Brian Arthur’s magic formula for excellence


Apr 20, 2018

How to achieve scientific excellence

 

W. Brian Arthur from the SFI about increasing returns and the magic formula to get really great science. 

 

 

Last week the great Brian Arthur shortly stopped at the Hub on his way back home from Singapore to further work on a new idea he has been developing together with Stefan and Rudi.

 

Brian, now 71, is one of the most influential early thinkers of the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), a place that without exaggeration could be called the cradle of complexity science.

 

Brian became famous with his theory of increasing returns. An idea that has been developed in Vienna, by the way, where Brian was part of a theoretical group at the IIASA (one of our member institutions) in the early days of his career: from 1978 to 1982.

 

“I was very lucky,” he recalls. “I was allowed to work on what I wanted, so I worked on increasing returns.”

 

The paper he wrote at that time introduced the concept of positive feedbacks into economy.

 

 

 

The concept or “increasing returns”

 

“Increasing returns are the tendency for that which is ahead to get further ahead, for that which loses advantage to lose further advantage. They are mechanisms of positive feedback that operate—within markets, businesses, and industries—to reinforce that which gains success or aggravate that which suffers loss.

 

Increasing returns generate not equilibrium but instability: If a product or a company or a technology—one of many competing in a market—gets ahead by chance or clever strategy, increasing returns can magnify this advantage, and the product or company or technology can go on to lock in the market.”

 

(W Brian Arthur, Harvard Business Review 1996)

 

This was a slap in the face of orthodox theories which saw–and some still see–economy in a state of equilibrium. “Kind of like a spiders web,” Brian explains me in our short conversation last Friday, “each part of the economy holding the others in an equalization of forces.”

 

The answer to heresy in science is that it does not get published. Brian’s article was turned down for six years. Today it counts more than 10.000 citations.

 

At the latest it was the development and triumphant advance of Silicon Valley’s tech firms that proved the concept true. “In fact, that’s now the way how Silicon Valley runs,” Brian says.

 

 

 

The youngest man on a Stanford chair

 

William Brian Arthur is Irish. He was born and raised in Belfast and first studied in England. But soon he moved to the US. After the PhD and his five years in Vienna he returned to California where he became the youngest chair holder in Stanford with 37 years.

 

Five years later he changed again – to Santa Fe, to an institute that had been set up around 1983 but had been quite quiet so far.

 

 

 

Q: From one of the most prestigious universities in the world to an unknown little place in the desert. Why did you do that? 

 

 

A: In 1987 Kenneth Arrow, an economics Nobel Prize winner and mentor of mine, said to me at Stanford: We’re holding a small conference in September in a place in the Rockies, in Santa Fe, would you go?

 

When a Nobel Prize winner asks you such a question, you say yes of course. So I went to Santa Fe.

 

We were about ten scientists and ten economists at that conference, all chosen by Nobel Prize winners. We talked about the economy as an evolving complex system.

 

 

Veni, vidi, vici

 

Brian came – and stayed: The unorthodox ideas discussed at the meeting and the “wild” and free atmosphere of thinking at “the Institute”, as he calls the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), thrilled him right away.

 

In 1988 Brian dared to leave Stanford and started to set up the first research program at Santa Fe. Subject was the economy treated as a complex system.

 

 

 

Q: What was so special about SF?

 

 

A: The idea of complexity was quite new at that time. But people began to see certain patterns in all sorts of fields, whether it was chemistry or the economy or parts of physics, that interacting elements would together create these patterns…

 

To investigate this in universities with their particular disciplines, with their fixed theories, fixed orthodoxies–where it is all fixed how to do things–turned out to be difficult.

 

Take the economy for example. Until then people thought it was in an equilibrium. And there we came and proved, no, economics is no equilibrium! The Stanford department would immediately say: You can’t do that! Don’t do that! Or they would consider you to be very eccentric…

 

So a bunch of senior fellows at Los Alamos in the 1980s thought it would be a good idea if there was an independent institute to research these common questions that came to be called complexity.

 

 

At Santa Fe you could talk about any science and any basic assumptions you wanted without anybody saying you couldn’t or shouldn’t do that.

