Understanding Complexity

Course No. 5181
Professor Scott E. Page, Ph.D.
University of Michigan
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Course No. 5181
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Course Overview

Recent years have seen the introduction of concepts from the new and exciting field of complexity science that have captivated the attention of economists, sociologists, engineers, businesspeople, and many others.

These include

  • tipping points, the sociological term used to describe moments when unique or rare phenomena become more commonplace;
  • the wisdom of crowds, the argument that certain types of groups harness information and make decisions in more effective ways than individuals;
  • six degrees of separation, the idea that it takes no more than six steps to find some form of connection between two random individuals; and
  • emergence, the idea that new properties, processes, and structures can emerge unexpectedly from complex systems.

Interest in these intriguing concepts is widespread because of the utility of this field. Complexity science can shed light on why businesses or economies succeed and fail, how epidemics spread and can be stopped, and what causes ecological systems to rebalance themselves after a disaster.

In fact, complexity science is a discipline that may well hold the key to unlocking the secrets of some of the most important forces on Earth. But it's also a science that remains largely unknown, even among well-educated people.

Now you can discover and grasp the fundamentals and applications of this amazing field with Understanding Complexity. Professor Scott E. Page-one of the field's most highly regarded teachers, researchers, and real-world practitioners-introduces you to this vibrant and still evolving discipline. In 12 lucid lectures, you learn how complexity science helps us understand the nature and behavior of systems formed of financial markets, corporations, native cultures, governments, and more.

What Makes a System Complex?

What defines a system as complex, as opposed to being merely

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12 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Complexity—What Is It? Why Does It Matter?
    Learn what the experts mean when they talk about "complex" systems. Discover why these networks of diverse, connected, and adaptive entities acting in interdependent ways are so powerful, and why understanding them is crucial to so many disciplines. x
  • 2
    Simple, Rugged, and Dancing Landscapes
    Using the concept of a mountainous landscape as both metaphor and mathematical object, you begin to grasp the ways in which concepts like "rugged" or "dancing" landscapes—where adaptation and learning are vital for survival—can be visualized even by nonmathematicians. x
  • 3
    The Interesting In-Between
    You develop your understanding of complexity's key components of interdependence, connectedness, diversity, and adaptation/learning. And you learn—by figuratively dialing the strength of each of these components up or down—why the proper balance between them is essential if a system is to be complex. x
  • 4
    Why Different Is More
    Variance and diversity have very different meanings in the world of complexity theory. Grasping that difference puts you on the way to understanding how complex systems achieve diversity and why diversity enables them to be both innovative and robust, maintaining functionality even when the system is disturbed. x
  • 5
    Explore Exploit—The Fundamental Trade-Off
    Actors in complex systems face a constant tradeoff. Do they exploit the knowledge already learned in past explorations to achieve a solution? Or do they continue to explore, seeking an even better solution? Learn the pros and cons of each, and how the best balance can be achieved. x
  • 6
    Emergence I—Why More Is Different
    One of the most fascinating ideas in complexity theory is that of emergence, the spontaneous creation of order and functionality from the bottom up, with no "central planner" putting them into place. You gain an appreciation of the two kinds of emergence and why each is a source of wonder. x
  • 7
    Emergence II—Network Structure and Function
    Continuing the discussion of emergence, you see how emergence applies to networks and why network theory has become such an active discipline. And you understand how modern complexity theory adds to the study of networks the previously ignored element of space. x
  • 8
    Agent-Based Modeling—The New Tool
    Agent-based modeling—in which computers model complex systems from interdependent agents—may be complexity theory's most promising tool. Its full potential hasn't yet been realized, but this lecture offers a taste of what it can already achieve in disciplines as disparate as fire prevention and disease transmission. x
  • 9
    Feedbacks—Beehives, QWERTY, the Big Sort
    Drill even deeper into the implications of interdependent agents as you focus on the idea of feedbacks—both the positive ones, in which "more creates more," and the negative ones, in which "more creates less." x
  • 10
    The Sand Pile—Self-Organized Criticality
    Complex systems often create large events. Using the example of how a single unscreened passenger in Atlanta delayed flights and passengers across the nation, you are introduced to one of the key concepts that explain how complex systems can be so powerful. x
  • 11
    Complexity versus Uncertainty
    There is a vast difference between thinking of events as "random" and recognizing them as the output of a complex system. Explore three conventional explanations of randomness before turning to a fourth—the interdependent rules-based analysis offered by complexity theory. x
  • 12
    Harnessing Complexity
    Although complex systems can't be controlled, we may well be able, with proper respect, to harness them. Learn why conventional decision theory doesn't work in complex environments and what a proper use of complexity theory might promise us instead. x

