Mitigating the impact of air pollution on dementia and brain health: Setting the policy agenda (University of Suffolk, Together for Transformation Conference)

Much thanks to Valerie Gladwell and Colin Martin and the University of Suffolk for the opportunity to present at their Together for Transformation Conference, which focused on exploring transformational research to support collaboration, innovation and policy change.


I was there on behalf of INPSIRE and CECAN. InSPIRE is a UK policy and research consortium, housed at Durham University, devoted to mitigating the impact that air pollution and the exposome have on brain health (including cognitive function, mental health and dementia). CECAN is the Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus.


I presented on the latest policy brief we have released on transforming policy on air quality and brain health. CLICK HERE FOR POLICY BRIEF. The brief is based on a 2022 article we published, Mitigating the impact of air pollution on dementia and brain health: Setting the policy agenda.


CLICK HERE for PDF of PowerPoint



Background: Emerging research suggests exposure to high levels of air pollution at critical points in the life-course is detrimental to brain health, including cognitive decline and dementia. Social determinants play a significant role, including socio-economic deprivation, environmental factors and heightened health and social inequalities. Policies have been proposed more generally, but their benefits for brain health have yet to be fully explored.


Objective and methods: Over the course of two years, we worked as a consortium of 20+ academics in a participatory and consensus method to develop the first policy agenda for mitigating air pollution's impact on brain health and dementia, including an umbrella review and engaging 11 stakeholder organisations.


Results: We identified three policy domains and 14 priority areas. Research and Funding included: (1) embracing a complexities of place approach that (2) highlights vulnerable populations; (3) details the impact of ambient PM2.5 on brain health, including current and historical high-resolution exposure models; (4) emphasises the importance of indoor air pollution; (5) catalogues the multiple pathways to disease for brain health and dementia, including those most at risk; (6) embraces a life course perspective; and (7) radically rethinks funding. Education and Awareness included: (8) making this unrecognised public health issue known; (9) developing educational products; (10) attaching air pollution and brain health to existing strategies and campaigns; and (11) providing publicly available monitoring, assessment and screening tools. Policy Evaluation included: (12) conducting complex systems evaluation; (13) engaging in co-production; and (14) evaluating air quality policies for their brain health benefits.


Conclusion: Given the pressing issues of brain health, dementia and air pollution, setting a policy agenda is crucial. Policy needs to be matched by scientific evidence and appropriate guidelines, including bespoke strategies to optimise impact and mitigate unintended consequences. The agenda provided here is the first step toward such a plan.


World-Leading Global Scholars Visiting and Working with the DRMC Team and Fellows


World-Leading Global Scholars Visiting and Working with the DRMC Team and Fellows

The DRMC has had a busy academic year and we are only two-thirds of the way through! Since autumn, through the Research Methods Café and other avenues, we have had research conversations on research interview methods, discussed R software, worked with our new DRMC Student Fellows, set up the new research themes, and developed a Power Automate guide to process separate reviewing of anonymous and identifiable information for grant/job applications. We also had three visiting scholars to Durham. DRMC has tremendous capacity to become a world-leading hub for intellectual engagement around methods. Toward this effort, the following three international scholars visited the DRMC.

Prof Christophe Gernigon, Université de Montpellier, FranceChristophe is Professeur des Universités in Psychology of Sport and Exercise at the Université de Montpellier. Christophe specialises in the application of complexity modelling, in particular, dynamical systems theory, to topics in social psychology and sports psychology. For more on his work, click here. While at Durham, Christophe gave two lectures. The first – The dynamics of approach and avoidance motivation: A key to understanding (non-) sporting lives?was for the Department of Sport and Exercise at Durham. The second – On the reproducibility issue: Will psychological science ever exorcise Laplace’s Demon? – was for the DRMC.

Dr Corey Schimpf, State University of New York, USACorey is in the Department of Engineering Education, University of Buffalo, State University of New York, USA. His expertise is in agent architecture and AI, design research and design thinking, data visualization, critical studies, data mining, educational technology, case-based methods, research methods, and computational social science. Corey is part of the international DRMC team developing the AM-Smart methods platform, COMPLEX-IT – which non-experts can use to run some of the latest developments in computational modelling. We are presently developing a systems mapping tab and a fast-ABM tab. Corey visited Durham in October to present on a paper he and I recently wrote, Approachable modeling and smart methods: a new methods field of study.

