The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Spotlight Scholar

The Business of Supernetworks

Isenberg School professor studies the flows of a complex, connected world
  • Isenberg School of Management Professor Anna Nagurney teaches her students

Anna Nagurney established the Virtual Center for Supernetworks in 2001 as a vehicle for research and scholarship surrounding the role of networks and the management of them in a global economy.

When you think of the word “network” what comes to mind? Perhaps the network of roads we travel every day, or the television network that provide us with news, or perhaps the telecommunication network that connects our cell phones. For Anna Nagurney, John F. Smith Memorial Professor of Operations Management at the Isenberg School of Management, the world of networks only begins there.

Nagurney is a global expert in supernetworks, which, simply put, are networks of networks. She and her students try to capture the interactions among networks and their impact on business and society. “There are so many networks: energy, communication, transportation, financial, economic, political, and the Internet, which is a very distributed network. There are fundraising networks, environmental networks, distribution networks, social networks. They are all interrelated. What happens in one affects another,” says Nagurney.

Nagurney established the Virtual Center for Supernetworks in 2001 as a vehicle for research and scholarship surrounding the role of networks and the management of them in a global economy. Her research on network systems, from transportation and logistics, including supply chains (both commercial and humanitarian ones), to the Internet, has brought recognition nationally and internationally to the campus.

“Most people think of networks as the links and the nodes, but what my students and I find interesting are the flows between the nodes, including the role that human decision making plays,” says Nagurney. How decision makers use and manage networks and how they respond to network disruptions are the keys to improving network performance and to identifying vulnerabilities.

When networks are designed and managed well, goods and services flow efficiently and smoothly, but when disrupted, chaos may result and the ensuing economic and social costs can be devastating. “Managing disruptions requires collaboration and cooperation among network managers, businesses, governments, and even users,” says Nagurney. She notes that you don’t have to look far for examples of the chaos that network disruptions cause—just pick up the newspaper.

“The number of natural disasters and the people affected by them is growing,” says Nagurney. She points to the devastating 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami which, among other things, led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, more than 43,000 people dead or injured, nearly 400,000 collapsed or partially collapsed buildings, and widespread severe road, rail and infrastructure damage. Around 4.4 million households in the north eastern region of Japan were left without electricity and 1.5 million without water. The estimated economic losses totaled up to $34 billion, one of the most expensive natural disasters in world history. Although it happened in Japan, it was felt in America. “Supply chains were disrupted and Americans waited for new cars for months. Auto manufacturers in Japan didn’t have a plan B,” says Nagurney.

Nagurney and her students model not only how supply chains can rebound more quickly after a disaster, but also how to save lives by studying how businesses, NGOs and governments can better manage, warehouse, and deliver life-saving supplies such as food, water, and medicine to affected areas through enhanced humanitarian logistics.

“My students have a lot of interest in humanitarian logistics and several of them have written dissertations in this area,” says Nagurney.  She consequently created a new course, Humanitarian Logistics and Healthcare. According to Min Yu, one of Nagurney’s doctoral students, she and others in the class have heard from experts from the Red Cross, the National Guard, and even from the UMass Amherst campus emergency preparedness department. “With so many recent disasters the research is timely and fascinating,” says Nagurney.

Nagurney believes that there are many interesting problems that need to be addressed in networks and supply chains that require interdisciplinary expertise, along with good data and mathematical models. “We strive to be the leaders in this area. We are pushing the frontiers of education and research and solving problems that will make the world a better place,” says Nagurney.

Part of that is educating the next generation of experts. “I have many international students who are taking this work out into the world,” says Nagurney. “The education in the Isenberg School is simply outstanding and the Operations Management majors are amazing. My students are highly sought after and they make our faculty proud.”

Nagurney is the John F. Smith Memorial Professor in the Department of Finance and Operations Management in the Isenberg School of Management and the Founding Director of the UMass Amherst Virtual Center for Supernetworks. She received her AB, ScB, ScM, and PhD degrees from Brown University. She has authored or co-authored nearly a dozen books on supernetworks, logistics and decision making. Her many honors include: Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Fellow, Distinguished Fulbright Chair, AT&T Industrial Ecology Fellow, and a National Science Foundation Faculty Award for Women. In 2007, Nagurney was elected a Fellow of the Regional Science Association International (RSAI), and, in 2012, was appointed a Visiting Professor of Operations Management at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

Karen J. Hayes '85