Building Sustainable Communities


The modern world confronts us with a series of interconnected global sustainability challenges.  As communities from different countries and regions consider solutions, decision makers are increasingly aware of the complex—yet poorly understood—connections and interdependencies between and among natural, built, and socioeconomic networks and systems.  Rapid advances in information and communication technologies are further challenging us to think about how these systems operate and interact, and how perturbations or failures in one system cascade and amplify through other linked systems. Solving these challenges also requires careful attention to individual and collective decision making, including the formal and informal institutions that shape those decisions.

Building sustainable communities infographic

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Purdue’s Approach

Leveraging a multi-year cluster hire of seven new faculty members across seven departments, this initiative is promoting interdisciplinary and systems approaches to understanding and addressing these challenges.  The initiative is focused on three overlapping areas: informal institutions and decision making, critical infrastructure systems, and resilience in social, engineered, and ecological systems. Rather than addressing problems such as natural disaster preparedness and response, or climate change mitigation and adaptation, as primarily engineering or institutional design problems, this initiative investigates good design principles for both complex social and engineered systems, as well as their networked interactions.


Bridging Information, Uncertainty, and Decision-Making in Hurricanes using an Interdisciplinary Perspective

PI: Satish Ukkusuri
Funding: National Science Foundation

Hurricane warnings are issued with the goal of giving people enough time to get out of the storm’s way. Currently, however, decision support tools used by emergency managers do not account for how residents make decisions about when to evacuate, nor do they consider how transportation systems will be affected by these decisions. This project integrates hurricane evacuation modeling, analysis of household-level decision making, social network effects, and stochastic traffic modeling to improve the effectiveness of evacuations.

Sustainable adequacy planning in the residential building stock under deep uncertainty

PI: Roshanak Nateghi
Funding: Purdue

In 2012, the U.S. residential sector accounted for 21% of the total primary energy consumption and around 20% of total carbon dioxide emissions. Analysis of U.S. energy consumption trends since the 1980s reveal that residential-sector electricity consumption grew six times faster than total energy consumption. Moreover, residential electric power demands are rapidly departing from historical patterns, due in large part to the increasing importance of factors such as climate change and urbanization, as well as regulatory, socioeconomic, and technologic changes. There remains, therefore, a critical need to establish an accurate, multi-scale resilience-based conceptual framework by which residential electric consumer levels can be accurately characterized and future demands projected. This project will establish a decision framework to support anticipatory modernization and expansion of the electric power infrastructure and ensure its resilience in the face of uncertainties

Critical Transitions in the Resilience and Recovery of Interdependent Social and Physical Networks

PI: Satish Ukkusuri
Funding: National Science Foundation

Understanding the recovery of communities after disruptions has important implications for efficiently allocating resources, better planning for disasters, and reducing time and cost of recovery. Virtually all communities are embedded in highly interdependent social and physical infrastructure. This coupling between social and physical networks can lead to complex cascading effects that cannot be understood by looking at these networks in isolation. The research team will collect data from communities impacted by Hurricane Sandy to create and test modeling approaches for improved knowledge of both social and physical factors that lead to recovery.

Making resilience functional in a rapidly changing world

PI: Michael Jenkins
Funding: Purdue

Contemporary ecosystem management is often concerned with maintaining an ecosystem’s current state or returning a disturbed ecosystem to its pre-disturbance condition. However, as disturbances shift the baseline condition of ecosystems, maintaining the static or cyclic states dictated by the long-established conceptualization of resilience becomes difficult. Therefore, it is important to understand how managers currently operationalize resilience in order to develop a conceptual framework of resilience that is useful under potentially rapidly changing conditions. The long-term objective of this project is to understand the mechanisms that link the resilience of multi-trophic biodiversity with ecosystem function to improve ecosystem management.

