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The Australian National University

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 development of methods for transdisciplinary research and governance in complex systems
  2. The development of sustainable human-environment systems
  3. Technology and the adaptive capacity of urban communities
  4. The metaphorical nature of human understanding
  5. Enhancing community understanding of basic system dynamics concepts



I am a physicist with a focus on cognitive science, system dynamics, and the application of sustainability science. My research career spans some 45 years, and includes experience in astronomy and astrophysics, management, operations research, mathematics education, and applied system dynamics. I have held research and teaching positions at Yale University, Kitt Peak National Observatory (Arizona), and the Australian National University. For the last 20 years I have worked on the development of practical approaches to integrative research and adaptation in complex human-environment systems. This work, which revolves around a blend of concepts from complexity science, system dynamics, and cognitive science, has been carried out in collaboration with community, student, academic, industrial and professional groups. Over the last 10 years I have focused on the feedback interactions between urban design and human health and wellbeing. I am Visiting Research Fellow at the United Nations University, International Institute for Global Health, Kuala Lumpur.

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 usually 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.

I am developing a scale-free conceptual framework that specifies a generic system structure, composed of four basic subsystems, that is not decomposable. My 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. This hypothesis is being explored in the Collaborative Conceptual Modelling program described below.

Collaborative Conceptual Modelling: Putting Systems Thinking to Work

Collaborative Conceptual Modelling (CCM) has been developed in collaboration with Dr. Katrina Proust (ANU). The CCM approach, which has strong theoretical underpinnings, has emerged from some eight 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 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. CCM is providing the practical system-dynamics underpinning for a number of research projects focused on human health and wellbeing in the changing urban environment. 

 Human Health & Wellbeing in the Changing Urban Environment

I am currently undertaking (with colleagues at the ANU and the United Nations University) 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.

My work includes studies of the impact of technology choice on the adaptive capacity of urban communities. In particular, I am interested in the growing dependence of such communities on refrigerated air conditioning, private motor vehicles, and industrial-scale food production—dependencies that I believe are maladaptive.

I am also 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 United Nations University (UNU). The ICSU/iAMP/UNU program is run by an International Program Office located in Xiamen, China.



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Updated:  17 December 2017 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers