Investigators' Blog

Maths Craft Festival

Maths Craft Festival

Enjoy craft? Then you probably enjoy mathematics too, you just may not know it. This was the idea behind the recent Maths Craft Festival, a weekend-long festival held at the Auckland Museum, celebrating the many links between mathematics and craft. The Festival was the creation of Jeanette McLeod (University of Canterbury/Te Pūnaha Matatini) and Julia Collins (University of Edinburgh), who were inspired to start the festival after a serendipitous encounter while Julia was on holiday in Christchurch. Jeanette and Julia – both avid knitters and crocheters – wanted to find a way to share the beautiful mathematics behind craft with the public. Jeanette pitched the idea to Te Pūnaha Matatini who responded with instant enthusiasm, and not only offered to be the major sponsor, but encouraged Jeanette and Julia to “think big”. With that, the idea of the Maths Craft Festival was born. A short time later, after being coerced into crocheting a hyperbolic plane, Phil Wilson (University of Canterbury) was recruited. Together the trio went on to create the first event of its kind in New Zealand.

The Festival combined eight hands-on craft stations with a series of public talks, and was immensely popular, even making an appearance on One News. Over 1,800 people visited the Festival, trying their hands at a range of mathematical crafts, including crocheting hyperbolic planes, building fractal sculptures, making Möbius strips and folding origami dodecahedrons. The public talks were given by mathematicians and crafters, and covered topics ranging from the mathematics of knitting, and the Four Colour Theorem, to fractals in art and nature, and chaos and the crocheted Lorenz Manifold. (In fact, Prof Hinke Osinga issued a challenge during her talk: be the first in NZ to crochet a Lorenz manifold and she will send you a bottle of champagne.) The Festival was the largest event run at the Museum in over six months, and was praised by staff for not only its popularity, but for attracting a such diverse group of people.

The Festival was an experiment, born of a desire to share the beauty of the mathematics in crafts, and it really hit a nerve. The positive feedback was overwhelming, with comments like “What a great event, our whole family has enjoyed it, from age 7-47!” and “Thank you for putting up such a cool event! Math is awesome.” Others thought that it was “Brilliant to see so many people old and young being enthused by mathematics. Let’s hope more of these events happen as there is clearly high demand for more maths related fun.” School teachers were inspired and “Have come away with some fabulous ideas to share with numerous teachers and their classrooms across Auckland. Looking forward to this becoming a regular event …. hint, hint.” In fact, the most common piece of feedback can be summed up by this comment: “Loved it, please repeat!

What did people learn from attending the Festival? Aside from experiencing the “fascinating complexity and depth to all of the various constructions”, they were “amazed by how much breadth mathematics encompasses”, and have now come to realise that “Fractals are EVERYWHERE” and “Geometry is way cool.” And perhaps most heartening of all, that “Maths is exciting” and “maths can be fun!

The Festival has proved to be so popular that Auckland Museum have asked for it to be run again next year – in their Events Centre, the copper dome on the roof of the museum with a 360-degree view over Auckland and space for 500 people. Plans are also underway to take Maths Craft on the road in 2017, and run events in other parts of New Zealand.

For more information on the Maths Craft Festival, or in case you’re yearning to fold an origami dodecahedron or crochet a hyperbolic plane, please visit

The Maths Craft Festival couldn’t have happened without the help and support of Shaun Hendy, Kate Hannah, Sarah Hikuroa, Danene Jones, Nicolette Rattenbury, Sarah Mark, Andrea Webley and the Auckland Museum, and our generous sponsors Te Pūnaha Matatini, the University of Canterbury, the University of Auckland, the New Zealand Mathematical Society, the Dodd-Walls Centre and Ashford.

Māori social systems focus of novel research collaboration

Māori social systems focus of novel research collaboration

Archaeology and modern network science are combining to investigate the development of Māori social networks over time as part of a new three year $705,000 Marsden-funded project.

