Martial arts, Greek mythology, bacterial scroungers and industrial ecosystems... Welcome to a conversation with Dr Alex Penn.
Weaving in and out of topics, themes and metaphors, Dr Alex Penn gives an introduction to her research and her academic background that moves through physics, experimental biology, mathematical modelling, agricultural sustainability and a host of other fascinating ideas, linking each to the other logically and precisely as she goes.
Keeping a clear view of such a matrix of factors and interactions is natural territory for Alex, a research fellow and member of the Evolution and Resilience of Industrial Ecosystems (ERIE) research group at the University of Surrey. This multi-disciplinary collection of academics helps stakeholders in industrial networks to prepare for an unpredictable future.
"You can think of industrial ecosystems as big networks of companies exchanging materials and energy, connected together through people, through information, through trade and economic links,” she explains. “These systems can behave in unpredictable ways when new policies come into play or when businesses within those systems make decisions."
We're interested in tools that will help people steer their systems in a certain way to promote resilience and sustainability
An industrial ecosystem's resilience lies in its robustness to shocks and its ability to adapt in order to keep its essential functions going when subjected to stress. That stress might be an increase in fossil-fuel prices, or fluctuations in commodity prices, or even a key business going bust within the system. After all, it's no use creating a complex system that is sustainable only when everything goes to plan. "For a system to be resilient is a subjective term," says Alex. "We have to choose what is important for the system, what's important for the stakeholders. We're interested in tools that will help people steer their systems in a certain way to promote resilience and sustainability."
This is the point where Alex introduces her Systems Aikido philosophy, a beautifully simple approach to managing complex adaptive systems.
"In karate you put a lot of energy in to force your opponent to do something," she begins. "But in aikido you intervene when your opponent comes at you, and tip them using their own momentum so that they fall. You're using very little energy, but it takes a lot more understanding in order to intervene effectively."
Take the example of arable agriculture. The karate approach has us continually ploughing and fertilising fields in order to plant annual food crops such as wheat. We then need to spray the fields with herbicides to control pest weeds, because many of our crops were originally bred from weed species that flourish in the very same conditions we are creating. We have to do all this because the land doesn't “want” to remain a wheat field. Left to its own devices, it wants to grow annual weeds, then perennial scrubby plants, and eventually it will probably try to become a forest again, as most farmland was before we chopped the trees down.
"In permaculture design, which was the inspiration for Systems Aikido, we would see that this agricultural environment would be more stable if we plant a system of trees that provide food crops," suggests Alex, "as that looks more like something later on in the ecosystem's natural succession. You'd have to put less work in to maintain it, because that's where the system's going anyway."
Rather than trying to push a system out of its stable state, we want to change what its stable state is
Scale that up to an industrial ecosystem - as ERIE are doing in co-operation with the Humberside region of the UK - and you have more factors in play, but the same underlying aikido principle. "What we want to ask is: what do we want out of the system?" says Alex. "How can we change the parameters or the context of the system so that what we want is that system's stable state, that system's 'highest fitness' if it's a biological system? So rather than trying to push it out of a stable state, we want to change what the stable state is, and then we don't have to constantly put in energy in order to maintain it." Put 80 per cent of your effort, energy and resources in at the start to understand your system and set it up so that it naturally wants to do what the stakeholders are aiming to achieve, then you can use the remaining 20 per cent to simply steer it over time rather than struggle continually to stop it doing something else.
"All big, complex adaptive systems are very powerful, whether it's natural ecosystems or networks of businesses or cities or financial systems," says Alex. "They have their own dynamics. A lot of what we do with the aid of technology is about pushing against those systems in a rather Sisyphean manner. We're constantly trying to push a rock up a hill."
When you have lots of oil or coal or chemicals, as we have done since the Industrial Revolution, you'll have the energy and resources to keep karate-chopping your systems into submission. But when fuel becomes scarce or expensive, or we want to reduce CO2 emissions and pollution, the Systems Aikido philosophy comes into its own.
That philosophy started to take shape back when Alex started working on bacterial evolution, a research avenue that she still pursues in tandem with her ERIE work.
We manipulate the context of bacteria so that we can exploit their ability to evolve rapidly
"With bacteria, the example that I use is antibiotics," she says. "Obviously they have been fantastically useful, but they are a karate approach because you're effectively putting a high-selection pressure on the bacteria to become resistant to the antibiotics. You make a rod for your own back. So we want to think about approaches where we manipulate the context of the bacteria so that we can exploit their ability to evolve rapidly.
"In the bacteria that we're working on currently (Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which colonise the lungs of cystic-fibrosis patients), the bacteria co-operate to produce a molecule that goes out and takes iron from the host organism. But some bacteria cheat. They freeload, like the tax-avoiders of the bacterial world. They reap the benefits of the other bacteria getting the iron, but they don't pay the cost of doing it themselves.
"So our idea is to manipulate environmental conditions such that these cheating bacteria become dominant in the population, then we pull the rug out from under their feet by changing the conditions back. The bacterial population then can't get iron, and will crash quite rapidly. We're taking their capacity to change rapidly and using it against them."
It's easy to see how the metaphor of Systems Aikido transfers across from bacterial colonies, through agriculture and on to complex industrial ecosystems, but according to Alex there's much more to come from ERIE.
ERIE is at this exciting interface where we can generate new ideas but also go out and test them
"We know that systems are going to evolve, change, adapt, self-organise," she explains. "The techniques of data assimilation and equation-free methods that our maths guys are working on are about assessing the stability landscape of a system, and how to work with real data to get a better idea of what that system looks like underneath, of the equations that are generating behaviour for that system, and trying to map those together.
"Using those techniques on bacterial biofilms should help us to develop the mathematical tools. We'll certainly have to use different approaches for different systems, but we should be able to develop tools and techniques within that simple context that could help us in a more complicated social context.
"ERIE is in an exciting position, at this interface where we can generate new ideas but also go out and test them and work with people. I've always really liked doing conceptual work, but I'm really interested in applied work too. I'm trying to find a path where I can keep on merging those two things so we can actually make a difference in the world."