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NICO Announces New Co-Director; New Administrative Home

The Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO) – a network of interdisciplinary faculty members that conduct research, organize conferences, and administer a corporate outreach program in the area of complex systems – has a new co-director and a new administrative home.

Kevin Lynch, professor of mechanical engineering, will take over the position from Bill Kath, professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics. He will co-direct NICO with Brian Uzzi, the Richard L. Thomas Distinguished Professor in Leadership at the Kellogg School of Management. The University also announced that NICO will now be administered jointly by the McCormick School of Engineering and Kellogg School of Management. Previously it was administered under the Office of Vice President for Research.

“The strength of NICO is its outstanding faculty and students, and I am excited to work with Brian Uzzi to both assist our faculty in their current efforts as well as to leverage our strengths to set directions for NICO's future growth,” Lynch said. “NICO is well-positioned to respond to the increasing demand from federal research agencies for a better understanding of complex systems. More importantly, NICO's leadership position within the complexity community will allow it to influence national and international research agendas.”

NICO is at the forefront of research on complex interacting and networked systems, including social networks, neural regulatory systems, intercellular connections, human mobility networks, and disease transmission mechanisms. The study of these systems crosses traditional departmental and school boundaries, and one of NICO's primary missions is to promote such collaborations. The institute began six years ago after McCormick Dean Julio M. Ottino and Daniel Diermeier, the IBM Distinguished Professor of Regulation and Competitive Practice at Kellogg, realized that the theories and principles behind complex systems could be applied across disciplines. Now, nearly three dozen faculty members from across the University participate.

Lynch’s interest in complexity stems from his studies on how to design and control swarms of mobile robots to exhibit group intelligence. Each robot might be quite simple on its own, but their interaction with each other and the environment allows a coordinated behavior to emerge. In nature, for example, ants are able to collectively forage for food using pheromone trails as simple feedback to help other ants know where the food is. Lynch’s research focuses on feedback control laws and wireless communication protocols to allow groups of robots to perform tasks like monitoring an environment for intruders, or tracking the progress of an oil spill. Like the ants, there is no single coordinating agent.

Other professors across the university study networks in multiple contexts; current research projects include modeling school choice in Chicago, mapping the political blogosphere, studying the principles of white-collar workforce management, and researching group decision-making in online environments.
“This cross-disciplinary research leads to new insights in all areas of science,” Ottino says. “Investigating how complex systems operate — looking at them as a whole and not just as the sum of their individual parts — is the only way to get an understanding and to make sensible decisions about them.”