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Santa Fe Institute: Actively Working Towards Change

By Elisha Neubauer

Some of the greatest minds in science have joined forces to tackle some of the harshest and complex problems facing the Earth today. This team of the world's leading scientists can be found in one location- the Santa Fe Institute.

Founded in 1984, the Institute was designed to serve one major purpose: "To search for order in the complexity of evolving worlds." But what does this mean in layman's terms? SFI's scientists are interested in understanding and predicting how evolving systems adjust and adapt to changing conditions and how their parts react to one another. According to their website, "Researchers come to the Santa Fe Institute from universities, government agencies, research institutes, and private industry to collaborate across disciplines, merging ideas and principles of many fields, in pursuit of creative insights that improve our world." Some of these varied fields include physics, mathematics, biology, social sciences, and the humanities.

The problems they tackle are as varied as the fields they are combining, although there are some standout leaders in the race for a solution. "The most pressing issue we face today is our inability to understand the complexity of the unprecedented challenges facing our species and our planet," explains Dr. Krakauer, the Institute's President. "Our failure to address climate change, economic crises, and disease outbreaks are symptoms of this larger failure."

He continues, explaining how the scientists operating out of the Santa Fe Institute are interested in the underlying patterns in complex systems, from ecosystems to urban infrastructures. "It turns out that when we look at the way an ecosystem collapses or a human body falls into poor health, for example, we find similarities across these systems, which suggest they aren't so different," he says.

"This is a bold claim. The traditional approach to science is to isolate these mechanisms and study them from the perspective of ecology or medicine. In complexity science, we bring all the tools of many disciplines (physics, biology, economics, sociology, even the arts) to bear on understanding complex systems so we might unlock the secrets to slow the climate-induced collapse of earth's biodiversity or build more sustainable cities in our rapidly urbanizing world."

When attempting to solve complex issues facing society, the Santa Fe Institute does not always work alone. Partnerships help improve their reach, focus, and information access in a way that working alone could do not for them. "SFI researchers are currently partnering with Slum Dwellers International to improve urban infrastructure in developing countries," Dr. Krakauer states.

"Through community-led data collection efforts, the teams are mapping informal settlements (slums) in South Africa, Ghana, Zimbabwe, and India. Once a neighborhood is mapped, the researchers can apply geometric algorithms to find the least-disruptive ways to give residents access to emergency services, sanitation, and basic utilities."

In fact, as Dr. Krakauer tells us, they are currently working on developing an app so that the slum dwellers can begin mapping themselves, speeding up the process and giving further unrestricted access to the researchers.

The research conducted by the Santa Fe Institute is not only published in major journals worldwide, but helps contribute to the foundation of environmental and social policies set in place by governments across the world. "An example of this would be SFI External Professor Jessika Trancik's report on how complex, non-linear processes affect the cost of clean energy," detailed Dr. Krakauer. "The report was presented to the White House in advance of the 2015 Paris climate negotiations."

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About The Author

Elisha Neubauer is a freelance editor, ghostwriter, book reviewer, and author. She is...

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