Te Pūnaha Matatini – the meeting place of many faces – is the Aotearoa New Zealand Centre of Research Excellence for Complex Systems.
Our vision: A pioneering transdisciplinary approach that brings the application of complexity science to the critical issues of our time.
Our approach: Weaving together Aotearoa New Zealand’s leading researchers in quantitative and qualitative science, social science and the humanities.
Our impact: Te Pūnaha Matatini’s research, pedagogy, leadership, and praxis enables human thriving and flourishing ecosystems within the finite resources of our planet.
Te Pūnaha Matatini brings together ‘many faces’ – different disciplines, ways of thought, methods, and crucially, people – to define, and then solve, society’s thorny interconnected problems.
The expertise of our researchers spans the breadth of human knowledge, from computational sciences to environmental economics, and from linguistics to Indigenous philosophy to mathematical biology. This deeply transdisciplinary approach characterises Te Pūnaha Matatini and is unique within the New Zealand research system; it carries methods, approaches, and tools over from one discipline to another, and in doing so, develops integrated and transformative insights.
Our world is at a tipping point: the critical issues of our time require concerted scientific and scholarly attention to enable human flourishing within the finite resources of our planet. These societal issues span the climate crisis, and its immediate impacts on the most vulnerable; the role of the Internet and its technology in both sustaining and countering violent extremism and misinformation; the challenges of accelerating environmental degradation; and the effects of economic and social inequity on human health and wellbeing. All are complex, systemic, seemingly intractable issues about which decisions must be made by individuals, whānau, communities, civil society, governments, and policy- makers. These issues, the questions they raise, and their increasingly negative impacts, reflect the complex inter-relations and connections between human society, individual rights and freedoms, our environment, and the economy. Understanding the workings of these complex systems is the pressing need of our time.
What are complex systems? When birds such as cormorants flock for flight, they move from an individual state to a highly ordered structure that enables them to move together, easing their collective journey (Figure below).
Maniapoto, tupuna of the people of Ngatī Maniapoto, translated this emergent state, which cannot be identified by observing or analysing the behaviour of individuals alone, into an effective military strategy – te kawau mārō in te reo Māori. Based on co-ordinated collective action, this strategy provided the critical breakthrough needed to overturn the status quo and create beneficial new outcomes. Today, complexity science continues to enable new ways of seeing and understanding the world. Its key features – connections, feedback, attractors, intervention points, critical transitions, and emergence – all offer new, innovative ways of tackling societal problems. The flight of the cormorant reveals how seeing and understanding the structures behind these phenomena can bring unexpected insights. In reducing the world to its constituent parts, reductionist science – the traditional framework of our universities and national research institutes – fails to describe how people, the economy, and the environment can, do and must relate to each other.
All of the great challenges of our time involve both data and social dimensions that run roughshod over traditional disciplinary and classificatory boundaries. Grounded within Indigenous ways of knowing, and with rich theoretical contexts from the humanities and social sciences, the research projects developed by Te Pūnaha Matatini are characterised by their use of massive, wide-ranging datasets from historical to contemporary sources, using machine learning, advanced statistical modelling and complex system algorithms, to understand the past and present, and plan for a changing future. Across their diverse spread, Te Pūnaha Matatini’s projects expand our understanding and ability to influence the four capitals – human, social, financial, and natural – that together represent Aotearoa New Zealand’s resource base and our collective future.