Dr Philippe Giabbanelli, Miami University, USAPhilippe is truly a global scholar. Born in France, studied in Canada, did his post-doctoral studies at Cambridge, and is presently working in the States. Philippe’s research group primarily work on simulation models and machine learning for public health. More specifically, they are focused on discrete simulation models (e.g., agent-based modeling, cellular automata), network analysis, and machine learning (e.g., classification, performance analysis). Currently, his main projects are (i) using machine learning to accelerate large-scale simulations and (ii) shifting from ‘big’ to ‘useful’ data by identifying the minimum parts of a dataset needed to quickly make accurate predictions.  Philippe is part of the international DRMC team developing new approaches to agent-based modelling. He was also a great colleague and support during the COVID pandemic, as the world community of modellers, of which our DRMC was a team, came together to quickly develop various models of the pandemic. As a result, we wrote the following paper together, Opportunities and challenges in developing covid-19 simulation models: Lessons from six funded projects. In March, Philippe brought his global experience and methods expertise to Durham to work on a research paper with our team and to do two presentations. The first was Agent-based modelling for public health: New methods and applications to obesity and suicide. This is highly innovative work, engaging in co-creation for developing simulation models. It was an exciting talk! Click here and also click here for two papers on which this presentation was based. The second presentation, which you can click here to watch on YouTube, and which builds on the first, was Participatory modelling and mixed-methods for public health simulations.

Looking forward to 2023-2024.

Building on our initial success, we will invite several more international scholars. So far, we are hoping we will be able to invite the following colleagues, perhaps for a conference on the philosophy of complexity. Stay tuned!

Dr Federica Russo, University of Amsterdam, NetherlandsFederica is a philosopher of science, technology, and information based at the University of Amsterdam. Her current research concerns epistemological, methodological, and normative aspects as they arise in the biomedical and social sciences, and in highly technologized scientific contexts. She is currently working on an edited volume on complexity in causality. For more on her work, Click here.

Prof. dr dr, Lasse Gerrits, Erasmus University, NetherlandsLasse is Academic Director of the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research focuses on social scientific research methods, complexity sciences, systems theories, urban planning and development, governance, railway systems, infrastructure development, qualitative research methods, qualitative comparative analysis, network analysis, system modelling, socio-technological evolution.

Prof. Andrea Hurst, Nelson Mandela University, South AfricaAndrea is Chair in Identities and Social Cohesion in Africa, at Nelson Mandela University. Another global scholar, Andrea was awarded PhD in Philosophy from Villanova University, Philadelphia, 2006. Her research focused on bringing complexity-thinking in continental philosophy into contact with psychoanalytic theory, leading to the publication of a book entitled Derrida vis-á-vis Lacan: Interweaving Deconstruction and Psychoanalysis (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008). Presently, her work remains engaged, broadly speaking, in examining the interfaces between philosophy as a way of life in its many dimensions, psychoanalytic thinking, and the development of notions of ethical responsibility within the contemporary paradigmatic shift from “simplicity” to “complexity.” 


Complexity scientists and those interested in complex systems research, please do better literature reviews

Perhaps it is anecdotal on my part. But it seems to happen far too often lately. I am reading an article or book on the application of the complexity sciences to some topic only to have to endure the authors failing to cite some landmark publication or even just failing to cite the literature their peers have published on the same topic!

Worse is when authors confine their citations to scholars in their own country or their own small collegial network. Reading the literature, one would sometimes think that the complexity sciences were independently developed in various countries throughout the world, because far too often scholars ignore those outside their small collegial networks, even when doing the exact same research!

I know the complexity sciences constitute a massive field of study. I know, even when developing our map of the complexity sciences, that studies can be missed. And I know we cannot cite everyone. 

But come on! . . . 

Complexity scientists and those interested in complex systems research, please do better literature reviews. It is misleading and lacking scientific rigour.


The Atlas of Social Complexity: Mapping Complexity’s Adjacent Possible (Workshop at Nelson Mandela University)


I would like to thank Andrea Hurst and Anton Botha and Harsheila Riga for the opportunity to run a workshop on complexity at Nelson Mandela University. The workshop is based on a forthcoming book in 2024 – The Atlas of Social Complexity (Edward Elgar Publishing) -- that Lasse Gerrits and I are in the final stages of writing.


Here is the Workshop Abstract


Although the complexity sciences have done much to advance the social sciences, over the last decade the field has run into some hard situations – thirteen to be exact. Some are self-imposed, others come from how 21st century science is conducted. Examples include ignoring the wider social sciences; privileging computational modelling over qualitative research; and being tone-deaf about the real world.


