April 17, 2019

The Unseen Networks

UMass Amherst professor studies behavior of the “supernetworks” that enwrap the globe
Anna Nagurney pictured inside the new Isenberg Business Innovation Hub.

Anna Nagurney, John F. Smith Memorial Professor of Operations Management at the Isenberg School of Management, sees the world in networks: an incredibly complex web of relationships that connect individual agents. Much like a forest has an underground fungal network of communication, our lives are underpinned by currents of exchange.

Think of how the internet, an information network, interacts with a financial network such as the stock market. Once two or more networks entwine, they become a supernetwork and have effects on a much larger scale. Nagurney directs the Virtual Center for Supernetworks. She and her team apply dynamic modeling, game theory, and algorithms to understand the economic behaviors of the multiple decision makers within such an infrastructure. They examine who’s competing, who’s cooperating, and the different kinds of flows—such as financial, product, energy, and transportation. They pay attention to what happens if there is a disruption: something as specific as how roads deteriorating from climate change would affect the efficiency of trucks making deliveries.

Although the networks Nagurney and her students study could sometimes seem to be at cross-purposes—fast fashion and socially responsible business practices, for example—“the networks themselves are neutral,” she clarifies. Nagurney’s ideas are in demand for their applicability to fields from cybersecurity to shipping: “The fact that we can represent these incredibly complex systems as networks is something executives can get, students can get, policy makers can get, because it’s very graphical and visual.”

“There aren’t many systems where there is a single decision maker, so we look at the interactions and a lot of game theory problems. That makes for fascinating concepts and algorithms.”

Disaster relief and how it is managed has become a particular focus for Nagurney in recent years. Scenarios for this subject come easily to mind: problems with the distribution of supplies in post-María Puerto Rico, blockades across highways that prevent aid from entering economically collapsed Venezuela. A conversation with Nagurney reveals aspects of disaster management one may never have considered, such as how blood, a perishable material, is distributed; and how NGOs might choose sites where they will get the most media attention to distribute supplies, rather than the sites with the most victims.

Once you know about supernetworks, you see them everywhere: in threatened shortages of coffee, avocadoes, or olive oil; in decreasing demand for dairy and the pressure that places on dairy farmers; in trucker shortages; in Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Supernetworks underpin our economies and our societies, allowing for the flow of people, products, energy, and information around the globe.