Center for the Environment

Building Sustainable Communities:
Institutions, Infrastructure and Resilience

A New Research Initiative and Cluster Hire at Purdue University, 2013-2016

Professor Daniel Aldrich in front of the ruins of the downtown area of a seaside village in Tohoku, Japan, two years after the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. Aldrich's analysis of the Post-Crisis Japanese Nuclear Policy.


Humans have dramatically altered their environment through the creation of sophisticated engineered systems such as megacities and infrastructure networks. Modern societies have also developed complex networks of nested socio-economic institutions linking local communities to globalized trade and socio-economic systems. We now find ourselves embedded in a web of complex systems that affect our health, security, economic, and environmental well-being in ways we do not fully understand.

The challenges posed by these complex systems are all too familiar. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake off the coast of Japan not only resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, but also disrupted a wide range of related infrastructure and global supply chains. Meanwhile, progress on the challenge of anthropogenic climate change remains elusive as weak international institutions and substantial “sunk” infrastructure costs impede the ability to overcome serious collective action problems. Efforts to promote “sustainable fuels” made from renewable biomass have negative effects on distant human and natural communities through displacement of rural communities, higher food prices, and loss of biodiversity. In sum, many leading sustainability challenges require a deep understanding of the connections across various human, natural, and engineered systems, as perturbations or failures in one system cascade and amplify through other linked systems.

The focus of this new initiative is to build on existing strengths at the Purdue University related to the study and practice of building more resilient and sustainable communities through interdisciplinary work on three areas in particular: informal institutions and decision making, critical infrastructure systems, and resilient (engineered and ecological) systems. Purdue's Center for the Environment will serve as the interdisciplinary hub for this research community, coordinating the cluster hire process and supporting the expanded research community.

  • The initiative will focus on the importance of informal institutions, or the unwritten rules of acceptable behavior, as well as other cognitive and social factors shaping individual and collective decision making, as both obstacles and opportunities for solutions to major sustainability challenges.
  • Current practices often treat components of our critical infrastructure systems as stand-alone entities, and fail to consider sufficiently implications for related systems, including complex social-political systems. The initiative will emphasize new models and methods to better design complex infrastructure systems in light of these larger networks of connections with other physical and social systems.
  • A globalized and rapidly changing world requires better understanding of how to create more resilient human-natural-engineered systems that that can cope with and retain vital functions in the face of unexpected and emergent threats. The initiative will use new integrated systems approaches and modeling tools to understand how to create more resilient human-natural systems.

New faculty hires

Purdue will hire 7 new faculty positions across a variety of disciplines to build on existing strengths at the university in this area. Several hires will be joint-appointed across departments to enhance cross-disciplinary interactions. Specific hiring areas with likely departmental affiliations and research questions include the following:

Positions that have been filled

  • Sustainable Natural Resources Social Science. (Forestry and Natural Resources). How do formal and informal institutions affect management decisions for natural resources? What are the important linkages between national, local, and international natural resource management regimes and the sustainability and resilience of various human communities? How do changes in physical infrastructure affect sustainability of natural resource management efforts at multiple scales, from the local to the international?
  • Environmental Justice and Community Resilience. (Political Science / Anthropology or Communications). Complex global networks have profound and unequal effects on the sustainability of poor and minority communities. How can formal and informal institutions better explain and prevent these challenges, making such communities more resilient to these pressures? How can political elites work effectively with local communities on these issues?
  • Norm Evolution and Human Cooperation. (Philosophy / Political Science). How do "prosocial" norms emerge and evolve over time, and how do they give rise to cooperative behavior and collective action? What makes a given configuration of pro-environmental norms more or less resilient in the face of external perturbation?
  • Integrated Systems Analysis. (Civil or Industrial Engineering / Political Science or Communications) How do network structures and interdependencies promote or threaten system resilience and community sustainability? How can the integration of various analytical approaches from systems analysis help answer this question as applied to multiple areas, including: manufacturing systems, bio-inspired materials, smart vehicles and bio-fuels, and communication networks.

Positions open in 2014-2015

  • Community-Based Development. (Anthropology). How are local communities affected by, and respond to, new socio-economic and infrastructure changes? How do they resist forces threatening environmental and social sustainability both within and outside their community?
  • Social Decision-Making and Sustainability. How can we better understand decision-making and behavior affecting resilience and sustainability. Specific research topics of interest include judgment and decision-making, attitudes, social cognition, norms, and ideology.
  • Coupled Natural-Human System Interactions. (Civil Engineering / Political Science). How can we better understand the interactions between built-environment and ecological networks, habitat fragmentation issues caused by this interaction, and how can we develop design guidelines that promote community sustainability and resilience?

For more information, contact the cluster hire leadership team (Drs. Leigh Raymond, Suresh Rao, and Satish Ukkusuri) care of the Center for the Environment at

The Gerald D. and Edna E. Mann Hall, home to the Center for the Environment's administrative offices.