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SFI, Arizona State combine forces on ‘complex systems’

The Santa Fe Institute is working with Arizona State University on a new research center, with programs at both Santa Fe and Tempe, Ariz. (Courtesy of the Santa Fe Institute)

The Santa Fe Institute is working with Arizona State University on a new research center, with programs at both Santa Fe and Tempe, Ariz. (Courtesy of the Santa Fe Institute)

SANTA FE, N.M. — The Santa Fe Institute, which has collaborated with scholars around the world since its inception, is signing its first agreement today to set up a research center with a university.

If it goes well, it could serve as a model for an expansion of the work of the SFI, which focuses on the study of complex systems.

The new Center for Biosocial Complex Systems will result from today’s agreement with Arizona State University in Tempe, with ASU committing $350,000 per year for three years to support it, according to Jennifer Dunne, SFI vice president for science.

While the budget comes from ASU, activities will take place both there and in Santa Fe, she said, with money supporting post-doctoral scholars in both locations.

The center will focus “on problems at the intersections of complex biological and social systems,” according to the announcement.

If that sounds a little esoteric, consider this example offered by Dunne, who noted that it’s just an example – not something the center is working on.

A biological system, for example, would be a coastal marine ecosystem and the feeding interactions that might take place. A social system would involve characteristics of a city along that coast.

The intersection of those two systems might look at how fishing activities affect the marine ecosystem, as well as how that supply of food and income might affect the urban center. In other words, it would look at how the two systems affect each other.

“You can use a lot of different scientific quantitative approaches,” Dunne said of such studies.

The center will look at urbanization and its effects on humans, she said, as well as how innovations occur in both human and biological systems. For humans, that usually means technical progress, while evolution is the process in biological systems.

“Is there a common framework by which we can understand both social and biological systems?” she said of the underlying goal for study of innovation.

“The synergy of two intellectual powerhouses such as SFI and ASU can accelerate how our community and nation tackles questions such as disease patterns and healthcare delivery,” said ASU President Michael Crow in a news release. “We can generate tools to better understand how decision-making systems work when scaled up to the level of the urban megalopolis.”

ASU has a strong focus on sustainability research, so part of its interest is looking at how cities can remain or become sustainable as they get larger. Nearby Phoenix offers a laboratory for such investigations.

“This is a really excellent opportunity for both institutions,” Dunne said. “It’s both expanding the fundamental science understanding and using that understanding to address real-world questions.”

SFI and Arizona State officials have tossed around the idea of such a collaboration for a number of years, with talks becoming more concrete a year or two ago, she said.

“We’ve certainly talked with other institutions about forming a relationship. We hope this will be a model for others …,” Dunne said. “It’s an experiment. If it goes well, it certainly could provide a model for the future.”