2014 US obesity prevalence map, courtesy of cdc.gov

If there’s an ultimate complex social problem, obesity might be it, with its interrelationships in genetics, neurobiology, demographics, agriculture, economics, environment, social norms, education, public policy, healthcare, and much more.

“Obesity, in general, has very real and very unfortunate outcomes for health in terms of chronic diseases like diabetes, asthma, and various cancers,” says SFI External Professor Ross Hammond, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution.

Individuals, communities, and governments around the world have, for decades, sought ways to curb the growing rate of childhood obesity. Some of the most successful efforts have happened at the community level. No one is sure exactly how or why such interventions work better than others, at the national policy level, for example.

Hammond co-leads with Matthew Gillman of Harvard Medical School an ongoing project called Childhood Obesity Modeling for Prevention and Community Transformation, or COMPACT – a transdisciplinary collaboration funded by the National Institutes of Health. The collaboration seeks the best childhood obesity prevention approach across many communities and conditions.

“The effort is really a cutting-edge application of complex systems science to obesity prevention, and seems likely to have high impact in both scientific and practical policy terms,” says Hammond.

This week the COMPACT team is convened at SFI for the third of a series of in-person meetings. Using data collected from two successful community-based initiatives, the collaborators have developed a generalized mathematical model to inform future interventions.

During the meeting, they further test this model and use it to design a new public health campaign, which they will pilot next year.

“Increasingly, communities are concerned about obesity and don’t want to wait for a coherent national policy,” says Hammond. “Part of our job is to help them figure out how to address it effectively.”

More about the invitation-only working group