Global Sustainability Summer School
Anand Sahasranaman is an Assistant Professor at Krea University in mathematics and economics. Alongside GSSS director and SFI external professor Luís Bettencourt, he produced the first comprehensive analysis of contemporary Indian cities as complex systems. Sahasranaman received his Ph.D. in Mathematics from Imperial College London, where he was a Schrödinger scholar. He attended Global Sustainability Summer School (GSSS) in 2016. Follow Sahasranaman on Twitter here.
Briefly describe your primary research/academic work or other professional work.
I began my career as a programmer, worked for five years in quantitative finance, and then worked for eight years in development finance in India. It was only after a significant amount of work in different areas, that I got my Ph.D. Throughout my career, I was interested in a systems view of things. There was a period in the early 2000s, where you were seeing renewed interest in the applications of tools from mathematics and physics to problems in the social sciences. That coming together of different disciplines was really what attracted me to complex systems science.
Since my Ph.D., a lot of my work has at been at that intersection of mathematics and the social sciences. The kinds of problems that are interesting to me are centered around issues of inequality and poverty — trying to understand them as dynamic processes that evolve over time. Poverty and inequality have been studied in the social sciences and economics for many decades, but I feel approaching these questions from a complex systems perspective, using the tools of networks, statistical mechanics, and computational methods, we are potentially able to generate new insights.
In what ways does the study of complexity science influence your thinking about your current work?
I was compelled to engage more deeply with complexity science when I was working on understanding urbanizing cities in India. There is a tendency to want to think about these kinds of problems in very mechanical or programmatic terms. However, it is clear, and has been expressed by many people, that cities evolve and that there are interactions between the social, geographic, and economic aspects of a city that lead to emergent urban outcomes. I find the idea of exploring cities as systems of interacting components very compelling and use the framework of complex systems to shed light on social and economic processes in Indian cities.
How did your experience at GSSS impact your professional (or personal) perspective?
I attended the Global Sustainability Summer School in 2016. I was initially interested in attending because of Geoffrey West and Luís Bettencourt’s work on cities as complex systems and scaling. One of my favorite parts about the summer school was that you had a room not only of physicists and mathematicians, but also social scientists and city planners. You have a very wide variety of people bringing together their understanding of the issues in their respective disciplines. When you discuss a city, you’re really discussing a myriad of social processes — you are talking about people, infrastructure, planning, governance, sustainability. GSSS pulls together all these different perspectives and the discussions take place outside of any particular discipline, but are rather inter or transdisciplinary.
In a very direct way, a lot of my collaboration on cities as complex systems, that whole research portfolio of mine, emerged from the time that I spent at SFI.
What is the coolest thing about your work?
I am still fascinated by the fact that we can meaningfully think of collective human social and economic behaviour as emergent phenomena that can be modeled and described using the tools of science. It really opens up new ways of looking at very old problems, and the possibility that we can yet develop new insights to understand them better.
This interview was conducted in July of 2020