These situations presently prevent the study of social complexity from becoming the disruptive, transdisciplinary field it originally sought to be in the 1990s when the complexity turn in the social sciences took place.


Fortunately, a small but growing global network of scholars are charting new territory. They are part of a fresh turn in complexity, the social science turn, which fosters a transdisciplinary, social complexity imagination that, in one way or another, addresses the field’s thirteen situations to create new areas of disruptive and highly innovative social inquiry. The Atlas of social complexity charts this new territory, seeking to map its present future.


Organised around five major themes – (1) Cognition, emotion and consciousness, (2) Dynamics of human psychology, (3) Living in social systems, (4) Advancing a new methods agenda, and (5) The unfinished space – the Atlas functions as a tour guide, surveying over thirty leading-edge research areas (some still under construction) that readers can variously combine and develop.


The Atlas is a practical guide for those seeking new ideas and new avenues of study to pursue, all in the hope of fostering the transdisciplinary social complexity imagination needed to address some of the biggest global challenges we, as a world community, presently face.


The purpose of this interactive Workshop is to introduce the Atlas to foster a discussion on the future of the field and for participants to explore what a future map might look like for their work.



·      CLICK HERE is a link to the Main PowerPoint

·      CLICK HERE for the Complexity Sciences Map


·      CLICK HERE for the Methods PowerPoint.

·      CLICK HERE to explore COMPLEX-IT and its software, tutorials, etc.

·      CLICK HERE for a published article on COMPLEX-IT 

·      CLICK HERE for Big Data Mining and Complexity

·      CLICK HERE for the Sage Handbook of Case-Based Methods 






Early Life Brain Development, Air Pollution and the Exposome: A Complexity Perspective (Lecture at Nelson Mandela University)

I would like to thank Andrea Hurst and Anton Botha and Harsheila Riga for the opportunity to present my work on early Life Brain Development, Air Pollution and the Exposome: A Complexity Perspective  at Nelson Mandela University. The purpose of the talk is to outline a new framing of the exposome, allostatic load and brain health grounded in a case-based complexities of place perspective.




Adverse environmental exposures during early life development, in particular air pollution, are crucial to the brain health that children and adolescents (and the communities in which they live) subsequently experience throughout their life-course. Brain health ranges from neurodegenerative disease and developmental disorders to cognitive function and mental health. Given this pathways to disease link to development, a new field of study has emerged called the exposome. The exposome is a complex configuration of all the exposures a community and its individuals experience in a lifetime and how the multifaceted chemistry of the systems in which people live meet with the complexities of the human brain and public health – particularly in terms of health and social inequalities. For example, by 2050, 24% of global deaths will be linked to the environment; 30-55% to social determinants; and over 139 million people will have dementia at a global cost of $2.8 trillion. Mitigating these public health issues by intervening in early life development is key. The theoretical challenge, however, is how best to make sense of such complexity. The purpose of this presentation is to explore how a complex systems view of the intersection between social determinants and the exposome and their impact on brain health development as a function of place is the best approach for advancing such a difficult, interdisciplinary field of study and its policy implications. The case study as evidence will be the latest research on air pollution and brain health in early life and adolescence.

Here is a link to my PowerPoint

Here is the link to InSPIRE


Vermeulen, R., Schymanski, E. L., Barabási, A. L., & Miller, G. W. (2020). The exposome and health: Where chemistry meets biology. Science, 367(6476), 392-396.





There is no god independent of human goodness.

A friend of mine, who does not like social media or public attention, said I could post this quote from him. He is reading two books presently. John Julius Norwich's Sicily and Anna Reid's Borderland: A journey through the history of the Ukraine

Both countries, as most know, have suffered tremendously at the hands of others. Millions upon millions of people being killed, exiled, or left living lives of desperation because of the terrible inhumanity and indifference of others.

My friend said something profound that I wanted to share:
"If you think there is a god, independent of human kindness and compassion, you are mistaken. All that stands between cruelty and suffering is the goodness of everyday people, willing to make a difference. The universe is otherwise silent." 



Time and Process in QCA (Qualitative Comparative Analysis) and Case-based Reasoning

Interest in Qualitative Comparative Analysis is burgeoning and has sparked a wide range of methodological developments. One area that deserves attention is the integration of time and process into the logic and workings of OCA as a research approach and technique.



