Thoughts on the Santa Fe Institute

A topic of considerable thought, discussion and debate for many of us long before a series of ever-larger crises, the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) chose the theme of complexity in regulation for their annual meeting this week. Prior to sharing my thoughts on the important topic of simplifying regulation in a future post, which will be covered more extensively in my book in progress, I want to focus a bit on SFI.

I was fortunate to attend last year’s 25th anniversary meeting at SFI, but this year I was only able to view the final full day via webcast, which was excellent. The official SFI about page can be found here, although having written many of these descriptions myself; I’ve yet to write or read one that captures the essence of the organization, people, or contributions, so please allow the liberty of a few additional lines in first person.

I have been following SFI regularly for over 15 years, and since moving to Santa Fe nearly two years ago have had many interactions. SFI essentially pioneered complexity as a discipline, but has also been a leader in what I refer to in my own work as a mega disciplinary approach to discovery, without which frankly many researchers and their cultures can become blinded, and discoveries stalled, with R&D performing substantially below potential.

One of several strengths at SFI is their ability to draw from a very broad universe of scholars, each of whom is a leading expert in a specific discipline, but also share an interest in complexity theory—which affects everything else, as well as the need to work across disciplines to optimize learning.

The intimate size and environment of SFI is no doubt partially responsible for attracting so many leading scholars to contribute and engage. After living in Santa Fe, visiting the campus and attending multiple events, with a great many exchanges with larger institutions for 30 years, I can certainly understand the appeal for permanent faculty, visiting scholars, post docs, and business network members.

This year’s event was organized by Chris Wood and David Krakauer, who are two individuals at SFI I have had the pleasure to get to know recently (forgive my informality here; it comes natural). David heads up the faculty and Chris divides his time between research, administration, and running the SFI business network. These two represent a diverse faculty and also make an interesting combination, with Chris being the calm diplomatic type while David exudes sufficient rebelliousness at times for me to wonder, despite his brilliance, how he prospered at Cambridge (due to my own rebel instincts and frustration with academia), until reflecting on his current role. It is precisely the challenge when shepherding deep diversity that brings out the best in people; one of several skills David demonstrates when leading groups.

A good way to learn more about SFI from afar is to view a sample of their research online, including videos. Their model, however, like many—is not perfect, as the institute is substantially dependent on donations in what has been a very uncertain time and economy of late, so for those who may be seeking a worthy tax deduction this year, I would urge you to consider a donation.  For larger corporations and foundations, I recommend exploring the SFI business network, which is similar in many respects to the experimental virtual network I operated in the late 1990s, but also benefits from the physical conference interactions throughout the year, not just with SFI scientists and staff, but also with other business network members. Several of our network members have also been business network members of SFI, so I have known quite a few over the past dozen years, including Franz Dill on our Kyield advisory board who represented P & G for many years at SFI. For corporate and foundation executives in particular, I highly recommend viewing a short video interview with SFI Vice President Nancy Deutsch to explore relationship options.

Unlike universities and federal labs that grew large physical empires with massive overhead, the small size of SFI, fewer conflicts, independence, location and talent attract exceptional human quality, providing a rare situation certainly worth preserving and improving. My hope for SFI is that the community and entity will continue to adapt, evolve, and forge a strong and diverse financial structure that could become a model for the future.

While it may not always be obvious to some of my colleagues in business and finance, the independent theoretical research produced by SFI is essential for thinking through and eventually helping to overcome the world’s most pressing challenges, which is from my perspective excellent long term strategic alignment for any mission statement.

Mark Montgomery
Founder & CEO

Complex Adaptive Healthcare

My wife Betsy and I attended a very interesting lecture last night hosted at the Santa Fe Institute by Dr. Tim Buchman, Ph.D., M.D., who is an external professor at SFI. (NOTE: This lecture is now on video online here)

Dr. Buchman’s day job is Founding Director of Emory Center for Critical Care and Professor of Surgery at Emory School of Medicine. The title of of Dr. Buchman’s lecture was: Secrets of the Heart: The Electrocardiogram, Complex Systems Science and Fundamental Laws of Biology.

As is often the case at SFI, the lecture brought together several pathways of interest that reminded me of the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile that so fascinated me as a child, where every type of vehicle comes together at variable speeds, volume and noise levels, carrying all types of cargo, yet despite the chaos and occasional fender bender, traffic flows and life continues.

The Arc de Triomphe network analogy works well for the mega-disciplinary approach required of my work with Kyield—including our semantic healthcare platform, as well as the complexity of human biology, with the Arc serving nicely to visually simulate the cellular traffic (blood), even if lacking in muscular pump function. The beauty of complexity research at SFI is that researchers are increasingly able to confirm theory with mathematics and evidence from testing in real world environments like an ICU.

Those who have studied complexity and chaos may already be aware of the importance of nonlinear dynamics in healthcare, although confirmation of research in this area is fascinating. For example, the old assumption in medicine that the ‘normal’ heart and respiratory rhythms regulated by devices in the ICU is the most beneficial turns out to be false. The lecture revealed compelling evidence that heart patterns are to a surprising degree predictive of mortality, and that after two weeks in the ICU with a ‘regular’ rhythm (synchronized), patients have an EKG pattern that is less than optimal for longevity, which is one reason why extended stays in ICU are best avoided when possible.

Dr. Buchman reports that to date research shows that the human body performs much better over time, to include quality of life and duration, with ‘irregular’ rhythms, or lack of synchronicity. To date it appears that forecasting optimum variations have failed—important lesson being that variables in exercise, or cardiorespiratory rhythms, is essential—the body appears equipped to adapt to variable activity much better than synchronization. For this reason, in Dr. Buchman’s ICU, the respirators now intentionally represent an asynchronous system. It’s probably a safe assumption that intentional asynchronism will play an increasingly important role in medicine moving forward.

This lecture was timely for me as it reinforced the importance of providing our rationally designed semantic healthcare platform to optimize care in real-time, as well as improve the quality of data for predictive medicine and future discovery. Mobile health aligns very well with the needs of patients, payers, and researchers in many ways, not least of which is providing anonymous data for prevention, which is key to driving costs lower and improving quality of life—potentially on a massive scale.

I spoke to David Krakauer after the lecture—chair of faculty at SFI and brilliant guy, who said that the lecture will be up on their web site soon. I will share on Twitter when it becomes available. Professor Krakauer reminded me of another good resource on this topic at ReyLab (Institute for Nonlinear Dynamics in Medicine) run by Ary Goldberger, M.D. at Harvard.