Systems Science

Systems Science is a modeling approach embracing the dynamic interaction of coupled engineered, human behavioral, and natural components in time and space. Systems Science addresses problems that are not linearly decomposable into separately handled sub-problems. This does not mean the models are sprawling and impenetrably complex; on the contrary, we at theCenter for Systems Science in Engineering are guided by Einstein’s adage that “models must be as simple as possible, but no simpler.” CSSE researchers employ a wide array of tools encompassing multi-scale, multi-disciplinary, multi-agent models using cognitively plausible agents embedded in complex human and technical networks. These tools are used to explore adaptive behavior, possible optimizations, policy scenarios, etc. and to create vehicles for participatory modeling, high-level visualization and understanding.

For example, in 2014 global interest in Ebola exploded. This virus has been observed in Western Africa since 1976, and small rural epidemics have occurred routinely. Why in 2014 do we suddenly see a huge epidemic, and one established for the first time in urban centers? Virologists might immediately posit that evolution is the culprit, and that the epidemic is worse because the strain is more transmissible or lethal. This is not plausible and a systems approach embracing economic, environmental, and demographic changes produces a more compelling narrative. Ebola is a zoonotic disease contracted by contact with animals (fruit bats of the African forest). Economic development policies have focused on trade infrastructure (roads) and have produced massive deforestation. Ebola’s animal hosts retreated into the shrinking forest, increasing their spatial density, and with it the probability of human contact. The deforestation was to build roads connecting the rural to the urban. Conjoined we see an increase in zoonotic transmission, amplified by an explosion in rural-urban connectivity, and for the first time, large urban outbreaks! So, economic policies, changes in land cover, and increases in rural-urban connectivity trump biology as an explanation. And more importantly, this kind of systems perspective alerts us to the counterintuitive health effects that may attend seemingly unrelated developmental decisions.

The “hypothesis” of Systems Science is that the same judiciously integrated approach will yield novel explanations, and novel solutions, across a broad spectrum of challenges, from the planetary to the local, from earthquakes to emerging infectious diseases, and including the design of strategies, engineered structures, organizations, and protocols to maximize social and economic resilience. We invite you to learn more about our efforts in Systems Science and to join us in developing new tools and models that bridge complex human-technical systems and create new insights on the most challenging problems of the day.


  • Global participation in space activity is growing as satellite technology matures and spreads through technology transfer. Countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America are creating or reinvigorating national satellite programs. These countries are building local capability in space through technological learning. This project analyzes implementation approaches in small satellite programs within developing countries. The study addresses diverse examples of approaches used to master, adapt, diffuse and apply satellite technology in emerging countries. An original framework examines implementation approaches and contextual factors using the concept of Systems Architecture. Further analysis examines the progress in capability building via technology transfer. In order to master the knowledge base underlying satellite engineering, both individuals and organizations must capture a broad knowledge base which includes both tacit and explicit knowledge about technical and managerial topics. The framework also defines capability building as a process. This capability building framework is applied to in-depth analysis of four countries in Africa and Asia. A key question to consider is how countries adapt, master and diffuse technology over the long term. Several countries stand out for their effort in this area, but this is a long term challenge.

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  • The Johns Hopkins Global Obesity Prevention Center is an example of the integration of research, education, and practice that the Systems Institute supports. The SI is leading the Education and Training Core of the Center, which will train cross-disciplinary research students in complex modeling of public health issues.

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  • Using techniques grounded in data mining and machine learning, we are developing frameworks for predicting the onset of chronic disorders using data from clinical and bimolecular screening tests.  Although applied here to autoimmune disorders, the approach is readily extendable to the predictive screening of other types of disorders. 

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  • The goal of this project is to create realistic disaster scenarios in a virtual city that can be used to…

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Center for Systems Science and Engineering