The research draws upon the skills of archaeologist Professor Thegn Ladefoged and network scientists Dr Dion O’Neal and Associate Professor Marcus Frean from Te Pūnaha Matataini, a Centre of Research Excellence in complex systems and networks. The research team also includes Associate Professor Mark McCoy from the USA’s Southern Methodist University, and Alex Jorgensen from the University of Auckland who will use portable X-ray fluorescence to characterize and source obsidian artefacts. Assistant Professor Chris Stevenson from Virginia Commonwealth University will develop obsidian hydration dating of artefacts to establish tight chronological control of changing levels of interaction.

Professor Ladefoged from the University of Auckland explains that over centuries relatively autonomous village-based Māori groups have transformed into larger territorial hapū lineages, which later formed even larger iwi associations.

Information passed down through generations by word of mouth has traditionally provided the best evidence of these complex, dynamic changes in Māori social organisation. The research group’s novel combination of archaeological and network science skills aims to provide new insights into these social changes.

“By researching ancient obsidian tools and their movement across New Zealand we can reconstruct historical systems of inter-iwi trade,” Professor Ladefoged says.

The research group will then combine this archaeological and location data with social network analysis modelling and local iwi input to provide new insights into how Māori society was transformed from village-based groups to powerful hapū and iwi.

Network analysis will enable the group to look for patterns of how archaeological sites, artefacts and obsidian sources relate to one another, and how those relationships have changed over time, explains associate investigator Dr Dion O’Neale.

“Based on those changing relationships we can put forward hypotheses about the roles played by geography or social groupings in producing the distributions of obsidian that we observe,” Dr O’Neale says.

The collaborative research project also aims to connect or reconnect Māori with their taonga held in museums and university archaeology collections.

Te Pūnaha Matatini Director Professor Shaun Hendy says the project demonstrates the ability of New Zealand’s Centres of Research Excellence to connect and amplify the efforts of researchers across a wide range of fields and locations.

“We all know that research needs to become more interdisciplinary, but we also know that this is easier said than done,” Professor Hendy says.

“I am really pleased that Thegn and his team have taken advantage of Te Pūnaha Matatini’s diverse network of researchers to tackle such an exciting project.”

Murray Cox & his complex systems approach to DNA

Murray Cox & his complex systems approach to DNA

Associate Investigator Professor Murray Cox is applying the tools and methodologies of complexity science to explore some of the enduring mysteries of human and agricultural genetics. His transdisciplinary DNA detective work could lead to new health treatments or the development of green pesticides.

“I find it really interesting that complex systems or complexity science has such a wide scope,” says Professor Murray Cox, a computational biologist based at Massey University’s Palmerston North campus.

It’s a statement that easily embodies Murray’s own work: half of his research looks at human DNA to help determine historical migrations around the world, and the other half investigates agricultural genetics to explore the differences between pathogens and beneficial organisms. It’s the kind of research that’s not necessarily mainstream to complexity science but, as Murray points out, a lot of his work is interested in transitions or feedback mechanisms – things that pop-up regularly in complex systems.

Murray initially trained as a biochemist at the University of Otago before venturing overseas to study for a PhD in Norway. After a stint at the University of Cambridge, he moved on to the University of Arizona and held an adjunct position for two years at the Santa Fe Institute, a world-renowned complex systems research centre.

Working at the Santa Fe Institute proved influential to Murray’s work and he has maintained his international connections. It was the advent of Te Pūnaha Matatini, though, that had him excited about the future of complexity science in his home country.

“There really wasn’t a lot happening in regards to complex systems in New Zealand until Te Pūnaha Matatini came along.

“Te Pūnaha Matatini is not only driving a lot of new professional connections, but it’s also introducing many underexposed fields, like genetics and anthropology, to the powerful tools of complex systems to help solve some really challenging problems.”

Studying human DNA
It’s a combination of genetics, anthropology and computational biology that has enabled Murray and an international team of researchers to investigate the origins of the first people to settle in the Pacific. Their findings confirm Asian farming groups were the first to reach Pacific Islands, with later migrations bringing Papuan genes into the region.

