Dr Barry Newell

BSc (Melb), MSc (Melb), PhD (ANU)
Honorary Associate Professor, Fenner School of Environment and Society
ANU College of Science
T: +61 2 6281 6058 or 0488 572 309

Areas of expertise

  • Environmental Science And Management 0502
  • Cognitive Sciences Not Elsewhere Classified 170299
  • Dynamical Systems In Applications 010204

Research interests

  1. Methods for transdisciplinary research and governance in complex systems
  2. The metaphorical nature of human understanding and communication
  3. Enhancing community understanding of cause and effect in complex systems
  4. The adaptive capacity of communities
  5. Sustainable human-environment systems



I am a dynamicist with a focus on the nature of sustainable human-environment systems. For the last 20 years I have worked on practical ways to support integrative research and decision making in complex situations. This work has led to the development, in collaboration with Dr. Katrina Proust, of Collaborative Conceptual Modelling (CCM). CCM is a systems thinking approach that revolves, in particular, around the use of system dynamics concepts and tools. Together we have run some 80 CCM workshops with academic, industrial, governance, and community groups. Areas of application have included human ecology, natural resource management, systems engineering, sustainability of human-environment systems, the climate-energy-water nexus, and the design of healthy cities. Many of these workshops have focused on urban health, and have drawn participants from a range of countries across South-East Asia and Africa.


Researcher's projects

Escaping the Complexity Dilemma: A Generic Conceptual Framework for Integrative Research and Governance in Complex Adaptive Systems

Researchers and policy makers working in human-environment systems face a ‘complexity dilemma’. The behaviour of such a system emerges from feedback interactions between its parts (sub-systems). The evolution of the system, and its response to management interventions, cannot be understood on the basis of studies of its parts taken one by one in isolation. The system must be approached holistically. But the whole is too complex to comprehend. That is the dilemma.

The issue of ‘decomposability’ is critical in efforts to escape this dilemma. Complex systems are likely to be decomposable to the extent that they are hierarchical.  Hierarchies have the property of ‘near decomposability’. That is, the influence links that operate within the subsystems are significantly stronger than the influence links that operate between the subsystems. On the practical front, policy makers and managers often act as if the systems that they work within are totally decomposable. This is illustrated, for example, by the natural emergence of governance silos as cities grow and become more dynamically complex. Such an approach hides inter-silo feedback effects and so can lead to policy failure.

In collaboration with colleagues from the ANU and the United Nations University International Institute for Global Health (UNU-IIGH), I am developing a scale-free conceptual framework that specifies a generic system structure for human-environment systems. The structure is composed of four main subsystems, and is not decomposable. The basic hypothesis is that, provided attention is focused on the feedback interactions between at least some representative state variables from each of these subsystems, then there are practical ways to reduce the complexity of the analysis required for effective policy making and management.

Collaborative Conceptual Modelling: Putting Systems Thinking to Work

Collaborative Conceptual Modelling (CCM) has been developed in collaboration with Dr. Katrina Proust. The CCM approach, which has strong theoretical underpinnings, has emerged from some ten years of collaborative work with a wide range of groups. Concepts and tools from applied history, cognitive science, system dynamics, resilience thinking, and complexity studies have been blended to produce practical ways for the members of a transdisciplinary group to build a shared understanding of the behaviour of their systems of interest. Development work is continuing, primarily in the context of collaborative research projects and workshops.

Human Health & Wellbeing in the Changing Urban Environment

I am currently undertaking (with ANU and UNU-IIGH colleagues) studies of the interplay between human health and urban environments. The aim of this work is to increase urban decision makers' awareness of, and allowance for, three critical sets of interactions: (a) the cross-sector feedback interactions that occur between the parts of an urban complex, (b) the interpersonal interactions that occur in cross-sector dialogue focused on problems of mutual concern, and (c) the interactions between studies of the past and plans for the future. As a part of this work I am involved in a 10-year interdisciplinary research program Health and Wellbeing in the Changing Urban Environment: A Systems Approach. This program is sponsored by the International Council for Science (ICSU), the Inter-academy Medical Panel (iAMP), and the UNU-IIGH. The ICSU/iAMP/UNU program is run by an International Program Office located in Xiamen, China.



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Updated:  18 June 2019 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers