A reader suggested (thank you!) that I look into the Santa Fe Institute: "They've got their hands in so much stuff behind the scenes, it's super cool." My interest was piqued, in part due to the fuzzy recollection that novelist Cormac McCarthy was involved with SFI. (I remembered correctly.)

First, the flavor of SFI, as articulated by its current leader:

The mysteries of the universe that complexity science seeks to explain are how widespread adaptive regularities emerge at multiple different levels and how each level comes to be best served by its own effective theory — from the theory of molecular interactions through to the theory of ecological stability. And furthermore, the way many of these theories share striking family resemblances by virtue of constraints of energy, time, and information. This is the fundamentally dual nature of complexity theory — recognizing the need for the autonomy of theories at different levels while at the same time exploring the common features of these theories.

What Krakauer describes is what I call the patternness of the universe — reality's tendency to exhibit patterns, like seriously a lot of them... interlocking matrices of fractals; rhizomes extrapolating infinitely from the tiniest of seeds.

Krakauer remarks that "common principles of entropy production, robust information encoding, convergent evolution, higher-order interactions, the control of networked components, and the efficient use of energy to store adaptive information, emerged as foundational principles in all complex systems."

As you may have guessed by now, the Santa Fe Institute is an academic think tank focused on complexity studies ("exploring the frontiers of complex systems science").

SFI scientists seek the shared patterns and regularities across physical, biological, social, and technological systems that give rise to complexity — in any system in which its collective, system-wide behaviors cannot be understood merely by studying its parts or individuals in isolation.

Four of SFI's most intriguing (to me) ongoing projects:

Information, thermodynamics, and the evolution of complexity in biological systems
We are investigating what features are common to systems in which complexity increases through time.
We propose that biological systems overcome the intrinsic subjectivity of information processing by collectively computing (in evolutionary, developmental, or learning time) their own local macroscopic worlds thereby creating or consolidating regularities that can be used to do work efficiently. The macroscopic output can be phenotypic traits, properties of social structure, or properties of system dynamics like the optimal separation of timescales between microscopic and macroscopic behavior.
The Social Reactors Project
This SFI-inspired project now centered at CU Boulder seeks the common properties of human settlements through history and across cultures.
The co-evolution of individual behaviors and social institutions
Our institutions change how we think and live. How we think and live, in turn, changes our institutions. We want to understand when this cycle can be virtuous, and how it can also turn vicious.

Who pays for all of this? Easy: SFI is funded by Wall Street, with a splash of Silicon Valley. And presumably a sprinkle of miscellaneous moneyed elites. (There's even the nigh-obligatory Jeffrey Epstein connection.) As you'd expect, SFI also draws on the National Science Foundation and similar large-scale grant-makers for financial support.

Symbiosis with industry is integral to SFI's hagiography, as relayed in the narrative history (well worth reading) on its website. Consider the following anecdote:

[A] chance encounter at the Russell Sage Foundation in 1986 between Adams and John Reed, the soon-to-be-CEO of Citicorp, led to a major programmatic breakthrough for the Institute.

Citi had taken a beating in Latin American investments, and Reed was trying to understand why the bank's economists hadn't foreseen the impending downturn. Adams suggested the Institute might be able to help Citi (and economics) develop new approaches.

Cowan soon invited Reed and a few of his key staffers to Santa Fe to meet with key economists and scientists in a brainstorming session on international finance as a complex system. In August 1986, after a daylong discussion of the complexities of financial markets, Reed agreed to fund a workshop on "The Economy as an Evolving Adaptive System," to be led by Phil Anderson and Kenneth Arrow, both Nobel laureates and both involved in the new Institute.

This 1987 meeting "took our intellectual agenda in service of society to the extreme," says Pines.

The workshop brought ten leading economists together with ten Institute scientists for two weeks of talks and discussions. Following the workshop, Reed committed $1 million over four years to support a new complexity economics program at SFI, to be led by Arrow's Stanford economics colleague W. Brian Arthur, who later became SFI's first resident fellow.

SFI's economic complexity program continues to this day, spearheaded over the years by such figures as Arthur and Doyne Farmer, both now SFI External Professors, and SFI Professor Sam Bowles.

Fittingly, in addition to its research and educational programs, SFI has a consulting arm. Evidently that's delicate to navigate as a 501(c)(3) public charity:

The Santa Fe Institute exists solely to expand the boundaries of complexity science and uncover universal mechanisms that generate complexity. Therefore, all activities conducted by the Office of Applied Complexity are governed by three laws. First, Applied Complexity activities must provide a net benefit to the Institute's scientific pursuits. These benefits may include providing the research community with access to data, exposure to individuals possessing unique insights about the applied world, and financial support. Second, no Applied Complexity activity can ever be allowed to diminish, or in any way pervert, the quality, integrity, and direction of scientific inquiry. It is our academic community who determines how research is directed and executed at SFI. Third, the limitations of translation must always be acknowledged. While there are many insights and intuitions that Applied Complexity staff can accurately disseminate, there will always be questions that only our scientists can answer.

Bit awkward to spell out in so many words, but I get it. When your donors claim tax deductions, the IRS is pretty strict, and that makes everyone nervous!

Here's what the Office of Applied Complexity is up to:

Our two current projects focus on (i) complex measures for ranking and predicting the performance of human organizations (cities, universities, firms, etc.), and (ii) rigorous evaluation of counterspeech strategies aimed at defusing online hate and social polarization.

Arguably a nonprofit with a commercial bent is likelier to do quality work than one without it. Rapacious businesspeople signing checks for your research is an indicator of concrete applicability, no? However, I do acknowledge that associating with elite scientists like the late Murray Gell-Mann is a draw in-and-of itself. Prestige effects tend to be... let's say "ineffable."

At this juncture, I want to plug my friend Jason Crawford's thoughts on kickstarting the future:

Funding models and progress
Progress doesn’t happen without funding, and funding isn’t always allocated to the most productive uses
Funding models for science and invention
From patronage to prizes, a survey of how we pay for R&D
Questions to ask about funding models
To compare funding models for science and technology, and to understand their pros and cons, it will help to look at them along multiple axes
Why anything that can be for-profit, should be
Organizational metabolism and the for-profit advantage
How can nonprofits gain the advantages of the for-profit model?
Here are five ideas

Heck, while we're discussing the future, why not ricochet back to the past? 2001, when the Santa Fe Institute was young(er — founded in 1984) and très sexy:

A complex adaptive system has a tendency to spawn other such systems, in the way that, perhaps, biological evolution gave rise to human thinking. Although there have been numerous attempts to emulate SFI, its principals do not yet know of another such free-standing campus in the world.

Ooh la la 😜

Chaos, "complexity theory", "dynamical systems", and the like sprung onto the scientific scene about 60 years ago, with a series of beautiful insights that have since become woven into the fabric of every field of science. Its impact on science at large is comparable to that of the early 20th century philosophers of science — as Scott would say, it's now in the water supply.

In the initial euphoria, there were attempts to use its principles to understand literally everything, from health conditions to earthquakes to the rise and fall of civilizations. None of these schemes panned out.

It turns out, perhaps obviously in hindsight, that you need to give something to get something. You can't make sharp predictions about these things only knowing that something involved is chaotic, or that it's a "dynamical system" (read: is described by literally any set of differential equations), and claims to the contrary tend to involve incredibly vague, nearly metaphysical predictions, or smuggling the conclusion into the premises.

The resulting failures were an ancestor of the current replication crisis, and disillusioned most scientists by the 1990s. It's not easy to reconstruct this, since most don't like to talk about it, but you can see hints in the record. The breathless news articles slow down, the grand theorizing stops getting accepted into Nature and Science, and when the mathematician V.I. Arnold writes the seminal work Catastrophe Theory (1984), he devotes both the first and last chapters to condemning the hype.

Unfortunately, public perception always lags a few decades behind, which has allowed "complexity science" institutes to begin a second life as the equivalent of a mid-tier consulting firm. The typical patron of such institutes has a few traits in common: he remembers the grand claims he saw in the New York Times decades ago, which the institutes now repeat unchanged, he is impressed by the shiny graphics they devote enormous energy to making, he doesn't have the slightest clue why more scientists don't do this anymore, and he has a lot of money to throw around. The field has smoothly transitioned from free beers at happy hour at the university, to cocktail parties at TED.

If you enjoyed this post, consider subscribing and/or membership.

Header photo from the United States Geological Survey, via Unsplash:

As air flows over and around objects in its path, spiraling eddies, known as Von Karman vortices, may form. The vortices in this image were created when prevailing winds sweeping east across the northern Pacific Ocean encountered Alaska's Aleutian Islands.