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. The metaphorical basis of human understanding and communication
  2. The decomposability of complex adaptive systems
  3. Sustainable human-environment systems
  4. Transdisciplinary research and governance in complex systems



I am a dynamicist with a focus on the nature of sustainable human-environment systems. For the last 30 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. I am co-author, with Dr. Robert Dyball, of the textbook Understanding Humann Ecology: A systems approach to sustainability (Earthscan/Routledge Second Edition 2023).


Researcher's projects

Collaborative Conceptual Modelling: Putting Systems Thinking to Work

Collaborative Conceptual Modelling (CCM) is a practical systems thinking and modelling approach that is being developed to help research and policy-making groups come to terms with the feedback dynamics of their system-of-interest. The development is being carried out in collaboration with Dr. Katrina Proust, and has benefited from some twenty years of collaborative workshops with a wide range of student and professional groups. CCM continues to evolve, guided by our action research.

CCM has strong theoretical underpinnings. Concepts and tools from applied history, cognitive science, system dynamics, resilience thinking, and complexity science have been blended to produce pragmatic ways for the members of a group to co-develop sustainable management policies. One aim of a CCM workshop is to increase a groups' awareness of, and allowance for, three critical sets of interactions: (a) the feedback interactions that occur between the parts of a complex adaptive system, (b) the interpersonal interactions that occur in transdisciplinary dialogue focused on problems of mutual concern, and (c) the interactions between studies of the past and plans for the future.

CCM is also intended to provide ways for managers to escape the 'complexity dilemma'. The dilemma arises because human-environment systems are usually too complex to manage as a whole—there is strong pressure to focus attention on selected sub-systems. But, the behaviour of a complex system emerges from the interactions between its parts. If you take the system apart it simply disappears. It follows that an understanding of the possibility of decomposing a given system, while retaining key behavioural constraints, is critical in efforts to escape the complexity dilemma. In advanced CCM there is a focus on exploring decomposability via the development and testing of low-order dynamical models.

On the practical front, policy makers and managers often assume that the systems they work within are always decomposable. This is illustrated, for example, by the natural emergence of isolated governance silos as cities grow and become more dynamically complex. Such an approach hides cross-sector feedback effects that can lead to policy failure. The CCM program is intended to help managers to minimse such failures.




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Updated:  24 June 2024 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers