Center for the Environment

Building Sustainable Communities: Institutions, Infrastructure and Resilience

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


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 initiative is to build on existing strengths at 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.

  • The initiative focuses 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 emphasizes 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 uses new integrated systems approaches and modeling tools to understand how to create more resilient human-natural systems.

Purdue hired 7 new faculty positions across a variety of disciplines. Several hires were joint-appointed across departments to enhance cross-disciplinary interactions. Purdue's Center for the Environment serves as the interdisciplinary hub for this research community and supporting the expanded research community.

For more information, contact the Center for the Environment at

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