 

Our group as the first there set a lot of this wild style of research. There were lots of discussions, lots of open questions, without particular disciplines… In the beginning there were no students, there was no teaching. It was all very free.

 

This wild style became more or less the pattern that has been followed ever since. I think the Hub is following this model too.

 

 

The magic formula for excellence

 

 

Q: Was this just a lucky concurrence: the right people and atmosphere at the right time? Or is there a pattern behind it that possibly could be repeated?

 

 

A: I am sure: If you want to do interdisciplinary science – which complexity is: It is a different way of looking at things! – you need an atmosphere where people aren’t reinforced into all the assumptions of the different disciplines.

 

This freedom is crucial to excellent science altogether. It worked out not only for Santa Fe. Take the Rand Corporation for instance, that invented a lot of things including the architecture of the internet, or the Bell Labs in the Fifties that invented the transistor. The Cavendish Lab in Cambridge is another one, with the DNA or nuclear astronomy…

 

The magic formula seems to be this:

 

First get some first rate people. It must be absolutely top-notch people, maybe ten or twenty of them.

Make sure they interact a lot.

Allow them to do what they want – be confident that they will do something important.

And then when you protect them and see that they are well funded, you are off and running.

 

Probably in seven cases out of ten that will not produce much. But quite a few times you will get something spectacular – game changing things like quantum theory or the internet.

 

Don’t choose programs, choose people

 

 

Q: This does not seem to be the way officials are funding science…

 

 

A: Yes, in many places you have officials telling people what they need to research. Or where people insist on performance and indices… especially in Europe, I have the impression, you have a tradition of funding science by insisting on all these things like indices and performance and publications or citation numbers. But that’s not a very good formula.

 

Excellence is not measurable by performance indicators. In fact that’s the opposite of doing science.

 

I notice at places where everybody emphasize all this they are not on the forefront. Maybe it works for standard science; and to get out the really bad science. But it doesn’t work if you want to push boundaries.

 

Many officials don’t understand that.

 

In Singapore the authorities once asked me: How did you decide on the research projects in Santa Fe? I said, I didn’t decide on the research projects. They repeated their question. I said again, I did not decide on the research projects. I only decided on people. I got absolutely first rate people, we discussed vaguely the direction we wanted things to be in, and they decided on their research projects.

 

That answer did not compute with them. They are the civil service, they are extraordinarily bright, they’ve got a lot of money. So they think they should decide what needs to be researched.

 

I should have told them – I regret I didn’t: This is fine if you want to find solutions for certain things, like getting the traffic running or fixing the health care system. Surely with taxpayer’s money you have to figure such things out. But you will never get great science with that. All you get is mediocracy.

 

Of course now they asked, how do we decide which people should be funded? And I said: You don’t! Just allow top people to bring in top people. Give them funding and the task of being daring.

 

Any other way of managing top science doesn’t seem to work.

 

I think the Hub could be such a place – all the ingredients are here. Just make sure to attract some more absolutely first rate people. If they are well funded the Hub will put itself on the map very quickly.

 

 

 

 

(The interview was recorded by Verena Ahne)


Publication

A. Nerpel, et al.

SARS-ANI: a global open access dataset of reported SARS-CoV-2 events in animals

Scientific Data 9 (438) (2022)

Research News

Jul 26, 2022

Study unveils first global dataset for SARS-CoV-2 infections in animals

Research News

Jul 28, 2022

A stress test for the (Austrian) healthcare system

Publication

G. De Marzo, F. Pandolfelli, V.D.P. Servedio

Modeling innovation in the cryptocurrency ecosystem

Scientific Reports 12 (12942) (2022)

Press

Why Animals Are Less Vulnerable Than Humans to BA.5 and Omicron [feat. A Desvars]


TIME, Aug 3, 2022

Press

Είναι τα ζώα ο "Δούρειος ίππος" του Covid19; - Αλήθειες και μύθοι [Greek] [feat. Amélie Desvars-Larrive]


Parallaxi, Aug 5, 2022

Publication

T. Reisch, G. Heiler, C. Diem, P. Klimek, S. Thurner

Monitoring supply networks from mobile phone data for estimating the systemic risk of an economy

