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Analysing Complexity (Coursera)

BIG HISTORY – SOLVING COMPLEX PROBLEMS will teach you revolutionary new problem-solving skills. Involving lectures from over 50 experts from all faculties at Macquarie University, we look at solving complex problems in a way that has never been done before. ANALYZING COMPLEXITY will teach you what unifying patterns lie at the core of all complex problems.

To solve complex problems, whether it is the challenge of developing a new product, or Einstein’s task of trying to explain how gravity worked – and literally everything else in between – it is not enough to take the problem and apply already existing skills. Calculus is important. So is careful, rigorous thought. So are careful financial predictions. But the skill that has always led to big breakthroughs in any field or industry is the skill of seeing something in a new way. That is the vital skill you will learn in this Coursera specialization.

Achieving this expanded view of a complex problem is simple, effective, and sorely needed in today’s world.

To see a complex problem in a new way, you need to contemplate it from different angles. Eventually, you may arrive at the angle that gets you to the next stage of solving the problem. We call this ‘TURNING THE CRYSTAL’. You look at one facet of the problem; then another, then another, and gradually a complex picture builds of how a problem is constructed. It then becomes possible to deconstruct that problem, and to solve it successfully, with some highly creative innovation.

Turning the crystal allows us to see the same problem refracted in different ways and at different scales. The multi-disciplinary perspective of Big History allows us to do this because it explores familiar problems from different, and often unfamiliar, perspectives. Different perspectives offer new insights, and the synergies between those insights can help us understand familiar problems more deeply.

At the heart of this specialization are crucial skills that are applicable to any career path, industry, or field.

You will learn to view problems at multiple scales. The deep problems of our epoch involve long term trends and all the disciplines. These complex problems are more easily understood if explored in a way that does that broad scope and multi-disciplinary perspective justice. Political and financial decisions will be taken by politicians and entrepreneurs thinking of the next election or the next quarterly report. But we must look further ahead. To understand the deep problems of our times, we need to be able to view change on much larger scales. Not just on a short-sighted timescale, not just from the perspective of a single discipline.

In this specialization, you will see what a mathematician, or a biologist, or a financial analyst brings to a particular problem. How would a mathematician approach the problem? How would a biologist? How would a financial analyst approach things? Or a lawyer? Or a political scientist? And, most crucially, what common points do they all share? A synthesis of the collective learning of all disciplines is crucial to unraveling the complex problems that face us today.

By teaching you how to Turn the Crystal when facing new problems, this Coursera specialization will equip you with the skills you will need to understand complexity, problem-solving, and innovation, at multiple scales and from multiple perspectives. It will help you achieve a deeper and richer level of understanding of profound aspects of today’s world.

The first course of the specialization ANALYZING COMPLEXITY will teach you what unifying patterns lie at the core of all complex problems.

The second course of the specialization EVALUATING PROBLEMS will show you how humans think – biologically, neurologically, and philosophically – and how to utilize 5,000 years of evolving disciplinary approaches to tackle problems more effectively.

The third course of the specialization CREATING INNOVATION will teach you what is at the core of all the innovations we develop to solve complex problems and how to foster methods and a healthy environment to make big breakthroughs possible.

From the very start of the specialization, your assignments will be geared toward tackling a complex issue of your choice that you face in your career path, industry, or field. Each phase of the course builds up to a briefing paper that analyzes, evaluates, and attempts to solve a highly complex problem. Not only does this course teach you a skill set, but it puts you further down the road in understanding the problems of your chosen field. It advances your knowledge of your own discipline by teaching you to look at it in new ways.

This course, ANALYZING COMPLEXITY is constructed in the following way:

Week I. “What is Complexity?” – What is at the core of all complex problems

Week II. “Complex Physical Systems” – What complex problems all have in common in the inanimate world

Week III. “Complex Adaptive Systems” – What complex problems all have in common in nature

Week IV. “Complex Cultural Systems” – What complex problems all have in common in human society

Week V. “Complexity, Fragility, and Breakdown” – Why complex problems arise

Week VI. “Complexity in the Anthropocene” – What complex problems face us today

Course 1 of 4 in the Solving Complex Problems Specialization.



What is complexity?

Welcome to the first course of our specialisation on solving complex problems! In this module, we will be looking at complexity in the broadest sense and how it relates to us. From there we will zoom in to different aspects of this universal and all-encompassing concept.

Graded: Multiple Choice – Mod 1

Graded: Short writing for Module 1: What is complexity?


Complex Physical Systems

In this module, we’ll look at how complexity operates in the inanimate universe, the corresponding links between physics, chemistry, and geology and how they reflect the ground rules of all forms of complexity.

Graded: Multiple Choice – Mod 2

Graded: Short writing for Module 2: Complex physical systems


Complex Adaptive Systems

In this module, we’ll explore the ratcheting up of complexity inside adaptive systems, and the impact adaptation has on the rules of the game for constantly evolving complex systems.

Graded: Multiple Choice – Mod 3

Graded: Short writing for Module 3: Complex adaptive systems


Complex Cultural Systems

In this module, we’ll look at an even more powerful adaptive system – culture. We’ll survey what is at the root of this new form of complexity and how this impacts our thinking about how human society, the most complex system of which we are aware, functions and evolves.

Graded: Multiple Choice – Mod 4

Graded: Short writing for Module 4: Social complexity


Complexity, Fragility, and Breakdown

In this module, we’ll look at the decline of complexity. So far we’ve focused on how complex systems sustain or increase themselves. In order to truly understand every angle of all complex systems – physical, biological, and cultural – we need to understand how and when they collapse, and what all those breakdowns have in common.

Graded: Multiple Choice – Mod 5

Graded: Short writing for Module 5: Limits to complexity


Complexity in the Anthropocene

Now that we’ve explored the different kinds of complex systems and have some idea of the risks and dangers involved, this module will look at how these concerns impact us in the present Anthropocene epoch, where humanity faces many threats of decline and collapse amid the most complex system that we know of in the visible universe.

Graded: Multiple Choice – Mod 6

Graded: Short writing for Module 6: Complexity in the Anthropocene

Graded: Final assignment for Course 1: Analysing Complexity