Three staff members of RYTE Institute looking at document.

Advancing Developmental Systems Science

At its core, developmental science aims to explore bi-directional relationships, interactions across contexts, and change over time. Despite major statistical and methodological advances, the field is in need of new methodological tools that integrate existing and new research, at different levels of analysis, account for bi-directional feedback processes and address the complexity inherent in change that occurs throughout the lifespan. Systems science methodologies (including system dynamics, agent based modeling, and network analysis) have been successfully implemented in fields such as physics, engineering, and computer science to address such complexity. More recently, the behavioral and social sciences have begun to harness the potential of these methodological approaches in applications to questions related to public health. These systems science methodologies are particularly well suited for application to developmental science questions, yet they have not yet been harnessed to their full potential.

The application of systems science methods to developmental science questions holds tremendous promise. Systems science approaches integrate multiple levels of analysis—from cells to behavior to society—to understand the ways in which individual, contextual, and organizational factors interact over time. Because of its unique ability to consider simultaneously both the whole system and its individual parts, the application of systems science methodologies in developmental science shows promise for understanding complex, multidimensional issues and for transforming this knowledge into effective interventions that can fundamentally change developmental outcomes.

The challenge at this point is to expose developmental scientists to and educate them about the potential utility of systems science methodologies. This includes finding concrete ways to demonstrate why and how systems science methodologies can help developmental scientists explore systems-based questions about development. REDSS has engaged in several projects to this end including several publications and presentations. Dr. Urban, together with Dr. Patricia Mabry (Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, National Institutes of Health) edited a special issue of Research in Human Development on Embracing Systems Science: New Methodologies for Developmental Science. Dr. Urban has also worked closely with the Society for the Study of Human Development to promote developmental systems science including organizing a plenary panel and poster session at the 2009 conference and a panel and workshops on systems science methods at the 2011 conference.

The RYTE Institute is currently applying our approach to Systems Evaluation and evaluation capacity building int he following projects:

Related Publications

  • Urban, J.B., Osgood, N., Okamoto, J., Mabry, P., & Lich, K.L. (2014). Developmental systems science: Extending developmental science with systems science methodologies. In P.C.M. Molenaar, R.M. Lerner, & K.M. Newell (Eds.). Handbook of Developmental Systems Theory and Methodology. New York: The Guildford Press.
  • Urban, J.B. (2013). Rethinking Developmental Science across the Life-span/Life-course at the 8th Biennial Meeting of the Society for the Study of Human Development. Retrieved from
  • Urban, J.B. (2012). Developmental systems science at the 7th biennial meeting of the Society for the Study of Human Development. Retrieved from
  • Urban, J.B., Osgood, N., & Mabry, P. (2011). Developmental systems science: Exploring the application of non-linear methods to developmental science questions (PDF)Research in Human Development, 8(1), 1-25. doi: 10.1080/15427609.2011.549686
  • Urban, J.B. & Mabry, P. (Eds.). (2011). Embracing systems science: New methodologies for developmental science. Research in Human Development, 8(1).