Scientific Reports 12 (13347) (2022)

Event

CSH in Alpbach 2022: "Complexity of Supply Chains: Ways to a More Resilient Future"


Aug 27, 2022 | 12:3014:00

Congress Centrum Alpbach

Press

Wie sich CoV in der Tierwelt ausbreitet [feat. Amélie Desvars-Larrive]


ORF Science, Aug 8, 2022

Event

CSH Workshop: "Collective Resilience"


Oct 19, 2022Oct 21, 2022

Complexity Science Hub Vienna

Research News

Aug 8, 2022

Scientists create computer risk model to tackle supply chain disruption

Publication

A. Nerpel, et al.

SARS-ANI: a global open access dataset of reported SARS-CoV-2 events in animals

Scientific Data 9 (438) (2022)

Research News

Jul 26, 2022

Study unveils first global dataset for SARS-CoV-2 infections in animals

Research News

Jul 28, 2022

A stress test for the (Austrian) healthcare system

Publication

G. De Marzo, F. Pandolfelli, V.D.P. Servedio

Modeling innovation in the cryptocurrency ecosystem

Scientific Reports 12 (12942) (2022)

Press

Why Animals Are Less Vulnerable Than Humans to BA.5 and Omicron [feat. A Desvars]


TIME, Aug 3, 2022

Press

Είναι τα ζώα ο "Δούρειος ίππος" του Covid19; - Αλήθειες και μύθοι [Greek] [feat. Amélie Desvars-Larrive]


Parallaxi, Aug 5, 2022

Publication

T. Reisch, G. Heiler, C. Diem, P. Klimek, S. Thurner

Monitoring supply networks from mobile phone data for estimating the systemic risk of an economy

Scientific Reports 12 (13347) (2022)

Event

CSH in Alpbach 2022: "Complexity of Supply Chains: Ways to a More Resilient Future"


Aug 27, 2022 | 12:3014:00

Congress Centrum Alpbach

Press

Wie sich CoV in der Tierwelt ausbreitet [feat. Amélie Desvars-Larrive]


ORF Science, Aug 8, 2022

Event

CSH Workshop: "Collective Resilience"


Oct 19, 2022Oct 21, 2022

Complexity Science Hub Vienna

Research News

Aug 8, 2022

Scientists create computer risk model to tackle supply chain disruption

Research News

Aug 8, 2022

Scientists create computer risk model to tackle supply chain disruption

Research News

Jul 28, 2022

A stress test for the (Austrian) healthcare system

Research News

Jul 26, 2022

Study unveils first global dataset for SARS-CoV-2 infections in animals

People

Jul 18, 2022

Complexity GAINS | Toward a multifaceted and integrative science

People

Jul 13, 2022

Two months with two COSY Journalists in Residence

Spotlight

Jul 4, 2022

Complexity GAINs | The first SFI–CSH Summer School has started

Research News

Jun 24, 2022

Testing theories on What drove the Holocene transformation

Spotlight

Jun 23, 2022

Cooperation agreement with Bavaria to fight internet criminality

Research News

Jun 21, 2022

Want to improve the company’s performance? Get more women in the boardroom

People

Jun 14, 2022

CEU–CSH meeting with new connective format

Research News

Jun 2, 2022

Smaller tech companies promote greater innovation in cities

Spotlight

Jun 1, 2022

5+1 | A (great!) day of "RESTARTs" at the CSH

Press

Wie sich CoV in der Tierwelt ausbreitet [feat. Amélie Desvars-Larrive]


ORF Science, Aug 8, 2022

Press

Why Animals Are Less Vulnerable Than Humans to BA.5 and Omicron [feat. A Desvars]


TIME, Aug 3, 2022

Press

Είναι τα ζώα ο "Δούρειος ίππος" του Covid19; - Αλήθειες και μύθοι [Greek] [feat. Amélie Desvars-Larrive]


Parallaxi, Aug 5, 2022

Press

How many animals have had COVID-19? New tracker offers some clues [feat. Amélie Desvars-Larrive]


San Fransisco Chronicle, Aug 5, 2022

Press

Oppsiktsvekkende studie: Krig er viktig for samfunnet [Norwegian] [feat. Peter Turchin]


