Coupled Natural-Human Systems Interactions

The human factor in infrastructure

Change can be good, but even something as seemingly beneficial as the introduction of new technologies and built environment for enhanced productivity can disrupt rural social-ecological systems that have been in place for decades or centuries.

Now, a mathematical model developed by David Yu of the Center for the Environment allows researchers to better understand and plan infrastructure design to account for human factors in systems ranging from small-scale agriculture to urban infrastructure.

Yu, an assistant professor of civil engineering and political science, originally created the mathematical dynamic model to study the impact of small-scale irrigation systems in Nepal. “I believe irrigation systems contain basic features of complex social-ecological systems,” he says. “People need to work together to invest in a public infrastructure to direct natural processes for their benefit and coordinate the distribution of benefit streams in a fair manner. These situations are vulnerable to social dilemmas and external shocks, and the design of infrastructure can subtly influence whether and how humans can deal with such problems."

Human society, infrastructure and ecosystems are intertwined, and a failure to recognize this can lead to recurring environmental problems, Yu says.

"Social-ecological systems are everywhere. National parks, fisheries, irrigated agriculture,” he explains. Any time you have people interacting with ecosystems, there is some kind of infrastructure such as dams, canals, levees, roads, fishing boats, port facilities, processing facilities. There is a pervasive presence of infrastructure, and how it is designed can cause fundamental regime shifts in how the system works."

Yu says his model can be applied to numerous scenarios. "The same conditions apply to systems in developed countries as well as developing countries," he says.

- Emil Venere, Purdue News Service

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