In Fall of 2022, Lasse Gerrits and Sofia Pagliarin, both of the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam, organized the first Time-in-QCA (TiQ) workshop.  

It was a fantastic session and I was honoured to get to present as part of the day's events. I presented on the links between a case-based computtional modelling approach and QCA for modelling longitudinal trajectories of cases and their corresponding complex causality.


Sofia and Lasse have now produced a corresponding report of the workshop. You can find it on the COMPASS website (Comparative Methods for Systematic Cross-Case Analysis).



More than just reviewing the workshop itself, this report is essential reading for anybody interested in longitudinal QCA: it summarizes existing conceptualizations of the relationships among time and QCA, provides a high-level overview of methodological techniques for incorporating time and process into QCA, and identifies avenues and areas for future exploration.


See also their paper: Pagliarin, S., & Gerrits, L. (2020). Trajectory-based Qualitative Comparative Analysis: Accounting for case-based time dynamics. Methodological Innovations, 13(3), 2059799120959170.


COMPLEX-IT: A software package for case-based temporal analysis, including the usage of QCA

Much thanks to Sofia Pagliarin and Lasse Gerrits for the chance to present at the Time-in-QCA workshop at Erasmus University.




The Time-in-QCA (TiQ) international workshop is an opportunity for scholars to discuss the different ways in which time and process can be integrated into the logic and workings of Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) as a research method and approach. The TiQ workshop is organised as a series of roundtables to foster constructive exchanges and discussions. Because of the specialised, and at the same time informal format of the workshop, we welcome work-in-progress ideas and ongoing empirical research integrating the time dimension into QCA both theoretically and methodologically. 



For my talk, I presented on COMPLEX-IT: A software package for case-based temporal analysis, including the usage of QCA.







Health CASCADE Workshop: Co-producing complex systems interventions for public health

On 28 and 29 Sept 2022, I had the opportunity to present on Co-producing complex systems interventions for public health, as part of the Health CASCADE three-day workshop in Amsterdam on co-creation.


It was a lot of fun and a really brilliant group of faculty and students. Thanks again to Mai Chin A Paw, Kunshan Goh and the rest of the team for organising the event, and to Sebastien Chastin for the invite, and to everyone that attended the event. I really enjoyed the discussion and I hope the ideas we discussed prove somewhat useful.




Before turning to my talk, here is a bit more about Health CASCADE. It is a brilliant project and something others should explore and promote! It is very much at the leading edge of co-creation for health.


Health CASCADE is a Marie Skłodowska Curie Innovative Training Networks project funded by the European Union (H2020 MSCA ITN) (Project number 956501).


The aim of Health CASCADE is to foster the next generation of highly trained research leaders to develop evidence based guiding principles, novel tools, and new technologies to make co-creation an effective tool to fight complex public health problems through a European Joint Doctoral Programme.


Global health challenges confront us all as individuals and communities – from obesity to pandemics, cancer to dementia – magnified by climate change and increasing inequality. These challenges are complex problems arising from multiple interconnected factors and feedback loops, resistant to existing public health programmes. We need new ideas and new approaches such as co-creation. By bringing together citizens, academics, businesses, and civil organisations, the project aims to co-create effective solutions to these complex problems.



This two-day workshop explored the value of integrating complexity science and co-production for developing effective, evidence-based tools for addressing complex public health problems. (HERE IS THE LINK to the PDF of my Presentation)




A complex systems approach has been proposed as a powerful toolkit for addressing complex public health problems, including the important role of place. In turn, co-creation has gained traction for addressing the complexities of public health policy, practice, and promotion, particularly around issues of inequality and inequity. While both approaches offer vital strategies for addressing complexity in public health, researchers are only beginning to explore their integration. Hence the purpose of this workshop.



Day 1 provided a framework for thinking about complexity in public health. To develop this framework, we began with an introduction to the complexity sciences, including a map of its present-day trajectories. From there we examined the current challenges the field faces. Particular focus was given to the failure of most complexity science approaches – particularly in terms of computational modelling – to effectively engage stakeholders in the model building process, as well as the development or evaluation of public health policies and practices. Given our public health focus, the COVID-19 pandemic was used as our case study. We ended the day highlighting some examples where progress has been made in integrating complexity science and co-production, particularly participatory systems mapping and case-based complexity – which attendees got a chance to explore.


Day 2 involved a series of break-out, small-group discussions. The first explored, from both an epistemological and practical level, which approaches to co-creation and complexity science might work best together (or not), or critically inform or challenge one the other, including different methods and tactics. The second session explored what sorts of methods or research projects, or case studies participants could develop to advance the integration of these two approaches to address complex public health problems.


