University of Chicago Big Ideas Generator


Big Question: Population theoretic constructs as applied to complex human built systems

University of Chicago Big Questions

Principal Investigators: Stefano Allesina, Ecology and EvolutionSarah Cobey, Ecology and Evolution ; Fred Wulczyn, School of Social Service Administration

Funding Type: Seed

Focus Area: Complexity

Big Idea: The proposed study will test the idea that tools used by population biologists to study complex ecological systems can be used to better understand human-built systems - such as the child welfare system.  Among other things, the child welfare system provides alternative living arrangements for children who cannot live at home.  Typically, insight about the underlying system is derived from studies that examine individual lives.  What is bold about our study is that, although micro-level studies of individual experiences are useful, they do not reveal much if anything about the hidden states of the underlying dynamical system.  If we are correct, a deeper understanding of the hidden dynamics will offer ways to control complex human-built systems more efficiently, with a return measured as improved human well-being.

First, we will leverage a large database used to track admission and discharge processes, which are analogous to birth and death processes found in classical population dynamic models. The available data, which represent significant public investment, have never before been used to explore the hidden dynamics embedded in the population time series.  Second, because the data span many decades and pertain to multiple ecological contexts, the data can be used to understand how the underlying systems evolve over time and in relation to the environment.  Finally, the insights gained will allow us to understand how a complex system can be modified, through policy and other mechanisms, so as to improve human well-being. 

Check out other funded projects