The really interesting part of the findings, explains Murray, is the feedback between social dynamics and demography: “Farmers move into the environment but they don’t mix with existing people, often for one to two thousand years. Then society changes and all of a sudden mixing occurs.”

The research, says Murray, demonstrates an interesting dynamic between how society operates and how genes respond – a case of social norms determining who can marry whom and therefore influencing genetic mixing. “That’s obviously a complex system, although geneticists probably wouldn’t have naturally thought of it in that way.”

The international study, recently published in Nature, also gave the first basic picture of the genomic make-up of Pacific Islanders. Unlike European New Zealanders, where scientists can leverage off research done in the UK and USA, very little was known about the genomes of Pasifika and Māori.

“We knew that they had a mixture of both Asian and Papuan ancestry, but had no idea how this came about or when,” Murray says.

“Knowing this is important because some of the genetic variations caused by this population mixing will likely be linked to health outcomes. Ultimately, understanding this DNA may give us new ideas for health treatments.”

Agricultural genetics
The other side of Murray’s work explores the interactions between the environment and agricultural genes to explain the spectrum of beneficial and non-beneficial pathogens. For instance, the Epichloë fungus found inside some grass species can produce compounds to deter insects, preventing the need to spray insecticides.

Ordinarily the grass might attack such a fungus, deterring it from taking hold inside the plant. “Complex feedback systems where chemicals signal between parties may explain how the symbiotic interaction between the grass and the Epichloë fungus arose, and how it is maintained,” Murray says.

Investigating those complex interactions and underlying genetics could lead to the development of new natural pesticides. “We spray lots of quite nasty chemicals to get rid of pests,” Murray says. “But there are some natural pesticides already developed by microbes that we can perhaps co-opt.”

Whether he’s studying human or agricultural genomes, or combining anthropology with biology, mathematics and statistics, a common thread in Murray’s work is a complex systems approach.

“Sometimes researchers such as biologists are working on complex systems but they’re not trained in it so they don’t see it when it’s right in front of them.

“When complex systems approaches are applied to many of these questions, it’s exciting to see how those approaches can drive science in completely new directions.”


Professor Murray Cox is a computational biologist in the Institute of Fundamental Science at Massey University and an Associate Investigator of Te Pūnaha Matatini.

In 2015, he was awarded the Association of Commonwealth Universities Titular Fellowship to spend three months in early 2016 at St John’s College, University of Oxford. Professor Cox has also received a 2016 Fellowship from the Humboldt Foundation for sabbatical visits in 2017 and 2018 to the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

In 2010, Professor Cox was awarded an inaugural Rutherford Discovery Fellowship by the Royal Society of New Zealand. The five-year Fellowship enabled him look both at human prehistory in the Pacific and gene regulation in fungi, which are important for controlling insect pests in New Zealand’s pastures.

Read more

Professor Murray Cox’s work has appeared in two Nature publications and a number of media articles in September and October 2016.

Research articles
Genomic analyses inform on migration events during the peopling of Eurasia, Nature 538, 238–242 (13 October 2016).

Genomic insights into the peopling of the Southwest Pacific, Nature (Published online 03 October 2016)

In the media
NZ Herald: DNA detectives rewrite human history
NZ Herald: Skeletons reveal ancestors of Maori
TVNZ: Study of ancient DNA finds first Pacific settlers were Asian New research on ancient Pacific skeletons reveals Maori ancestors
Radio NZ: Ancient DNA shows Asian farmers first Pacific people
The Guardian: DNA shows first inhabitants of Vanuatu came from Philippines and Taiwan
ABC News: DNA reveals Lapita ancestors of Pacific Islanders came from Asia

Meet the team: Q&A with Tava Olsen

Meet the team: Q&A with Tava Olsen

Meet Professor Tava Olsen from the University of Auckland. Tava is a Director at the New Zealand Centre for Supply Chain Management and was recently appointed Deputy Director – Industry and Stakeholder Engagement here at Te Pūnaha Matatini. Tava brings with her a wealth of experience in supply chain management and operations research. We recently caught up with Tava to find out more about her work and what she hopes to achieve in her new Te Pūnaha Matatini role.

