFI launched its first annual Risk meeting to examine how complexity science could illuminate the underpinnings of that global crisis. Fourteen years later, as we return to in-person meetings for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world faces new and continuing upheavals, from climate change and biodiversity loss to exacerbated social polarization, from skyrocketing inflation to war in Ukraine. Our financial, supply, energy, belief, and political systems — to name a few — are undergoing regime shifts. None of these can be understood adequately in isolation; they are each part of complex coupled systems. 

“It’s undeniable that there has recently been a slate of changes to human society,” says SFI VP for Applied Complexity Will Tracy. “Since our last in-person Risk meeting, we’ve gone from moderate-low interest rates to historically low rates, and now to experiencing skyrocketing inflation that we haven’t seen since the ’70s. Pathologies of discourse also exploded during the pandemic. More broadly, we’ve seen the spread of conspiracy theories and, perhaps most troublingly, a level of global destabilization not seen since the end of the Cold War.”

On October 3, SFI researchers and members of ACtioN and SFI’s Complexity Society met to explore these regime shifts from a complex-systems perspective. They focused on three large categories of change: trends, phase transitions, and cycles. Trends, the most intuitive type of system-level change, show consistent directionality over time and are relatively easy to predict. Phase transitions are fast, radical changes that happen on a global level. Cycles occur as regular fluctuations in a system.

The 2022 Risk Meeting was co-organized by Shannan Distinguished Professor and SFI Past President Geoffrey West and incoming Fractal Faculty member Niall Ferguson and co-hosted by Morgan Stanley. The planned schedule featured presentations by complex-systems researchers offering insights from complexity science that could help us navigate the shifting regimes in our world. The lineup included SFI President David Krakauer opening with a broad introduction to the complexity of change, SFI External Professor Daniel Schrag (Harvard University) speaking about climate change through a lens of multiple timescales, and Niall Ferguson (Stanford University) offering an international perspective of complexity and regime changes, Geoffrey West sharing lessons on the life cycles of cities, companies, and the planet, and incoming SFI Complexity Fellow Katrin Schmelz (Konstanz University) discussing the importance of understanding how people respond to feeling controlled. The meeting also drew on expertise beyond SFI's researchers: Jessica Pisano (The New School for Social Research) weighing in on the politics of the Russian war in Ukraine, and Jonathan Haidt (New York University) speaking about the complex interplay of technology, social psychology, and belief. 

“The meeting showcased the many ways complexity theory can help us understand and disentangle the different types of regime change we see in the world today,” says Tracy.