University of Vermont


Big Scale... Big Fail?

A central feature of large-scale complex social, natural, and technological systems that enable our economies, our communication and sharing of information, the distribution of energy, transportation, food production, and public health, is their continual growth and increasing interconnectedness. In adapting and evolving, these systems can be seen as attempting to gain efficiency of scale, to solve problems (clean energy for all), to allow for new modes of behavior (social media), and by their very existence, to demonstrate remarkable robustness.

But this complexification can also lead to unexpected catastrophe: from massive power blackouts to global financial crashes to the collapse of ecosystems, large-scale complex systems have also repeatedly shown an unpredictable fragility. What can we learn when looking across these diverse examples? Are these system-level failures universal, few in type, or a collection of special one-of-a-kind disasters?

In our 2012 TEDxUVM event, we will bring together speakers from across the scientific landscape to report on the resilience and failure of large-scale complex systems, and our prospects for explanation, prediction, and prevention.

Complex Systems at UVM

Complex Systems is an emerging strength at the University of Vermont, one where the institution has already begun to assert leadership. Below please find out more about the Steering Committee members who are mapping the future of Complex Systems at UVM.

  • Peter Dodds Peter Dodds (Chair)
    Peter Dodds is director of the UVM Complex Systems Center. Together with Chris Danforth, he co-runs the Computational Story Lab. His research focuses on system-level, big data problems in many fields including sociology, geomorphology, biology and ecology. His major current funding is an NSF CAREER award to study sociotechnical phenomena (2009-2014). For more information, please see his website.
  • Joshua Bongard Joshua Bongard (Vice Chair)
    Josh Bongard's work focuses on understanding the general nature of cognition, regardless of whether it is found in humans, animals or robots. This unique approach focuses on the role that morphology and evolution plays in cognition. Addressing these questions has taken him into the fields of biology, psychology, engineering and computer science. For more information, please see his website.
  • Jason Bates Jason Bates
    Jason Bates is a professor in the Departments of Medicine and Molecular Physiology and Biophysics in the College of Medicine. As a bioengineer, his research focuses primarily on the mechanics of lung function. He also engineers new technologies to address lung diseases and much of his work centers on the measurement and modeling of lung function. His research work has led to three patents and he has been involved with the establishment of two Canadian companies.
  • Chris Danforth Chris Danforth
    Chris Danforth is an applied mathematician interested in modeling a variety of physical, biological, and social phenomenon. He has applied principles of chaos theory to improve weather forecasts as a member of the Mathematics and Climate Research Network, and developed a real-time remote sensor of global happiness using messages from Twitter. He also helps run UVM's reading group on complexity. For more information, please see his website.
  • Paul Hines Paul Hines
    Paul Hines' work focuses on finding ways to make electric energy more reliable, more affordable, with less environmental impact. Topics of interest include how small problems in the power grid become large blackouts (cascading failure), identifying and mitigating the stresses that could be caused by large amounts of electric vehicle charging, and quantifying the impact of high penetrations of wind and solar on electricity systems. [website]
  • Christopher Koliba Christopher Koliba
    Christopher Koliba is Director of the Master of Public Administration program and Associate Professor in Community Development and Applied Economics. He applies complex systems modeling to the study of governance networks in the areas of transportation planning, watershed governance, utility regulation, and food systems planning. He is also chair of the Complexity and Network Studies Section of the American Society of Public Administration.
  • David Novak David Novak
    David Novak is a faculty member in the School of Business Administration and is affiliated with the UVM Transportation Research Center (TRC). He is interested in combining different modeling approaches and concepts to address problems from unique perspectives, and is particularly interested in relationships between operations research, spatial geography, and policy / planning. For more information, please see his UVM webpage.
  • Brian Tivnan Brian Tivnan
    Brian Tivnan, a UVM Complex Systems Center affiliate, is the Burlington site leader and chief engineer in the Modeling & Simulation Department for the MITRE Corporation, a not-for-profit organization that manages federally funded research and development centers, partnering with government sponsors to support their crucial operational missions. His current research interests include the study of conflict and quantitative finance.
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