Agricultural diversity was among the topics discussed during the November symposium

Why and how diversity collapses in complex systems was the unifying theme of SFI’s Annual Business Network and Board of Trustees’ Symposium Nov. 2-3 at the Bishop’s Lodge in Santa Fe.

Experts from fields as far ranging as ecology, medicine, linguistics, agriculture, nutrition, and cuisine were invited to address the causes and consequences of diversity collapse in systems. For a listing of speakers and bios, see workshops

The symposium was organized by SFI Professor Eric Smith and Executive Director for Development and Corporate Relations Shannon Larsen.

Here’s what Eric said a few weeks before the event about the theme, and the symposium.

Update: What is the biggest question being addressed?

Eric: The thing we want to explore is the relation between the diversity or complexity of a system’s states and processes — a quantitative property — and the qualitative ability of the system to perform essential functions that we associate with it. Diversity seems (as an observed fact) to be declining in a variety of important systems, such as ecosystems and farmed systems. However, not every system we will study is under systematic decline: In some of them there are fluctuations in diversity and functionality, which can be used to understand the relations between the two.

Update: Why the broad range of topics?

Eric: When diversity seems to be collapsing, and when we think of this as a problem (as in ecology or financial markets), it is surprising how similar are our descriptions of the process, and of our causes for worry. And as long as we don’t know what to do to change the situation, there must be important things about the dynamics that we don’t understand. The speakers we have invited know not only about the narrow issue of relations between diversity and function, but also about issues such as origins of diversi cation or instances in which diversity may not be related to function per se, but where it still seems to have inherent value as well as practi- cal use to us in doing science.

Update: Why are these notions important?

Eric: The relationships between diversity and function from a variety of perspectives can have implications for social and economic organization. It is the economy that makes possible coordination, cooperation, and the spread of information, while it is the society that does (or does not) preserve the rich structures of locally adapted knowledge needed to avoid violating principles of ecological integrity, for example, by human actions.

So against this backdrop I think we can begin to understand some important questions: Is the similarity in apparent diversity-collapse instances a result of common cause or the propagation of influence — say, from an oversimplifying economy into other areas of life — or is it the parallel action of some more per- vasive force in human society or culture, quite apart from central control, that causes these effects?