HERE IS A KEY POINT – WHICH WE SOUGHT TO ARRIVE AT, BUT STILL HAVE LOTS TO DO TO GET THERE. Co-creation emerged of late in response to the limitations of science and policy and practice. Those same limitations are often found in the complexity sciences. How can co-creation address those similar limitations in the complexity sciences? In turn, given its focus on collective decision making, co-creation struggles with complexity and systems thinking. How can the tools of complexity science help? Be it systems mapping, computational modelling, or network analysis?





·      Here is an open-access book by Barbrook-Johnson and Penn that is the gold standard on practical guidelines for doing systems mapping, including participatory systems mapping.


·      Here is an article by two CASCADE members (Lead author, Niamh Smith and co-author, Sebastien Chastin), using systems mapping and complex network analysis.


·    Here is the link to CECAN and its resources (complexity evaluation toolkit, tools for choosing appropriate evaluation methods) for engaging stakeholders and doing policy evaluation from a complex systems perspective. CECAN stands for the Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus.


·      Here is an open-access article by me and my colleagues that used participatory systems mapping to develop a co-created policy agenda for air quality and brain health and dementia.


·     See the community engagement work around co-creation and systems thinking being done by Sharon Zivkovic and colleagues.

  • Here is the link to COMPLEX-IT, the software package my colleagues and I developed for helping evaluators, civil servants, healthcare experts and public and third-sector


Mapping Complexity’s Adjacent Possible: Where Are We (Not) Headed?

On 27 Sept 2022, Lasse Gerrits and I had the opportunity to present on our Atlas of Social Complexity project for the RICH, the Radboud Interfaculty Complexity Hub. The focus of our presentation was, Mapping Complexity’s Adjacent Possible: Where Are We (Not) Headed?

It was a lot of fun and a really brilliant group of faculty and students. Thanks again to Marcos Ross, Hitomi Shibata, and Jerrald Rector for organising the event, and to everyone for the excellent discussion, which helped us to develop our ideas further. In particular, we enjoyed the discussion on the need for vertical (multi-level) systems thinking (Jerrald Rector) and the importance of integrating complexity thinking into primary, secondary and university education (Hubert Korzilius), as well as the possibility of developing a series of formalisms for systems thinking (Fred Hasselman).


The origin and development of the complexity sciences is well-documented. Once deemed a minority interest, the complexity sciences have been taken up in many fields such that some of its aspects have become adopted generally. The complexity map, which we have developed (2021), demonstrates this widespread popularity.A major challenge remains: the complexity sciences have run into a series of intellectual traps – e.g., quants over qual, poor knowledge of social science – which presently have the study of complexity on a bit of a problematic course. Looking to the future, can these present challenges be addressed? If so, to what extent or in what ways? What do such near and distant future adjacent possibilities look like? Can we map them? Where is the frontier of the complexity sciences headed, or not headed? The purpose of this highly interactive workshop is to explore the future (the adjacent possible) of the complexity sciences, and for participants to have an active hand in shaping what that future map looks like.


CLICK HERE for the PDF of the presentation



The psychology of complexity: a few notes from forthcoming Atlas of Social Complexity

My colleague, Lasse Gerrits and I are working on the forthcoming Atlas of Social Complexity, to be published in Autumn 2023 with Edward Elgar Publishing.


The focus of the book is how a global network of researchers, scholars, artists, social activists, policy makers, and civil servants have been working variously over the last decade to overcome to venture into new territories in the study of social complexity, creating entirely new fields of social science synthesis and advance, as well as inspiring the complexity imagination we presently need to address the significant global social problems we currently face.


Psychology of Complexity

In the process, one of the major sections of the book is on the progress being made in the study of key topics in psychology and the cognitive sciences, from cellular cognition and network immunology to the gut-brain axis and the emotional self to our embodied minds and the dynamical systems of human psychology.


ISCIA Seminar Series: Grappling with Complexity, 2021

I was kindly invited by Andrea Hurst and colleagues to present my initial ideas on the topic for the ISCIA Seminar Series: Grappling withComplexity, 2021, hosted by Nelson Mandela University, South Africa.

While my ideas have certainly progressed since the presentation, most of the main points remain core to my argument.


Here is a copy of the PDF of the presentation

Here is a link to a video of my lecture and the conversation that followed