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Note: This article was published in the January 6, 2014, issue of the Santa Fe New Mexican.

By Jerry Sabloff, President, Santa Fe Institute

The Santa Fe Institute turns 30 this year.

It’s hard to believe it has been three decades since a group of senior scientists from Los Alamos National Lab and a few of their colleagues devised a plan that would revolutionize the worldwide institution of science. Remarkably, they did it right here in Santa Fe. There’s no better place, of course. The City Different is renowned as a spot where people can get a fresh start, try new things, even ruffle a few feathers in art, culture, and cuisine. Why not in science?

In 1984 George Cowan, David Pines, Murray Gell-Mann, and a handful of other innovators -- we now call them “founders” -- did all three when they established an independent theoretical science and education center that focused on complexity at all scales. Their concept rejected the way science was generally conducted at the time: safely within the boundaries of the traditional scientific disciplines. These visionaries sensed that many of the most important problems facing science and society spanned the boundaries of existing disciplines. And they foresaw that to nurture these important “transdisciplinary” scientific pursuits, they would need the smartest and most creative scholars, as well as the independence afforded by the financial support of forward-thinking people, foundations, and companies.

They were right on all counts, of course, and they broke the mold. Today the Institute is the world hub of what is known as complex systems science, or “complexity science” for short. Our scholars come from all points on the scientific terrain and the globe. We have physicists, mathematicians, and computer scientists working with archaeologists, economists, and biologists, for example. They are working on problems ranging from the complexity of the world economy and the human impacts on ecosystems to the origin of life on earth and the sustainability of cities in a rapidly urbanizing world. None of these problems can be solved using the methods of any single scientific discipline. Nor are they problems science can resolve by analyzing the smallest components of systems in ever greater detail, an approach called reductionism. For these big problems, we need to see the forest for the trees. We need to examine systems at global scales and long time spans. These are just a few examples, of course, but the significance and scale of the questions our researchers are asking are staggering.

Along the way, the Institute’s scientists have made foundational contributions to a number of fields that today are considered quite mainstream in science; these include complexity economics, evolutionary computation, computational immunology, information theory, network theory, socioeconomic scaling, cultural evolution, studies of the dynamics of technological innovation and wealth inequality, and many more. Dozens of research centers around the world, many of them founded by researchers now or formerly affiliated with SFI, are focused on transdisciplinary complex systems research, most using methods developed or elaborated in large part at SFI. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, we are flattered.

I’m also proud that the Institute has made, and continues to make, valuable contributions in the Santa Fe community. Our $10 million annual budget puts us among the top few nonprofit organizations in Santa Fe. The vast majority of our budget is spent locally. Our Project GUTS and GUTS y Girls after-school science programs -- now being emulated in school districts around the country -- have in the past six years shown more than 2,000 middle schoolers in northern New Mexico how they can use computational methods to understand complex problems in their own communities. Our community lecture series, free and open to the public, brings some of the world’s most compelling thought leaders here, contributing to the diversity of ideas in our city. Our faculty and staff are intimately tied to the arts, culture, and politics of Santa Fe. We try to be good neighbors -- we are, in fact, your neighbors -- and I hope you see us that way.

People sometimes ask me why our world needs a theoretical science organization focused on complex systems. After all, we don’t cure cancer. We aren’t inventing the next smart phone. True. But I think our world needs a Santa Fe Institute to think beyond the immediate needs and challenges of our time. More and more we find ourselves, as a society, engaged in linear thinking that assumes if we do A, we’re going to get result B. In business and government and politics the focus, instead of being on years or decades, is on time horizons of weeks or months and quarterly reports and so on. In the complicated world we live in, conflicted and troubled in so many ways, I believe we need a more complex, nonlinear way of thinking, and we need to take a longer-term view. We need to recognize that if we do A, we might (or might not) get B, and we also might get unintended consequences C, D, and F, and some of those results we might not want. 

In the real world, new emergent phenomena arise constantly. The system changes every time we act on it. We need to understand how and why. We also need to recognize that the seed of an idea today might become a key to tomorrow’s cure for cancer or a viable path to a more sustainable world. The SFI approach, I believe, is needed now more than ever, not only in science but in public policy as well. This is the way of thinking we’re celebrating this year at the Santa Fe Institute, our 30th year. We have a lot more to do, and I’m proud to be a part of it.

ABOUT THE SERIES ‘SCIENCE FOR A COMPLEX WORLD’

The Santa Fe Institute is a private, not-for-profit, independent research and education center founded in 1984 where top researchers from around the world gather to study and understand the theoretical foundations and patterns underlying the complex systems that are most critical to human society – economies, ecosystems, conflict, disease, human social institutions, and the global condition. This column is part of a series written by researchers at the Santa Fe Institute and published in The Santa Fe New Mexican.

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