New SFI president sees unique opportunities at institute

David Krakauer is the new president of the Santa Fe Institute. Courtesy photo

A quark, it turns out, is more easily understood than human choices.

Why this is so is among the big questions that intrigues David Krakauer, new president of the Santa Fe Institute. He took the helm of the renowned complexity science research organization on Saturday.

“How is it that I can understand the entire evolution of the sun from the original generation by nuclear fusion reaction to its final demise in space as a giant dwarf star, but I can’t understand the decisions of the people in the town where I live?” Krakauer said recently during a chat at the institute.

Understanding individual and collective human decision-making could lead to a better understanding of complex systems such as economies, cities and war. “Many of our most pressing challenges and failures in the 21st century derive from an underestimation of complexity,” Krakauer wrote in an unpublished essay.

The Santa Fe Institute’s worldwide network of researchers from diverse fields dig into the complexities surrounding humans every day, by working together, overlapping disciplines and exploring new ideas about what makes things tick. This culture of collaboration without academic boundaries attracted Krakauer.

Krakauer, like others at the Santa Fe Institute, is drawn to big, unanswered questions. How did intelligence evolve on Earth? Do cities all develop the same way? Is there a single cause, multiple causes or something else behind an epidemic, war or the popularity of a new technology?

As a young man, Krakauer didn’t have a single profound event that drove him into science. It was more a frustration with not understanding something and being dissatisfied with the available answers.

“It’s been sort of a lifetime of confronting things that were very puzzling,” Krakauer said. “I was interested in structures, in logic, in concepts, things that I thought were very hard.”

Krakauer received degrees in biology and computer science at the University of London. He received a doctorate in evolutionary theory from Oxford University. He was a visiting professor of evolution at Princeton University and a Sage Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His research has focused on how information processing has evolved both in biological systems, such as cells, and in culture.

Krakauer was a faculty chair at the Santa Fe Institute when he was hired in 2011 by the University of Wisconsin-Madison to direct the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. He worked with 450 researchers and a $65 million budget. In 2012, he was named by Wired magazine as one of 50 people who will change the world.

Krakauer said his role at the Santa Fe Institute is to keep it robust financially, creatively and intellectually. He’s also a rebel who believes tossing out accepted structures and rules leads to great discoveries.

“It’s very rare to be handed an opportunity to break the rules, to experiment,” he said. “At Madison and Santa Fe Institute, the belief is that there should be experiments at the institutional level, in management, education and business.”

The Santa Fe Institute was an experiment when it started 30 years ago, Krakauer said. It has no laboratories or departments. Its mission isn’t focused on any one specialty. The institute’s faculty live around the world and sometimes work in Santa Fe. The institute is flexible, encourages collaboration and loves novel ideas. “There is nothing like Santa Fe Institute, not even close,” Krakauer said.

Still, “the institute is pragmatic,” Krakauer said. “In that respect, it resembles many tech companies, which are very outcome oriented. Google teams don’t worry about which department you come from, just whether you can generate a product.”

In the case of the institute, those products aren’t widgets on a shelf, but new insights and new models to explain complex problems. “It’s a different way of thinking,” Krakauer said.

Krakauer will be working on some new outreach projects at the institute. He wants to expand the Institute’s education programs, possibly through a new model called a multiversity. He would like to see the institute create Complexity Prizes, akin to a Nobel Prize or a Fields Medal but for people working across disciplines.

One Complexity Prize would recognize research that impacts society and one would be given for research that brings a fundamental understanding of how the evolving world works, he said. “It would be open to anyone, of any country and any age,” Krakauer said. “If a 3-year-old wins it, I would be delighted.”

Because maybe it will be a 3-year-old who figures out how adults make decisions.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.