James P Houghton

James Houghton - Professional Mission

Professional Mission

28 Jul 2012

I tend to hope that my career can be in alignment with a set of values, and if possible work towards creating a world I actually want to live in. As a result I've put a lot of effort into discerning a professional mission, and am working out how to best articulate it. The challenge is to achieve both brevity and specificity; as what I'm called to is a meta-level analysis of subjects that could be interpreted in a multitude of ways.

The best I have at the moment is something akin to the following: Use modeling and simulation to facilitate better decision making in complex systems. Now of course, each of those words can mean 10 things (especially 'systems'...), so let me try and be more explicit. Here's what the sentence means to me - in reverse.

Systems are groups of components that work together to create an outcome that is different from what any of them can do on their own. It's a broad definition, and it describes pretty much everything interesting that we interact with on a daily basis. Systems can either be engineered with an objective in mind (like an airplane) or self-organized (like an economy).

I'm particularly interested in systems in which humans themselves make up some of the parts, and human behavior and relationships are responsible for the collective behavior. These systems are just as complex as those of an airplane, and just as important to understand. I'm interested in the macro-level systems that support modern lifestyle - energy, agriculture, water, transportation, etc - because despite their importance, their long-term viability is threatened by the way we use them. I'd like to use my understanding of these systems to promote their sustainability

Complexity is related to the difficulty we have in understanding the behavior of a system based upon its parts.  As systems become more complex, their behavior is increasingly defined by the structure of relationships between their parts, and to really understand the system, we need to understand those relationships. Complexity theory is a developing understanding of the behavior that can emerge from the structure of relationships, and an attempt to apply that understanding to systems with common structures but different parts.

The systems that I'm interested in are complex, and it's difficult to understand how changing the structure of relationships in those systems will influence their behavior. I'm interested in how we identify that structure of relationships, use it to predict behavior, and use it to make changes.

Better Decision Making:
Decisions are how we shape a system to change its behavior. In an engineered system, decisions take the form of designs, and in self-organized systems they take the form of policies. Both engineers and policy-makers operate in frameworks of uncertainty, and need to be able to make decisions that influence the behavior of the system. Just as engineers use every cost-effective tool at their disposal to understand how their designs will perform, policy makers need cost-effective tools to help them understand the consequences of their decisions, have confidence in those decisions, and design for uncertainty.

In contrast to engineered systems, human systems are self-organized, often by individuals acting as components in those systems. Its going to take understanding from all sorts of people, technical and nontechnical alike, in order to make positive changes in these systems. I'm interested in developing methods that allow people without analysis backgrounds to participate in the modeling process.

Modeling and Simulation:

model is a simplified representation of a real world system, and modeling is a process of clarifying our understanding of that system. The process of creating a model forces us to confront assumptions about that system and make sure that they are not in conflict with one another.

I am particularly interested in modeling the structure of relationships between elements in a system. Two well-known schemas for encoding these relationships are System Dynamics Modeling and Agent-Based Modeling, but others exist - each to answer a specific question about a specific type of system. I'm interested in understanding how these models are constructed, and how we can encourage rigorous modeling  in more everyday situations.

Simulation is the process of asking a model what it implies. We can often conduct experiments on a model of a system that it is undesirable to conduct on the actual system itself. Then we can decide how to behave in a system in order to meet our objectives.

I'm interested in using simulation to understand the consequences of structural changes to a system, and identifying locations where strategic development of relationships between components can alter the macro-behavior of a system we only have small amounts of influence over.

Another way of explaining my mission could be:
Improve the sustainability of the american lifestyle by developing methods for understanding the consequences of decisions regarding our major support systems, and making those methods available to a non-technical set of decision makers.

Still needs work...

© 2016 James P. Houghton