Northeastern researcher elected president of the Complex Systems Society

Alex Vespignani

Alessandro Vespignani, the Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of physics, computer science and health sciences, was elected president of the Complex Systems Society. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

The sci­ence of com­plex sys­tems was born in the mid-20th cen­tury, but it has only recently begun to mature into a research field with real-world rel­e­vance. The devel­op­ment of new tech­nolo­gies that stamp data points on nearly all of our activ­i­ties is allowing us to quan­tifi­ably study society — the ulti­mate com­plex system.

“Com­plex sys­tems is really now get­ting into a dif­ferent stage of its life in which it can start to have an impact through prac­tical appli­ca­tions,” said Alessandro Vespig­nani, the Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of physics, com­puter sci­ence and health sci­ences.

It is for this reason that the Euro­pean Union sought in 2006 to sup­port the first-ever aca­d­emic society devoted to com­plex sys­tems sci­ence, which com­prises 600 mem­bers world­wide. This year, in the first renewal of the society’s lead­er­ship, Vespig­nani was elected as its president.

“This is a young field and it needs young researchers to pro­mote it, advo­cate for it and pro­vide momentum,” said Vespig­nani, whose research uses human mobility pat­terns to track the spread of dis­eases across the globe.

The society came to fruition in 2004 during the first Euro­pean Con­fer­ence for Com­plex Sys­tems, which has since grown into an annual series. Vespig­nani hopes to expand the series’ reach during his three-year term by holding meet­ings in the EU and turning both the conference’s and the society’s activ­i­ties into a global endeavor.

“The idea is to be more and more inclu­sive and more world­wide with events not just in Europe, where the society was born,” Vespig­nani said. He hopes that expanding and col­lab­o­rating with smaller insti­tu­tions devoted to the field would enable the society to more effec­tively coor­di­nate and sup­port the efforts of com­plex sys­tems sci­en­tists around the world.

Vespig­nani also noted that his appoint­ment would allow him to advo­cate for more funding for the field of com­plex sys­tems sci­ence. The advent of so-called “big data,” he said, which touches the lives of almost everyone, has forced the field to con­front a series of  unique eth­ical chal­lenges that must be addressed with careful policy measures.

“Com­plex sys­tems sci­ence is not any­more just a fancy sci­ence to look at very exotic phe­nomena,” said Vespig­nani. “It actu­ally is some­thing that might help to solve impor­tant real-world prob­lems. It has the matu­rity now to get into applied science.”