Presence to Influence

PI: Laura Zanotti
Funding: Purdue

​The United Nations has identified indigenous peoples and women as two groups most affected by environmental change. Although indigenous peoples make up approximately 5% of the global population, they constitute more than one-third of the world’s poorest people and govern, occupy, or use nearly 22% of global land area, thus suggesting that indigenous peoples, and indigenous women in particular, are key stakeholders in global environmental governance. Until the mid-1990s, however, indigenous peoples had limited formal representation in international environmental policy-making. Presence to Influence is a multi-sited, multi-year collaborative research project that seeks to understand how marginalized and underrepresented groups in global environmental governance access and influence these governance processes. Sites currently include two main events, the 2015 Paris Climate Summit (COP21) and the 2016 World Conservation Congress. The team also draws from prior research at the 2014 World Parks Congress and the 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity Negotiations in Nagoya, Japan.

Using cash transfers to promote ecosystem services and sustainable livelihoods: What is the role of conditionality?

PI: Zhao Ma
Funding: Purdue

Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) has become a popular conservation approach with potential social and economic co-benefits for resource-dependent communities. Most researchers and practitioners believe that conditionality is vital to PES programs--payments to local communities should be conditional on measurable ecological benefits or verifiable management actions. Enforcing these conditionality requirements is both difficult and costly. In the international development field, however, unconditional payments have been shown to be effective at producing social benefits such as schooling for children and improved youth health. This project will extend this research by investigating the circumstances under which conditionality is necessary for PES programs to succeed, using field experiments in rural communities in Bolivia.

Affiliated Faculty

Jonathan Bauchet

Consumer Science

Bauchet is an international development scholar studying the decision-making of poor individuals and families, particularly as they are impacted by and react to policies and programs of governments, donors, non-governmental organizations, and private firms. Bauchet’s current research examines how cash transfers to households in developing countries, aimed at improving environmental and human capital conditions, influence recipient households’ decisions, ecological, and economic outcomes. In particular, he is part of an interdisciplinary team at Purdue and beyond testing the need for imposing strict conditionality in an environmental conservation-focused cash transfer program using a randomized field experiment in Bolivia.

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Taylor Davis


I hope to bring to the aims of the BSC cluster a background in the evolution of human psychology in general, and of the psychology of culture and cooperation more specifically. Much of this work centers around the role of informal cultural values, or norms, in establishing and maintaining solutions to problems of collective action. Temptations to “free ride” seriously threaten otherwise sustainable practices, and while formal laws and institutions can certainly be used to curb free riding in many important ways, informal norms, and the institutions to which they give rise, are also an crucial factor. Accordingly, much of my work in collaboration with other members of the cluster so far has focused on the psychology of norms in general, and on the role intrinsic normative commitments play in motivating individuals to make personal sacrifices for the sake of the collective good. The next step is to identify ways of applying this framework to specific behaviors affecting questions of sustainability, such as contributions to global warming, management of public resources, conservation of ecosystems and endangered species, and development and maintenance of public infrastructure.

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Erin Hennes


Hennes focuses on cognitive and motivational biases in information processing, particularly in the context of contemporary social issues such as environmental sustainability and racial and gender inequality. Specifically, she examines the consequences of the motivation to resist changes to existing sociostructural arrangements on basic psychological processes such as perceptual judgment, recall, and evaluation of scientific and media information. She takes a multi-method, interdisciplinary approach that integrates data from laboratory experiments, public opinion surveys, focus group interviews, and longitudinal field research to investigate how information and misinformation is encoded, elaborated, and disseminated.

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David Johnson

Industrial Engineering and Political Science

Johnson’s interdisciplinary research focuses broadly on decision-making under deep uncertainty. Much of his work, including involvement in the National Science Foundation-funded Sustainable Climate Risk Management network, relates to development of decision support tools for flood risk management, with an emphasis on uncertainty visualization, tradeoff analysis, and the explicit adoption of stakeholder values into the decision-making process. He has presented and published on a variety of climate change issues including coastal flood risk management, renewable energy policy, assessment of infrastructure risks, and water scarcity and quality management. He was the lead developer of the flood risk model used to assess the impacts of a wide range of flood protection systems for Louisiana’s $50-billion 2012 Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast; he is currently the technical lead of the Risk Assessment team for the state’s 2017 plan update. Johnson also has developed decision support tools for policymakers in Louisiana to evaluate tradeoffs between cost effectiveness, social vulnerability, uncertainty, and other criteria in allocating funding for nonstructural risk mitigation options related to storm surge flooding.