ABC Nyheter, Jul 25, 2022

Press

Austrijska vlada uskoro ukida karantenu. Korona zaraženih biti će svuda: U uredima, trgovinama, diskotekama… [Hungarian] [feat. Peter Klimek]


Vecernji, Jul 21, 2022

Press

La crisis energética en Europa fuerza a los ecologistas al pragmatismo [Spanish]


La Mañana, Jul 20, 2022

Press

A falha Bolsolula... [Opinion] [feat. Peter Turchin]


Poder360, Jul 16, 2022

Press

Les guerres rendent-elles les sociétés plus complexes ? [French] [feat. Peter Turchin]


Daily Geek Show, Jul 14, 2022

Press

Management: Mehr Frauen rentieren sich [feat. Matthias Raddant]


FAZ, Jul 16, 2022

Press

Wie die ersten Städte entstanden [feat. Peter Turchin]


Tagesanzeiger, Jul 9, 2022

Press

La Fundació VHIR, Àlex Arenas i Quique Bassat, entre els distingits amb les Medalles i la Placa Narcís Monturiol [Catalan] [feat. Alex Arenas]


La Vanguardia, Jul 5, 2022

Publication

T. Reisch, G. Heiler, C. Diem, P. Klimek, S. Thurner

Monitoring supply networks from mobile phone data for estimating the systemic risk of an economy

Scientific Reports 12 (13347) (2022)

Publication

G. De Marzo, F. Pandolfelli, V.D.P. Servedio

Modeling innovation in the cryptocurrency ecosystem

Scientific Reports 12 (12942) (2022)

Publication

A. Nerpel, et al.

SARS-ANI: a global open access dataset of reported SARS-CoV-2 events in animals

Scientific Data 9 (438) (2022)

Publication

M. Kaleta, J. Lasser, E. Dervic, et al.

Stress-testing the resilience of the Austrian healthcare system using agent-based simulation

Nature Communications 13 (4259) (2022)

Publication

F. Amman, et al.

Viral variant-resolved wastewater surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 at national scale

Nature Biotechnology (2022)

Publication

J. V. Camp, A. Desvars-Larrive, N. Nowotny, C. Walzer

Monitoring urban zoonotic virus activity: Are city rats a promising surveillance tool for emerging viruses?

Viruses 14 (7) (2022) 1516

Publication

M. Pellert, H. Metzler, M. Matzenberger, D. Garcia

Validating daily social media macroscopes of emotions

Scientific Reports 12 (2022) 11236

Publication

P. Turchin, et al.

Disentangling the evolutionary drivers of social complexity in human history: A comprehensive test of hypotheses

Science Advances 8 (25) (2022)

Publication

R. Prieto Curiel, H. González Ramírez, S. Bishop

A ubiquitous collective tragedy in transport

Frontiers in Physics (2022)

Publication

M. Oliveira, F. Karimi, et al.

Group mixing drives inequality in face-to-face gatherings

Communications Physics 5 (127) (2022)

Publication

E. D. Lee, X. Chen, B. C. Daniels

Discovering sparse control strategies in neural activity

PLoS Computational Biology (May 27) (2022)

Publication

T. Reisch, M. Ferreira, S. Thurner

Publikationstätigkeit und Rezeption der Wiener universitären Medizin im internationalen Kontext

in: B. Nemec et al. (eds.), Medizin in Wien nach 1945, Vienna Univ Press (2022) 185–211

Visitor

Beate Conrady University of Copenhagen & CSH Associate Faculty


Jul 27, 2022Sep 06, 2022

Event

CSH in Alpbach 2022: "Complexity of Supply Chains: Ways to a More Resilient Future"


Aug 27, 2022 | 12:3014:00

Congress Centrum Alpbach

Event

CSH Talk by Beate Conrady


Sep 09, 2022 | 15:0016:00

Complexity Science Hub Vienna

Event

CSH Workshop: "Collective Resilience"


Oct 19, 2022Oct 21, 2022

Complexity Science Hub Vienna

Event

CSH Talk by Elisa Omodei


Oct 28, 2022 | 15:0016:00

Complexity Science Hub Vienna