Santa Fe Institute

We're Asking Big Questions at the Santa Fe Institute

Why and how we ask Big Questions at the Santa Fe Institute

Are historic events inevitable?

How do social, cultural, economic, and other human systems interact with ecosystems?

Can a science of cities help design better, more sustainable cities?

Why SFI is a good place to ask Big Questions

From SFI President Jerry Sabloff

For almost three decades, SFI's scientists have been asking big questions — questions that are difficult to resolve and that are significant to humanity and to our world. Because these questions haven't yet been answered through traditional means, we assume their solutions are going to require some careful and unorthodox thinking — as well as methods from many different scientific fields.

This is important because, in my view, we have become a society focused on the transmission of information. Tweets are flying. Our Facebook friends tell us what they are doing every minute of the day. The 24-hour news cycle keeps us informed about the most trivial of details. Even in science, where we have new measurement techniques in nearly every field, we are deluged with so much data, my fellow scientists are forced to ignore much of it. We have become the most informed society in history, but too few of us are thinking deeply enough about this information to make useful sense of it all.

At the same time, our society is facing a huge array of problems, and those problems are complex: financial market turmoil, joblessness, ecological deterioration, population growth, disease, hunger, climate change, conflict, rapid urbanization and many more. What they tend to have in common is that they all are part of complex adaptive systems: systems of many interacting parts whose behaviors are conditional on the behaviors of the other parts.

It is impossible to understand a complex system by simply adding up what each component is doing at any given time. In all complex systems, the parts are constantly reacting to the behaviors of their neighbors, so that a little change over here can prompt massive changes over there, or disrupt the entire system if the conditions are right. A good example is a financial market. Often we see unexpected and outsized market swings based on the prognosis of a single company or the actions of a single investment firm. In nature, the introduction of a certain invasive plant might crowd out the food source for a particular insect and cause ripples of change throughout the web of species interactions, even affecting the food sources we humans rely on.

Unfortunately, because the complexity of these problems is so difficult to comprehend, they are often ignored, or when they are faced, the solutions people talk about are versions of "business as usual." Too few are looking at them with any imagination. That's why at SFI we ask the big questions in new ways, often drawing on the methods of two or more scientific fields. Throughout its relatively short history of 28 years, SFI has specialized in getting the top minds from many different disciplines together in one room to ask what underlying properties make a complex system possible to understand: For example, how ideas from physics can improve our understanding of economics, or how ecologists can help us understand social networks. By understanding how complex systems work, we may be able to address the problems of individual systems like global climate or housing markets.

A foremost question for me — because it relates to my own scholarly interests as an archaeologist — is the long-term trajectory and future viability of urban systems. Cities could be the most significant innovation in human history. But if you really want to understand them, you need to look at the emergence, growth and evolution of urban systems over five millennia. You need to understand what pre-industrial cities were like (of the ancient Maya, for example), what industrial cities were like in the last two centuries, and then what modern urbanization looks like. To compare them usefully, we first need to describe them objectively, which is why we rely on terms and principles from math, physics, biology, etc.

Useful insights based on deep, careful thinking don't happen overnight. We have a long way to go. What we have learned is that complex systems — no matter how big they are or what their individual components are, from atomic particles to people — exhibit underlying, measurable properties they share with many other kinds of complex systems. We are working on theories that describe these properties and behaviors, so that we might comprehend the complex nature of a few of the major issues in science and society. Someday, we hope, one of these theories might help predict an Arab Spring, or prevent a war, or avert ecological disaster, or help design better, greener, more efficient cities that improve the human condition. That's what we do here at SFI.

You can learn more about our research and how you might support it on our website. We hope you will join us.

Jerry Sabloff, President
Santa Fe Institute