I recently had an inspiring conversation with Maximilian Schich, an art historian and complexity scientist at the University of Texas in Dallas. His research focuses on the evolution of complex networks that represent human activities.

Last year he produced an amazing visualization of human migration patterns throughout the last 2000 years that went viral—currently garnering nearly 1 million views – not bad for a scientific study! It shows how human history carves patterns in time that can easily be grasped by expert and layperson alike.

We talked about the evolving landscape of social science and how new visual communication tools are revolutionizing the way researchers present their results. In the context of rapid (and accelerating) global change, the ability to make sense of cultural patterns and see how they arose from the past will be vital to safeguarding our collective future. The 7 billion people alive today must content with a world filled with systemic risks ranging from climate disruption to chronic poverty and the continual threat of disease epidemics.

All of these change processes are patterns of cultural evolution. They only make sense when we think of their selection criteria and the relative fitness they have in the social niches that exist at any point in time. Some behaviors will thrive and spread. Others will never see the light of day. This can be seen in the geographic density of human creativity in urban centers throughout history. People went where there were opportunities—economic niches that supported their personal development and provided pathways to welfare for their families and themselves.

So how is social research itself evolving? That is the topic of our conversation.

Published On: June 14, 2015

Joe Brewer

Joe Brewer

Joe has three bachelors degrees in physics, mathematics, and interdisciplinary studies and a masters in atmospheric sciences. He is a complexity researcher, innovation strategist, experience designer, and serial social entrepreneur who brings a wealth of expertise to the adoption of sustainable solutions at the cultural scale. Among his notable achievements are the creation of an undergraduate degree program in Earth Systems, Environment and Society at the University of Illinois and design of new collaboration protocols for strategic communications among European NGO’s with WWF-UK and Oxfam, Great Britain. He was an active member of the Center for Complex Systems Research from 2001 to 2005, where he studied pattern formation in self-organizing systems. He was a research fellow at the Rockridge Institute in 2007-08 analyzing political discourse in the United States. He contracted with the International Centre for Earth Simulation in Geneva in 2010-11 to help build a globally-focused high performance computing facility dedicated to holistic simulations of the dynamic Earth. His experiences as a social entrepreneur and cross-disciplinary scholar weave together a combination of skills dedicated to open collaboration, interactive design, and empowered civic action for catalyzing change toward greater resilience in our turbulent world.

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