Summer School 2023: a week of Complexity

The Utrecht Summer School 2023, featuring the course Introduction to Complex Systems, concluded after a week of intensive lectures, projects, and social activities. Hosted for the seventh consecutive year, this year's course on complexity offered a diverse group of participants a unique opportunity to explore the multifaceted world of complex systems and their real-world applications.

Participants of the course Introduction To Complex Systems
Participants of the course Introduction to Complex Systems

Complex systems are at the heart of many of the world's most pressing challenges, from climate change to social-political change, disruptive innovations, infectious disease emergence, and ecosystem collapse. The Utrecht Summer School course aimed to equip students with the knowledge and tools necessary to understand and address these issues by adopting a complex systems approach. The program combined insights from various fields, including physics, life sciences, socio-economic sciences, and humanities, underpinned by fundamental mathematical concepts.


The course featured a blend of lectures and practical sessions. The organizers designed the schedule to maintain participants' energy levels by placing practical sessions at the end of the day. This structure was well-received by the students, who also appreciated the well-balanced length of the lectures.

Open and accepting environment

One standout aspect of the program was its welcoming and horizontal structure, creating an open and accepting environment for all. Participants lauded the approachability of the lecturers and coordinators, who were readily available to answer questions and provide assistance.

With such a diverse group, a social activity is the perfect way to get to know each other

The week started with social activities that allowed participants to connect with each other, including canoeing and shared meals. “The students varied from young sociologists to experienced businessman, coming from countries within Europe and Asia,” says Swinda Falkena, who coordinated the course. “Their different backgrounds offered added value for the projects they worked on. With such a diverse group of people, a social activity is the perfect way for them to get to know each other.”

Complexity projects

But the highlight of the program was working on projects revolving around complex systems. Students delved into topics such as synchronizing metronomes and the dynamics of systems, gaining insights that extend beyond the academic sphere. These insights may prove invaluable in understanding and addressing real-world challenges, including those related to cardiac arrhythmia and other complex phenomena.

Participants appreciated the diverse range of topics covered, which broadened their horizons and provided a strong foundation for understanding complex systems.

Diverse range of topics

Reflecting on the summer school, students appreciated the diverse range of topics covered, emphasizing that it broadened their horizons and provided a strong foundation for understanding complex systems. They also recognized the value of networking and establishing contacts within the field, with many noting the importance of a multidisciplinary approach in solving complex problems. Students found it both insightful and challenging, offering opportunities for coding and data visualization. Those with no coding experience appreciated the chance to collaborate with more experienced group members.

Sharing knowledge

Falkena looks back on a successful edition of the course, and its goal of sharing knowledge about complex systems. “Whether you work in health care, at a bank, or are still a student, everyone goes home with new knowledge after the week-long course,” says Falkena. She’s already looking forward to next year’s edition, which is scheduled to start on Monday 19 August and will run until Friday 23 August 2024. Registration for the 2024 edition is now open!

The Utrecht Summer School (USS) is a partnership by Utrecht University, Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, and HKU University of the Arts Utrecht. Each year, the Summer School offers around 200 courses to 3,000 students from up to 120 countries, making it the largest summer school programme in Europe.

The next Utrecht Summer School will run from 8 July to 23 August 2024, and will again feature the course Introduction to Complex Systems (from Monday 19 August to Friday 23 August 2024). Registration for this course is now open.