Tage Erlander, Swedish Prime Minister, uses a videophone to talk to Lennart Hyland circa 1960s

Members of the Applied Complexity Network (ACtioN) turn to SFI for context and perspective. In March, as much of the U.S. headed for lockdown, leaders from organizations and governments needed a direct transmission of scientific knowledge pertaining to the biology and spread of viruses.

ACtioN’s first COVID-specific event was exactly that — an online crash course and ask-me-anything with renowned epidemiologist Derek Smith, who serves on the SFI Science Board and directs the Cambridge Centre for Pathogen Evolution.

Since March, ACtioN members have logged on to several more pandemic-related talks. Through SFI’s faculty-authored Transmission series, they have also been able to explore topics such as zoonotic transmission, super-spreading events, and disease models for vulnerable populations.

In fact, ramping up ACtioN’s virtual offerings, far from closing doors, has actually opened them to increased participation. The number of attendees for ACtioN events has risen 444% in 2020, as compared to 2019. Amongst these attendees, ACtioN members, trustees, and external SFI faculty have all upped their engagement. The online offerings have also boosted the number representation amongst member organizations by 92%. Member organizations based abroad, such as Singapore’s Centre for Livable Cities, have particularly benefitted from the increase in virtual offerings.

“With the transition to virtual meetings, ACtioN’s meetings became accessible by CLC, despite the 14-hour time difference between the US and Singapore,” says Yi Xuan Tan, a Manager with the Centre. “Our researchers are now able to participate and be updated with the latest work by the complexity science community outside of Singapore.” She cites Distinguished Shannan Professor Geoffrey West’s recent talk on cities, networks, and pandemics as especially useful for CLC participants working on the resilience of urban spaces post-COVID-19.

Like a city, SFI, too, has a network at its core — a structure that actually makes it easier for the Institute to adapt to rapidly changing situations when compared to other research institutions.

“The science of SFI was made for this moment, but the structure of SFI was also made for this moment,” says Will Tracy, Vice President for Applied Complexity. “We are a network of external faculty, of courageous organizations who want to be involved at the frontier of complexity science.” 

The pivot to virtual hasn’t been limited to COVID-specific events. ACtioN normally thrives on in-person connection as members from across the globe converge for Topical Meetings, short courses, and the annual ACtioN Symposium. COVID-19 made such congregations impossible — at least in their traditional form.

The first major test of an all-virtual format for ACtioN’s larger meetings came in late May, with “The Complexity of Sustainability and Investing.” Originally located in Boston, the two-day Topical Meeting instead unfolded over Zoom, thanks to co-organizer Katherine Collins, an SFI Trustee, and to ACtioN member organization Putnam Investments.

“More people have reached out to us about that meeting and how valuable it was than essentially any other I can remember,” says Casey Cox, Director of the Applied Complexity Network. “What we’re learning is that we’re able to get more people from more industries involved when we go virtual.”

“Every single week, you can be well-informed about what’s happening,” says Charlie Messina, a Distinguished Fellow with new ACtioN member Corteva Agriscience, and a former attendee of SFI’s Complex Systems Summer School. The hybrid model of virtual and in-person events provides even more opportunities to interact with SFI’s world-class faculty while also tailoring the ACtioN program to each member’s priorities. 

“There are some topics that you may want to participate in and attend virtually,” says Messina, “and there are some others like AI or sustainability or Emergent Engineering, for which I’ll travel to Santa Fe to have that more one-on-one discussion, and discuss opportunities to follow up.” 

To be sure, those face-to-face meetings will remain integral to the ACtioN community. 

“There’s a depth of conversation that absolutely benefits from being on a quiet mountaintop, like Santa Fe,” says Tracy. For that reason, ACtioN’s more intimate events — such as the scheduled roundtable on the evolution of the nation-state, to be hosted at a small hillside venue outside Florence — will be postponed to 2021 rather than brought online. 

The key moving forward will be striking the right balance between widely accessible virtual events and retaining the cloistered retreat of SFI’s hallmark gatherings. As SFI President David Krakauer puts it, “SFI is a twenty-first-century organization that just happened to be founded in the twentieth century.” Going forward, it will be crucial to retain the depth and breadth of in-person, “twentieth-century” conversations. But virtual opportunities — timely, cutting-edge, and with a low carbon footprint — are certainly here to stay.