Tell us about your research, including projects aligned with Te Pūnaha Matatini

My research is generally in the area of mathematical modelling applied to operations and supply chain management. For example, I am interested in how contracts can be set up in the red meat industry that create win-wins for both farmers and processors in what is a very fragmented industry. I use tools such as game theory to approach this problem. Most of the problems I look at involve randomness in some form and I am very interested in modelling risk and uncertainty.

What attracted you to the role of Deputy Director – Industry and Stakeholder Engagement?

There are large synergies between this role and another of my currently roles, director of the Centre for Supply Chain Management (CSCM). In both roles I seek to build links between industry and the university, although CSCM is focussed around supply chain and Te Pūnaha Matatini is broader. I very much believe in the importance of industry engagement with academia and vice versa. We have a lot to learn from each other. Also, I would like to see the University become the first place industry looks to get their difficult problems solved. This is often the case in Northern Europe but in New Zealand industry often doesn’t think of coming to us.

What role do you think Te Pūnaha Matatini can play when working with industry?

Te Pūnaha Matatini should be able to facilitate networks and connections. I would love to see us getting teams of cross-disciplinary students working with industry and supervised by Te Pūnaha Matatini staff to solve challenging problems. I think this could add significant value to both industry and to our staff and students. I saw something like this working very well at the University of Michigan when I was there and I would very much like to get a programme similar to theirs started here.

Meet the team: Q&A with Stephen Marsland

Meet the team: Q&A with Stephen Marsland

Meet Stephen Marsland – a professor of scientific computing in the computer science cluster of the School of Engineering and Advanced Technology (SEAT) at Massey University. Stephen is also Te Pūnaha Matatini’s new Theme Leader: Complex Data Analytics. “Data is cool at the moment… but it would be nice to see people using it well and understanding what they can and can’t infer from analysis,” Stephen says. Find out more about Stephen’s research and what he hopes to achieve in his new role in the below Q&A.

Tell us about your research, including projects aligned with Te Pūnaha Matatini

My first area of research is the mathematics of shape analysis. This is primarily concerned with geodesics on the diffeomorphism group, which is a mathematical way of describing how flows of smooth, invertible transformations can deform one shape into another in the shortest possible way. I also study invariants to the actions of the groups that can deform images.

More related to Te Pūnaha Matatini is my work in machine learning, which has two parts at the moment: I’m thinking about manifold learning, where we try to find low-dimensional representations of high-dimensional data, and I’m also thinking about dealing with learning about multiple sources of data where all that you see is the combination of the sources. The first is a popular question, but I’m thinking about it very much from the point of view of differential geometry, and how that can help. I’ve got multiple projects going on there with collaborators in England and China.

The second project is with Marcus Frean, another Te Pūnaha Matatini principal investigator. So for example, you might see images of an object on different backgrounds, and you want to work out that the object and the background are different pieces of information.

I’ve got a very big project called AviaNZ going on that combines the shape analysis and machine learning, which is looking at birdsong recognition, in the hope that we can develop algorithms that will recognise birds from their calls and then infer the number of birds from how they are calling.

Finally, I’m interested in complex systems in their classic sense, both complex networks (which are networks with properties such as scale-freeness, or that are small worlds) and also systems where the interactions between agents cause the emergence of high-level properties. I’ve got a variety of projects with students looking at this, including in health, marriage systems, and soon, the evolution of barter (this last one will be funded by Te Pūnaha Matatini).

What attracted you to the role of Theme leader: Complex Data Analytics?

Data analytics underlies everything that we are trying to do in Te Punaha Matatini, but it isn’t really getting the recognition as a subject in its own right. I’m hoping that by exploring more of the links with the other themes I can make people more aware of how much data analytics there is going on, and what tools are available.

How can complex data analytics benefit New Zealand?

