37: The ‘Leicester City’ phenomenon: aspirations in academia.

Followers of English football will be aware that the top tier is the Premier League and that the clubs that finish in the top four at the end of the season play in the European Champions’ League in the following year. These top four places are normally filled by four of a top half a dozen or so clubs – let’s say Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool. There are one or two others on the fringe. This group does not include Leicester City. At Christmas 2014, Leicester were bottom of the Premier League with relegation looking inevitable. They won seven of their last nine games in that season and survived. At the beginning of the current (2015-16) season, the bookmakers’ odds on them winning the Premier League were 5000-1 against. At the time of writing, they top the league by eight points with four matches to play. The small number of people who might have bet £10 or more on them last August are now sitting on a potential fortune.

How has this been achieved? They have a very strong defence and so concede little; they can score ‘on the break’, notably through Jamie Vardy, a centre forward who not long ago was playing for Fleetwood Town in the nether reaches of English football; they have a thoughtful, experienced and cultured manager in Claudio Ranieri; and they work as a team. It is certainly a phenomenon and the bulk of the football-following population would now like to see them win the League.

What are the academic equivalents? There are university league tables and it is not difficult to identify a top half dozen. There are tables for departments and subjects. There is a ranking of journals. I don’t think there is an official league table of research groups but certainly some informal ones. As in football, it is very difficult to break into the top group from a long way below. Money follows success – as in the REF (the Research Excellence Framework) – and facilitates the transfer of the top players to the top group. So what is the ‘Leicester City’ strategy for an aspiring university, an ambitious department or research group, or a journal editor? The strong defence must be about having the basics in place – good REF ratings and so on. The goal-scoring break-out attacks is about ambition and risk taking. The ‘manager’ can inspire and aspire. And the team work: we are almost certainly not as good as we should be in academia, so food for thought there.

Then maybe all of the above requires at the core – and I’m sure Leicester City have these qualities – hard work, confidence, and good plans while still being creative; and a preparedness to be different – not to follow the fashion. So when The Times Higher has its ever-expanding annual awards, maybe they should add a ‘Leicester City Award’ for the university that matches their achievement in our own leagues. Meanwhile, will Leicester win the League? Almost all football followers in the country are now on their side. We will see in a month’s time!

Alan Wilson, April 2016

27: Beware of optimisation

The idea of ‘optimisation’ is basic to lots of things we do and to how we think. When driving from A to B, what is the optimum route? When we learn calculus for the first time, we quickly come to grips with the maximisation and minimisation of functions. This is professionalised within operational research. If you own a transport business, you have to plan a daily schedule of collections and deliveries. Continue reading

22: Requisite Knowledge

W Ross Ashby was a psychiatrist who, through books such as Design for a brain, was one of the pioneers of the development of systems theory (qv) in the 1950s. A particular branch of systems theory was ‘cybernetics’ – from the Greek ‘steering’ – essentially the theory of the ‘control’ of systems. This was, and I assume is, very much a part of systems engineering and it attracted mathematicians such as Norbert Weiner. For me, an enduring contribution was ‘Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety’ which is simple in concept and anticipates much of what we now call complexity science. ‘Variety’ is a measure of the complexity of a system and is formally defined as the number of possible ‘states’ of a system of interest. A coin to be tossed has two possible states – heads or tails; a machine can have billions. Continue reading

21: Research Priorities: A modeller’s perspective

(From the Urban transformations website)

We know a lot about cities, but there is much more that we need to know to meet future challenges effectively. My aim here is to sketch some research priorities from the perspective of the Government Office for Science Foresight Project on The Future of Cities  – but much coloured by a personal position of having spent 50 years of my life on a quest to build a comprehensive mathematical model of a city that is both good science and is useful for planning and policy purposes! This narrows what I can offer but I can argue that a combination of the Foresight framework and a modelling perspective provides a good starting point. Continue reading

15: Venturing into other disciplines

Urban and regional science – a discipline or a subdiscipline, or is it still called interdisciplinary? – has been good at welcoming people from other disciplines, notably in recent times, physicists. Can we venture outside our box? It would be rather good if we could make some good contributions to physics!! However, given that the problems we handle are in some sense generic – spatial interaction and so on Continue reading