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Jennifer Johnson


Johnson’s research is historically rooted, ethnographically engaged, and focused on how stories about the past inform contemporary sustainability debates, policy-making, and regulatory enforcement efforts. Her current book project, provisionally entitled: Submerged Histories: The Life and Death of Lake Victoria, retheorizes the intersection of gender, history, legality, and sustainability in and around Africa’s largest body of freshwater where she has conducted long-term field research since 2007. Building on case-based pilot research conducted in 2011 and 2012 in U.S. fisheries, Johnson is developing an interdisciplinary research program at Purdue across the continents of Africa and North America to analyze historical roots and future possibilities for sustainable economies across national borders in lacustrine environments. She seeks to both refine and broaden her methods for analyzing environmentally sustainable economic and social practices that can be overshadowed in Africa’s transborder Great Lakes region, as in the U.S.-Canadian Rust Belt, by manufacturing, shipping, mining, and commercial and recreational fishing industries and interests.

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Daniel Kelly


Kelly’s research interests lie at the intersection of the philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and moral theory. He is the author of Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust, and has published papers on moral judgment, social norms, responsibility, racial cognition, cross-cultural diversity, and David Foster Wallace. He is a founding member of the Moral Psychology Research Group, which includes like-minded philosophers and psychologists investigating morality from both philosophical and empirical perspectives. He enjoys frequently teaching Introduction to Philosophy and Philosophy of Mind, and has also taught courses on moral psychology, the philosophy of biology, the evolution of human cognition, the conceptual foundations of cognitive science, and a new course on the moral psychology of existential threat: cognitive and social obstacles to saving the planet. He likes a good argument.

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Zhao Ma

Forestry and Natural Resources

Ma’s research focuses on understanding how individuals and institutions make decisions with respect to natural resource management and conservation. Her current projects include a study of smallholder farmer perception of and adaptation to climate change in semi-arid and arid regions of China, an assessment of forest resilience and climate change adaptation among forest agencies in the Intermountain West, a study of institutional adaptive water management decision making in the context of rapid environmental and social changes in the Wasatch Front Metropolitan Area, an assessment of the dynamics of coupled human and large carnivore systems in the western United States, and studies of non-industrial private forest management and conservation policies in Indiana and beyond.

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Manjana Milkoreit

Political Science

Milkoreit's research integrates international relations scholarship and cognitive theory to study actor motivations and policy design in global climate change politics and diplomacy. She is interested in governance challenges at the science-policy and science-society interfaces that impact the search for and implementation of sustainable solutions to climate change. These include the use of scientific knowledge in policy and governance decisions, the role of ideologies in advancing or preventing effective societal responses to climate change, and meaning-making processes related to the Anthropocene. Two major topics dominate her current research agenda: the challenges of future thinking (scientifically informed imagination) in climate change policy and decision-making, and the design of effective review mechanisms under the Paris Agreement, which was concluded in December 2015.

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Roshanak Nateghi

Industrial Engineering and Environmental and Ecological Engineering

Nateghi’s research is highly interdisciplinary and involves leveraging advanced analytical tools (e.g., statistical learning theory, simulation, optimization, risk and decision analysis) to address the sustainability and resiliency challenges of our aging infrastructure. Her past work has focused on modeling the impacts of extreme events and climate change on our energy infrastructure at various spatio-temporal scales. Her on-going research involves assessing the economic and environmental implications of the emerging changes in climate, technology, population growth and accelerated urbanization on patterns of demand for critical services such as water and energy.