Data is cool at the moment (big data is mentioned everywhere) but it would be nice to see people using it well and understanding what they can and can’t infer from analysis. We collect data everywhere on everything, but lots of it doesn’t actually get used for much. For example, there are thousands of automatic recorders around New Zealand recording birdsong. But unless you have tools to analyse the data, you’ve just got a lot of memory used up storing sound that nobody will ever pay any attention to. Turning data into information isn’t easy, but it has to be done, and done well, to make the collection of the data worthwhile.



Meet the team: Q&A with Mike Plank

Meet the team: Q&A with Mike Plank

We recently caught up with Principal Investigator Dr Michael Plank, a senior lecturer in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Canterbury. Mike has taken on the role of Theme Leader: Complexity and the Biosphere while Alex James is on hiatus. As a research theme leader, Mike will be steering Te Pūnaha Matatini’s research projects that build a better understanding of New Zealand’s environment and the interactions between biodiversity, the economy, and human decision-making.

Tell us about your research, including projects aligned with Te Pūnaha Matatini

My research is in biological modelling and ranges from the very small (intracellular dynamics) to the very large (marine ecosystems). A common theme in my research is investigating how collective phenomena emerge from interactions among individuals, whether on the scale of single human cell, or the scale of an ocean. I am interested in the insights that relatively simple mathematical models can give into the ways these complex systems function – and why they sometimes go wrong.

One of my projects aligned with Te Pūnaha Matatini is modelling the emergent behaviour of fishers stemming from their decisions about which species or sizes of fish to target. Principles from ecology suggest that natural predators tend to spread their effort according to the productivity of their prey. So why shouldn’t humans behave like natural predators and spread their fishing efforts according to the productivity of the fish? If this really happens, it could change the way we design fishing regulations from top-down control to a bottom-up approach that recognises the effect of the fish stock on the behaviour of fishers as well as the other way round.

What attracted you to the  role of Theme Leader: Complexity and the Biosphere?

We have some really exciting projects going on in the Biosphere theme. I’m really looking forward to a new project that will look at the interplay of ecological dynamics, geospatial data, and social attitudes to map the effectiveness of large-scale predator control. Other projects include investigating the effects of social contact networks on epidemic spread, and harnessing the huge potential of citizen science to enhance conservation projects.

We have some amazing scientists and students involved with these projects and I’m excited to work with them and see how we can turn the scientific results into real impacts for New Zealand’s unique ecosystems.

How can research using complex systems, networks, and data assist New Zealand’s environment?

New Zealand is facing a range of pressing environmental issues, including loss of our endemic native flora and fauna, agricultural pest invasions, and management of our fisheries. We have a large amount of data relating to these, for example the Department of Conservation’s tier 1 monitoring programme, and catch data from our Quota Management System. At the same time, we’re investing substantial money and resources into these areas, but we’re not always making full use of the data that are available. Te Pūnaha Matatini’s research programme has the potential to really add value to our conservation dollar by helping us target our resources to areas where they will have the most impact.

Taking a complex systems and network approach also gives us opportunities to look at environmental issues at a larger spatial scale, rather than focusing on projects in isolation. As a simple example, a predator control programme in an area of Department of Conservation land might reduce or even eliminate the possum population in the short-term. But if there is adjacent, privately owned land without any control, the possums are likely to re-invade in the long-term. Viewing the whole country as an interconnected network gives us a better ability to predict long-term outcomes, and therefore a better chance of eliminating possums for good.

Our December Hui

Our December Hui

By Dr Rebecca Ford

Last week I attended the Te Pūnaha Matatini Investigator Hui in Christchurch. While this is not the first time the group of academic investigators have come together at such events since the launch of the new Centre of Research Excellence in February 2015, it was my first time meeting the full team of Investigators and Whānau since joining Te Pūnaha Matatini earlier this year. So, on Thursday 3rd December, a group of over 50 academics and students descended on Canterbury University (who graciously hosted our rowdy crew – thank you!) for two days filled of intellectual stimulation, innovation, networking, debate, fun prizes, and good food and beer!

