When the Ebola virus began spreading through West Africa last year, it caught health organizations by surprise and prompted some faulty decisions by those trying to help stem the disease.

Missing was a better understanding of the complex dynamic that would occur when Ebola spread beyond the isolated villages where it was usually found, said Manfred Laubichler, a sustainability scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe. The virus sickened health workers and threatened to cause a crashing domino effect on whole economies.

A new partnership announced recently between the Santa Fe Institute and ASU will focus on understanding the complexities and broad implications of a given situation such as a disease outbreak, innovative technologies, climate change or urban growth.

“What we hope to accomplish is to mesh radically different institutions,” Laubichler said. “One is privately funded and small. The other is public and large. In both, we have developed strong commitment to study complex systems.”

“The stars are aligned to make this happen,” agreed Jeremy A. Sabloff, archaeologist and president of the Santa Fe Institute. “Obviously it is an experiment. But it has huge benefits for both.”

The institute and the university have long-standing ties.

Laubichler is among a handful of ASU researchers who are also external faculty for the 30-year-old institute. Several post-doctoral students from the university have continued their research through the institute.

The Santa Fe Institute was formed by a diverse team of scientists to explore complex problems plaguing society and to generate possible solutions.

Complexity studies is a growing field at the university, which hosts a Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity and has an innovative president, Michael M. Crow, who believes in students studying across disciplines.

Together, students and faculty at the institute and the university will map out interconnections between biological and social systems through a joint Center for Biosocial Complexity. “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,” Crow said in a statement.

ASU initially will provide funding for the partnership. The money will help fund university graduate students at the institute, workshops and possibly joint appointments for researchers to work at both. Much of the collaboration will be virtual, Sabloff said. “Many new centers arise on college campuses and become bureaucratized,” he said. “We hope to avoid that.”

Among the first projects the institute and the university will explore are the dynamics of innovation, urbanization and scaling in cities. Phoenix and other metropolitan areas around the world face multiple challenges as growing urban centers in the midst of a desert with dwindling water supplies. Those are challenges that cities must resolve to be sustainable into the future.

Complex problems have to be understood correctly, or well-intentioned answers can be wrong, like building huge clinics in a city instead of mobile clinics that could respond quickly to a disease outbreak like Ebola in outlying villages, Laubichler said.

A long-term project that the institute and university are working on is a Southwest research center that would bring Native American and Hispanic students together with researchers to work on real-world problems. They’ve applied to the National Science Foundation for a major grant to fund the center. “The idea is if you introduce them to science through a problem that affects their communities, you can actually recruit them into science,” Laubichler said.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com.