Santa Fe Institute

Applying complexity in The City Different

May 6, 2016 11:23 a.m.

During the past year, SFI professor and urban theorist Luis Bettencourt has been meeting with officials from the City of Santa Fe to discuss ways to apply complexity science to tackle issues in “The City Different.” In May, this collaborative effort joined the MetroLab Network, a federally funded initiative to bring research institutions and their local communities together. SFI and the City of Santa Fe join 34 other partnerships in using data and analytics to find innovative solutions to urban issues. 

SFI and the City of Santa Fe will focus on three issues as part of the MetroLab network: sustainability and carbon neutrality; improved management of the City’s emergency services in connection to public health; and challenges facing Santa Fe youth, such as low high school graduation and high criminality rates. Bettencourt hopes that the network will provide opportunities for SFI to share its ideas and findings about cities and draw on the knowledge of other members.

Many of the concerns identified in these collaborations are issues that governments have long been aware of, but which have been poorly understood. Whether it’s making the connection between chronic health issues and strains on emergency services, or the best ways to support children over time to increase success later in their education and professional lives, better data and complex systems thinking could lead to better solutions. “Good data and new perspectives are both needed to understand that nature of the problem,” says Bettencourt, and often, cities haven’t had either in the past.

Carbon neutrality, for instance, is a complex issue facing communities around the world. “There are many forms of energy use within cities, and it has been very difficult to get detailed and actionable information,” says Bettencourt. Because energy is intertwined with quality of life, the solution isn’t as simple as curtailing its uses. High quality data and systemic analyses are necessary to help cities like Santa Fe better understand how the community uses energy and find appropriate ways to transition to renewable energy production and increased efficiency, while improving quality of live and growing the city’s economy.

Engaging with policy makers is one way that researchers test their ideas and see their science come to life. “SFI doesn’t do policy. But we talk to people who do, and we can tell them about how science can lead to dramatically better solutions,” says Bettencourt. “This is a way we can bring science, technology and data together with networks of practitioners so we can create solutions to problems that have been around for a long, long time.”

Read the MetroLab network's press release (May 3, 2016)

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