Although I came to the hui with some ideas about the work being conducted by Te Pūnaha Matatini investigators, I left with a much richer appreciation of what makes it pretty unique in today’s world and the opportunities afforded by being part of Te Pūnaha Matatini.

I have been an academic (post PhD) for nearly 5 years and one of the main issues I have noticed during this time is that, as academics, we are often constrained in our thinking and research by the disciplinary boundaries within which we are employed and evaluated. These boundaries are artificially constructed – nature does not operate within disciplines – and can be troublesome when trying to tackle some of the key environmental, social, and economical problems we’re seeing in the world today.

Interdisciplinary and integrative research is absolutely vital if we are to better understand and guide socio-technical and socio-ecological transitions toward more sustainable futures, and a key part of Te Pūnaha Matatini’s uniqueness is that the academics involved have interests and expertise spanning various aspects of the environment, economy, and society – from knowledge and innovation in business to the evolution of the universe, from environmental management to bed-bugs. And more so, these creative minds are actively seeking out conversations, research topics, and methodologies that span the traditional disciplinary boundaries that so many shy away from.

In my own research I am lucky enough to work with an interdisciplinary research team, inclusive of engineers, computer scientists, physicists, sociologists, psychologists, economists, and modellers. Since our research program kicked off just over three years ago, I have observed our team go through the four stages of development – forming (transitioning from individual to team member), storming (intra-team conflict and resistance of self-change), norming (acceptance of team norms, personal roles, and idiosyncrasies of fellow members), and finally performing (diagnosing and solving problems, making decisions).

All too frequently teams try to rush through the non-productive form, storm, and norm stages. While this may be a seductive idea to get to the performing stage more quickly, it is ultimately dysfunctional. Groups, just like people, need time to develop and find maturity to tackle complex problems. The Investigator Hui allowed Te Pūnaha Matatini’s teams to share concerns, ideas, and expectations; providing the space needed to develop trust, and gain individual and interpersonal insights – key building blocks to establishing highly performing research groups. And while perhaps not much work was directly achieved, the time spent together engaged in team conversations, celebrating each other in the award ceremony, drinking and eating, and learning about patent data, sexism in science, and bed-bugs in New Zealand Department of Conservation huts has served to strengthen our relationships, provide an opportunity to network, and enabled future planning; ultimately creating the space for the magic to happen.


As I reflect back on our two days in Christchurch, I am grateful to be part of such an engaged, interesting, and open community; Te Pūnaha Matatini really is ‘the meeting place of many faces’ from many backgrounds and with many interests, and I look forward to observing and contributing to the unfolding future of the Centre, working together to tackle some of New Zealand’s (and the world’s) complex problems across environmental, societal, and economical issues.

Big Astro

Big Astro

By Richard Easther

The advent of the web and social media have led to a huge outpouring of enthusiasm for science but almost all sciences have skeletons in their closet, some real and some imaginary. Physicists gave us the bomb, chemists cook up the chemicals they put in the food (yes, yes, and you cheerfully drink H-2-O and breathe O-2) and even if medical researchers have doubled our lifespan many will claim they are in thrall to Big Pharma and specialise in diseases of the rich, in addition to perpetrating more specific and chilling abuses. But astronomers often sail past earthly concerns. After all, what’s not to like? Astronomy generates an endless stream of stories about strange planets, unlikely stars, and the birth of the universe, but nothing anyone can easily get upset about.

Even journalists suspend their usual rules for astronomy and other good-news science stories. Copy approval, sending sources a draft of an article for commentary and correction, is anathema to journalists on a hard news story, but I am often sent drafts “to check the details” when I talk to the media about astronomy. So perhaps this is why astronomers have been caught flat-footed by the apparently sudden eruption of protest around the Thirty Metre Telescope, or TMT. The issue is not the $1.3 billion price tag but its location at the summit of Mauna Kea, the highest peak on Hawai`i’s Big Island. The problem is that while Mauna Kea is a fantastic place for astronomy (a huge mountain rising out of the Pacific Ocean; the skies above it are stable and clear) it is also sacred to many native Hawai`ians. The issues are far from straightforward, but Buzzfeed (in its new incarnation as a purveyor of long-form news) and the Huffington Post have summaries of recent events and TMT consortium has put its own response to the controversy online. However, for some astronomers it has led to the discovery that they may not always be the good guys.

