Complex Systems Science

Uncovering factors that shape our health


For decades, the public and private sectors have been spending billions of dollars encouraging Americans to adopt healthy lifestyles. Yet it’s still difficult to predict which policies and programs will have the greatest impact, allowing resources to be invested most efficiently.

To unravel this mystery, the Institute supports innovative work using tools and techniques from complex systems science. This approach, which takes a holistic view of communities rather than focusing on individual parts, helps researchers understand the links between health determinants—the biological, behavioral, socioeconomic, and environmental factors that shape our health.

Complexity science can uncover surprising relationships between factors and reveal which ones influence health the most. With that knowledge, institutions can concentrate their efforts on what will make the biggest difference.

Complex systems modeling

Institute Scholar George Kaplan is using complex systems modeling to take large sets of data and simulate scenarios in hypothetical communities. For example, as part of a larger study, he examined what would happen to the body mass index (a health indicator) of residents if good food stores were introduced in their neighborhoods.

Complex systems modeling illuminates how health determinants work together and helps researchers identify key relationships between factors. That information can be used to predict the impact of different policies, such as increasing student-teacher ratios or adding new bus routes. It also helps researchers pinpoint gaps in information as well as key tipping points. 

Building bridges between techies, academics, policy makers, and the general public, complex systems modeling transforms information into powerful insight that can drive more efficient, effective changes in community health and public policy. 

Learn more

Complex Systems and Integrative Health

Web page:  Institute Scholar George Kaplan and his work

Web page:  Ross A. Hammond, director, Center on Social Dynamics and Policy, Brookings Institution

Article:  Complex Systems and Health Behavior Change: Insights from Cognitive Science by Mark G. Orr and David C. Plaut, American Journal of Health Behavior, May 2014

Complex Systems Science Overview 

Online class:  Model Thinking by Scott E Page, professor of complex systems, University of Michigan