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  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • 64-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 64-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Scott E. Page

About Your Professor

Scott E. Page, Ph.D.
University of Michigan
Professor Scott E. Page received a B.A. in Mathematics from the University of Michigan and an M.A. in Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He then received his M.S. in Business and his Ph.D. in Managerial Economics and Decision Sciences from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He completed his Ph.D. thesis under the guidance of Stan Reiter and Nobel laureate Roger Myerson. He has...
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Understanding Complexity is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 110.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Overview of Complexity Theory Professor Page did a magnificent job introducing the subject of complexity theory. His lectures were designed well in terms of content and sequence. This course provides a great jumping off point for further study.
Date published: 2019-08-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great Course But.. Wonderful, would have been excellent, but I have two issues: 1) Course Guide Book too brief - could have included more information & summaries. Obviously not much of an effort put in compared to the many other courses I have. Barely serves as a reference to go back to. 2) Lecturer is talented, but he talks way, way too fast for "old"ears.
Date published: 2019-08-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Difficult and profound ideas made clear I have bought a number of great courses over the years, and this has been my best experience. It boils down to me to the effective organization of the lectures, individually and as a sequence. Each lecture has a clear logical progression that is presented up front to the viewer and reinforced through the lecture. This is a difficult subject and I suspect that structure is in part what made it so easy to absorb multiple interrelated concepts. Furthermore, the lectures build on each other, slowly expanding the depth of your understanding of complex adaptive systems. I found the presentation to be very good. The use of visuals, anecdotes, examples, and practical implications were well placed and helpful. The lecturer's sense of humor and personality came through to me, and that connection facilitated my learning. Finally, the content was truly profound. In my view, you can't go back once you start thinking about complex adaptive systems. It has changed my view of social, political, and economic life, of individual agency, and resilience. This is the kind of intellectual stimulation that I seek from the Great Courses. I can't recommend it enough.
Date published: 2019-04-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brain Food for the everyday Genius I purchased this DVD because of my admiration of Professor Scott Page. His voice is soothing, he smiles and has a very dry sense of humor. The content is overflowing with mystery and promise. Complexity was about a difficult subject delivered in the most engaging way! If there is truth in the idea that using the brain to understand difficult concepts strengthens the brain, then this subject will delight because the subject is worth discovering, knowing and understanding. Professor Page makes understanding, truly understanding, this difficult subject a forehead slapping discovery with a satisfying grin.
Date published: 2018-09-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Absolutely Fantastic! I have purchased a huge array of courses, and Scott Page is unquestionably one of the best professors featured in any of the courses I’ve purchased. Scott has a way of presenting complex concepts in a manner that makes understanding the content easy for anyone. Scott is a truly gifted professor, distilling the essence of the concepts down to a level that any reasonably intelligent individual can easily follow regardless of their background. I would highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2018-06-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course I wasn't quite sure from the description if this was a course that would be useful, but it proved more than useful. It clarified ideas that were murky in my mind and I only wished I'd had it before I retired.
Date published: 2018-03-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Example of Continuous Learning from Experience This course made me think! I am older, and have several decades of experience in the military and in the private sector. Although I have intuitively understood the difference between control and influence, this course put things in a much more useful perspective. I now understand why I had, and still have, so little control over my local environment. The phrase "we live in a complex world" now has context that it did not have before I took this course. I went through the course over several days, and used the time in between to reflect on my experiences and better understand the why of the outcomes. But it will also be extremely useful in moving forward in my current work on risk and resilience. If you are looking for specifics in mathematical models, you will not find it on this course. But it is an outstanding introduction to concepts, and how complexity affects our work and our lives. It gives me another useful lens through which to view the world.
Date published: 2017-02-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Complexity is not same as Chaos theory Am enjoying this even though I have to keep remembering what his metaphors mean. Understanding how to conceptualize this world is fascinating. Instead of study halls when I was a high school student in the public school I wish we could have had access to such learning experiences Ii would have been delightful to have spent my time learning rather than tolerating the luddites that tormented the teachers and the rest of us. I have advised two of my school districts board members about the Great Courses available for students and teachers in our county library system. This one on Complexity could certainly help keep the majority of kids tuned into something besides drugs.
Date published: 2016-07-24
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