While we might wish it were otherwise, astronomy is not apolitical. Science communicators (myself included) wax eloquent about space exploration, but the space race was launched by Cold War competition. Nor is the politicisation of astronomy new. The British navigator, James Cook, set sail in the Endeavour from Plymouth in 1768 to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti, as part of a campaign to determine the overall scale of the solar system. Cook carried additional sealed orders to be opened after the transit observations were complete, which told him to continue from Tahiti on a voyage of discovery into the Pacific; part of the larger competition between European powers to explore trade-routes and acquire outposts around the world. (By many accounts, the contents of those orders were well-known around London before he sailed.) And like a modern-day space programme, Cook’s voyages were a simultaneous national investment in pure science, prestige and geopolitical leverage. [And Cook and Hawaii are tightly connected – he commanded the first European ships to make landfall in Hawai’i, and was killed in a skirmish there in 1778.]

New Zealand and Hawai`i are both parts of the Polynesian world. As a New Zealander, much of the language used by the Mauna Kea protestors is familiar…READ MORE

Building a Nest

Building a Nest

By Troy Baisden

It was great to be at Te Pūnaha Matatini’s kickoff. As we look forward to theme meetings next week, I thought it would be useful if I explain a little more about what I’m up to, and why I’ve linked GNS Science’s “Global Change Through Time” programme to your CoRE.

In my lightning talk, at the Te Pūnaha Matatini’s kickoff, I pointed out that I work on problems like climate change and water quality. I think everyone is on board with this: we all agree these problems are complex, yet inspiring and important. They’re perhaps not funded in your CoRE because they’re so big and largely funded elsewhere. As a result, it makes good sense for someone like me involved in big CRI-based programmes on these topics to affiliate with Te Pūnaha Matatini.

But I got a sense that perhaps even complexity geeks want to keep their distance when I say, “I’m here to work on problems so big, no single person can understand them.” But that’s exactly what the problems of climate change and water quality are, by the time we recognise that solutions have to involve not only the biogeophysical system, but also societal and economic transformation.


For example, the IPCC‘s summaries of what we know about the climate change problem run to three enormous volumes, which are further summarised and integrated in another tome called a synthesis report. My goal is to help people develop tools that sort through the information in these tomes and make it work for them. That’s why I’ve joined Te Pūnaha Matatini.

I’m looking for new, better and more effective ways to think about how we build the academic architecture that connects the dots within big issues. Our knowledge about climate change, which still seeks workable solutions, developed over time from relatively simple pieces. If we agree we’re not managing climate change as well as we should, it’s important to think about redesigning the way we’re addressing this big issue. It may be we can learn from other similar problems, using them as model systems.

I’m reminded of Gall’s Law:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.

Complexity is about simple sensible things, that when connected together, are no longer simple. In this sense, building Te Pūnaha Matatini is, itself, an important complexity challenge.

I’ve come to the view that a structure like Te Pūnaha Matatini has been selected to provide some initial building blocks, each a relatively simple piece, or project. Our challenge in the early stages of development is to connect them together, keep the process exciting and simple, yet end up with something that is much more than the sum of its parts.

Within each theme, a limited number of projects will have to start simple and become working systems. One of the most interesting features of complex systems is that they often contain nested hierarchies of simpler systems. It interests me that global change, by being a series of connected problems, requires us to develop some frameworks for understanding the whole set of problems. By looking at how we can make connections and identify similar approaches during the building of Te Pūnaha Matatini, I’ll be looking for the links that help us see and manage complexity. And I’ll be looking at how these systems fit into the even bigger picture of global change. This matters for the science of science policy, which seems to be at the heart of Te Pūnaha Matatini.


