One of my New Year resolutions for 2010 was “study complexity economics”. In my job as consultant on public policy I find myself facing problems that standard economics cannot even describe, let alone solve them. The complexity approach – a weird interdisciplinary mix of biology, computer science, neuroscience and various add-ons, from statistics to archaeology, with math holding everything together – could hold some of the answers.
It’s looking like I’ll get plenty of chances to study this stuff: I have become a Ph.D. candidate in Quantitative Economics at University of Alicante, in Spain, effective academic year 2010-2011. David Lane, member of the Science Board of the legendary Santa Fe Institute, and – less problems – I shall defend my thesis in the fall of 2012. My line of research is going to be quite practical: I want to figure out how to train social networks to execute some tasks. It’s networks, as opposed to people participating in them, I want to train.
This is more entangled than it seems. We more or less agree that social dynamics are emergent. Most interesting societal strucures, from Common Law to cultures and even the Mob are complex adaptive systems, and their behavior is impossible to predict in the long run. Not because we have bad models: in a complexity framework it is unpredictable even in principle
On the other hand, I have theorized (in Wikicrazia) and tried to practice (in Kublai and elsewhere) that we can and should harness collective intelligence to improve public policies and, ultimately, the world we live in. How to reconcile the unpredictability of social networks with the agency that public policy requires? I would like to explore the possibility of training social networks, through appropriate design choices and stimuli, as you would train some huge animal: using their superhuman information processing capacity to the advantage of humans. This means first and foremost understanding their mathematical structure and trying to influence it: it’s what Ruggero Rossi (another newly enrolled Alicante Ph.D. candidate) and I have started to do. Anyway, I’m going back to school: at 44 it is really a luxury, and a wonderful adventure. My thanks to Giovanni Ponti, the director of Alicante’s doctoral programme, for awarding me the most important and prestigious academic title: that of student.