Introduction to Complex Systems

In this course, we combine examples across physics, the life sciences, socio-economic sciences and humanities with an introduction to basic mathematical tools to learn a complex systems way of thinking.



Course Level
Advanced Bachelor
ECTS credits
1.5 ECTS
Course location(s)
Utrecht, The Netherlands


Our world has an abundance of so-called complex systems. These are typically large collections of connected elements that influence each other. In recent decades, the science of studying complex systems has started to evolve and mature. It has become clear that a new, more integrated way of thinking is essential for understanding many of the complex challenges that humanity faces. The aim is to derive rules on how the dynamical behaviour of a complex system depends on the combined properties of individual elements, the nature of the interactions between elements, as well as the topology of interactions between elements, in order to understand and predict these systems and control them to have desirable properties. As an example, insight into which features of complex systems generate resilience against perturbations versus which properties enhance the sensitivity of the system and allow it to transition to a different equilibrium state is important for a broad range of questions on, for instance, climate change, social-political change, disruptive innovations, infectious disease emergence and ecosystem collapse.

The course will take place from Monday 19 August 2024 to Friday 23 August 2024 at the Utrecht Science Park. It consists of tutorial lectures and guest lectures from the broadest possible range of topics/fields/problems in which complex systems play a role, as well as hands-on computer practice working on projects in the afternoons. The preliminary program can be found below.

The main aim is to show students how complex systems science is applied by Utrecht University researchers to challenging societal problems.

Participants will be divided into groups to do all the projects. On the last day each group will present the results of one project. Only the ones who present the final projects can get the certificates and credits.

This course is offered by the Centre for Complex Systems Studies (CCCS). Please check out the video to get an impression of the centre!


Day 1 (Monday 19 August)

Introduction to complex systems

09:00-09:30 Welcome, introduction to summer school and programme

09:30-11:30 Introduction lecture by Ammy Vogtlander

11:30-12:30 Lecture (part 1) by prof. dr. ir. Henk Dijkstra

12:30-14:00 ~ Lunch Break ~

14:00-15:00 Lecture (part 2) by prof. dr. ir. Henk Dijkstra

15:00-20:00 Social activity and dinner


Day 2 (Tuesday 20 August)

Theme: Feedback processes & emergence

09:15-09:30 Welcome

09:30-11:45 Lecture by prof. dr. ir. Max Rietkerk

11:45-12:00 Introduction to Project #1

12:00-13:30 ~ Lunch Break ~

13:30-14:30 Specialist Lecture by dr. Judith Verstegen

14:30-17:00 Work on Project #1


Day 3 (Wednesday 21 August)

Theme: Theory of networks

09:15-09:30 Welcome

09:30-11:45 Lecture by dr. Deb Panja

11:45-12:00 Introduction to Project #2

12:00-13:30 ~ Lunch Break ~

13:30-14:30 Specialist Lecture by dr. Rense Corten

14:30-17:00 Work on Project #2


Day 4 (Thursday 22 August)

Theme: Intervention & adaptation

09:15-09:30 Welcome

09:30-10:30 Specialist lecture by dr. Ganna Rozhnova

10:30-10:45 Introduction to Project #3

11:00-12:00 Lecture (part 1) by Giulia Piccillo

12:00-13:30 ~ Lunch Break ~

13:30-14:30 Lecture (part 2) by Giulia Piccillo

14:30-17:00 Work on Project #3


Day 5 (Friday 23 August)

Student presentations

09:00-12:00 Participants will present their results on the project work from previous days.

Target audience

No specific knowledge is required. Basic mathematical and programming skills will help, but are not required.

Aim of the course

The aim of the course is:

  • i) to recognise complex systems related to societal, environmental, engineering and scientific problems and to learn their basic features;
  • ii) to introduce a complex systems way of thinking and analysis;
  • iii) to learn basic mathematical concepts and methods needed for complex system analysis, for example from dynamical systems theory and the theory of networks;
  • iv) to get hands-on experience in studying complex systems.


  • Course fee: €250.00
  • Included: Course + course materials + mealplan
  • Housing fee: €200
  • Housing provider: Utrecht Summer School

The fee covers the course costs, as well as all lunches, one social activity including dinner, and drinks plus treats during breaks.

Additional information

The housing costs do not include a Utrecht Summer School sleeping bag. This is a separate product on the invoice. If you wish to bring your own bedding, please deselect or remove the sleeping bag from your order once you apply for this course. 


Please also upload an additional file/application form in which you indicate why you choose this summer school and what you expect to gain from this course (max 150 words in Word or pdf).

For this course you are required to upload the following documents when applying:

  • C.V.
  • Additional Application Form