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Linda Prokopy

Forestry and Natural Resources

Prokopy is a natural resources social scientist specializing in the social dimensions of watershed management. She uses both qualitative and quantitative methods including surveys, interviews and focus groups. Prokopy collaborates extensively with scientists across Purdue and co-leads a regional project to develop social indicators to measure the effectiveness of projects that try to minimize non-point source pollution. She conducts social evaluations of watershed projects in Indiana and also has a number of competitive grants that use social indicators to improve the outcomes of water projects.

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P. Suresh Rao

Civil Engineering and Agronomy

Rao’s interdiciplinary research and graduate education programs in environmental/ecological sciences and engineering have covered diverse research interests that have spanned from lab-scale, process-level studies. Current research and educational interests are focused on: (1) multi-scale modeling and analysis of landscape hydrologic and biogeochemical process linkages across human-impact gradients, including intensively managed croplands, urban catchments, and wetlandscapes, with pristine catchments serving as the reference; (2) resilience-based analysis of coupled natural and engineered complex systems, including food-bioenergy-water sustainability issues.

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Leigh Raymond

Political Science

Raymond’s research focuses on influence of informal institutional rules on the design and implementation off market-based environmental policies, including emissions trading policies to address climate change. He has also done research on political communication, policy adoption, and implementation in a wide range of other environmental policy areas, including environmental risk management, renewable fuels, conservation tillage, and biodiversity protection on private lands. He is the author or co-author of three books on property rights and environmental policy and more than 30 refereed articles or book chapters, including a new book from MIT press on recent changes in U.S. climate change policy. As director of the Center for the Environment, Dr. Raymond helps organize and promote cross-cutting, interdisciplinary research at Purdue focused on pressing environmental challenges.

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Satish Ukkusuri

Civil Engineering

Ukkusuri leads the Interdisciplinary Transportation Modeling and Analytics Lab at Purdue. His current areas of interest include: complex network modeling, coupled systems modeling, network resilience, big data analytics for transportation systems, dynamic traffic modeling, innovative signal control algorithms, connected vehicle environment, behavioral issues in natural hazards such as hurricanes, evacuation modeling, modeling transportation sustainability policies such as cap and trade, emissions pricing etc., sustainable freight logistics and safety modeling. His research derives knowledge from social sciences and computational sciences to create meaningful solutions for problems in transportation modeling, disaster management and freight logistics. He blends the development of new science-based approaches with practical applications and implementation.

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Jae Hoon David Yu

Civil Engineering

Yu’s research centers on the resilience of highly-engineered social-ecological systems (SES) to unexpected, emergent shocks, and how biophysical and social contextual variables and institutional arrangements interact to shape the dynamics of SES. He examines these interactions to understand the conditions for building sustainable communities from local to global scales in the face of global change. His research methods include mathematical and computational modeling, case study analysis, and behavioral experiments. His recent and on-going research projects include exploring the effects of infrastructure design on commons dilemmas and the dynamics of irrigated agriculture SES, investigating the design of learning process that leads to successful resilience-based management of irrigation SES, and tracing how social connectedness influences transformative capacity of community forestry SES under global change.

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Laura Zanotti

Anthropology Department

Zanotti is an environmental anthropologist and interdisciplinary social scientist whose research program partners with communities to better understand how local, mostly rural, livelihoods and well-being can be sustained for future generations. Using a feminist political ecology framework, Zanotti maps out spatial inequalities and injustices experienced by resource-dependent communities and highlights local creativity in the context of acute change. In all of her work, she stitches together insights from visual anthropology and engaged anthropology to create collaborative and meaningful projects. In addition to environmental anthropology, she finds kinship with decolonizing approaches to research inquiry alongside insights from cultural geography, Indigenous studies, and Latin American studies. She has partnered with the Kayap?, an indigenous community in Brazil, for over ten years and is currently working on projects around the United States and in Latin America on "media sovereignty" and digital landscapes, environmental justice and valuing nature, and community resilience and healing. Zanotti is also dedicated to providing undergraduate and graduate students at Purdue meaningful experiences to thrive in the multicultural and interconnected world in which they live and work.

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