In recent conversations, two SFI external professors have found their research converging on an emergent process in networks. They call it the “assembly of scaffolding.” The phenomenon spans disciplines and refers to a feedback process in which production networks lead to higher-order regulatory networks, which in turn affect the evolution of the production networks.

John Padgett, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, analyzes networks in social science settings, from Renaissance-era Florence to modern-day Silicon Valley. Manfred Laubichler, a theoretical biologist at Arizona State University, studies regulatory networks from genomes to knowledge systems.

Laubichler sees examples of scaffolding assembly within evolution: Genomic networks assemble phenotypes through development, a process that influences the evolution of the genomic networks. Padgett sees it in social science: Marriage networks and business networks historically lead to political institutions that then regulate the evolution of marriage and business.

“We’re interested in how feedback works in these sorts of things,” says Padgett.

With colleagues, they hope to develop a theoretical framework, and they are planning a book to collect empirical case studies that show these networks at work in many fields. To build an outline and identify appropriate studies, Padgett and Laubichler coordinated an SFI working group in early May sponsored by the SFI- ASU Center for Biosocial Complex Systems, which Laubichler directs.

The planned book, Laubichler says, will embed the ideas in a broader range of disciplines. “We’re trying to accomplish a generative model of networks that applies to both biological and social systems,” he says.