When taking on a role building something, it’s important to have a goal, and mine is to improve strategy, policy and decisions across global change issues. When we begin discussing strategy, policy and decisions, complexity matters. There’s often a desire to focus on isolating problems and managing the simple systems, excluding surrounding complexity. Yet, the complex interactions in wider systems often generate unexpected instability. Bigger systems can have dynamics that are orthogonal to our expectations from simple systems. Ultimately, I see a need to improve how we generate expectations – a goal which has permeated complexity science from quantum mechanics, to social sciences, to earth system science, and beyond. Right now I’m interested how we can tackle this within dynamic research structures that obey Gall’s law, and deliver better expectations to strategy, policy and decision processes.

To conclude on a lighter note, I’ll point out that things within Te Pūnaha Matatini that catch my eye may surprise you, and have been useful insights to me. For instance, I include global trade within my definition of global change. This leads me to see big opportunities to ask whether better understanding of supply chains helps us identify how and when we can better transmit environmental value from consumers to producers, to help maintain our “clean, green” image. And I think that the success predator eradication is having in mobilising the community and voluntary sector could be a good model for wider environmental causes, and deserves attention.

I look forward to seeing our expectations evolve, and hopefully finding more insights and surprises along the way. In a sense, we’re building our nest, and it should be composed of well chosen pieces – some structural, some sticky and some shiny and interesting.

troy 1

Communities of Engagement – reflections from Dion O’Neale

Communities of Engagement – reflections from Dion O’Neale

By Dion O’Neale

Engaging with communities is a focus for Te Pūnaha Matatini so I very much appreciated the point of Rhian Salmon’s lightning talk at our initial research symposium. In her role as a climate scientist, Rhian has spent long periods of time in Antarctica, which makes for great science outreach material. But in her presentation to Te Pūnaha Matatini, Rhian questioned how scientific we are about the outcomes of the science outreach we do. Outreach activities require substantial amounts of time and effort from scientists, often for little professional recognition. Rhian advocated developing methods for reporting on and researching the impact of these outreach activities, then using the results to inform future communication practises.

Engaging with communities of a different kind is Jeanette McLeod, a graph theorist from the University of Canterbury. Jeanette spoke about one of the ecological complexity projects that will be running in Te Pūnaha Matatini — epidemic spread in possum networks. Coming from Australia where she fed tame possums in her backyard, Jeanette is now studying how the spread of tuberculosis through possum communities is influenced by the characteristics of individual possums.

As they collectively munch their way through 21000 tons of NZ native forest each night, possums interact with one another within their own social network. Jeanette, along with collaborators Mike Plank and Alex James, is using data about these interaction networks collected by scientists at Landcare Research who tracked the locations of a population of possums in the Orongorongo valley, near Wellington. Within the possum population, super-shedders (highly infectious individuals) and super-spreaders (individuals that encounter many others) seem to play an important role in affecting the spread of diseases like TB. Understanding the effect of the heterogeneity of of individuals in the interaction network could turn out to be important for identifying possible methods of using infectious disease to control possum numbers.

Networks of interactions were a theme in Dave Maré‘s presentation too. Dave spoke about what makes cities so cool from the point of view of an economist. No matter what you measure, cities are a particularly efficient way of making stuff. Whether you measure numbers of patents or firm revenues or scientific publications, cities produce more _per capita_ as their size increases. I was interested in how Dave is teasing out the different mechanisms that might be contributing to cities getting more efficient as they get bigger. Dave is looking at how higher frequency and diversity of interactions within cities might spur innovation as people are exposed to new combinations of ideas. These could be interactions within cities due to people changing jobs, or between cities with internationally connected workers spurring exporting of the firms they work for. I’m hoping I’ll be able to explore some of the ideas Dave spoke about by working with Dave’s colleague from Motu, Izi Sin. The idea is to build a network of employment relationships so we’ll be able to quantify some of those interactions within cities and look at how they might affect the outcomes of the firms or the individuals involved.