“From my perspective, the Covid­-19 global pandemic has revealed the fragility and brittleness of any number of the engineered systems that we rely on, as individuals and as a society. Be it transportation or health care, education, or the food supply chain, it can all fall apart quickly when shocked.”

So writes SFI Science Board Member Susan Fitzpatrick (James S. McDonnell Foundation) in the latest issue of The Bridge. Yet Fitzpatrick is not a pessimist. Instead, she suggests that we can and should “build back better.” In other words, we can and should build systems that are less fragile than the ones in which we are currently enmeshed.

How can we “build back better”? Fitzpatrick argues that the key lies in embracing complex systems thinking over thinking that oversimplifies. For Fitzpatrick, oversimplification often crops up when we built systems that we regard as efficient. When we simplify to solve large-scale problems, we typically ignore the collateral damage on the ground. Industrialized food production, for example, provides calorie-dense food, “but its nutrient ­poor nature is adding to the health issues faced by many of the world’s most vulnerable citizens.”

To begin to address the hazards that efficiency often obscures, Fitzpatrick suggests we observe and embrace systems that take seriously the deeply integrated reality on the ground.

Read the article in The Bridge (December 17, 2020)

Download the full issue for additional contributions by SFI Science Board member Simon Levin (Princeton University), SFI Distinguished Shannan Professor Geoffrey West, SFI Professor Chris Kempes, and External Professor Rajiv Sethi (Barnard College, Columbia University) and Brendan O'Flaherty.