With the goal of reconnecting fragmented knowledge, John Little and his colleagues have developed a tiered, system-of-systems framework to help solve complex socio-environmental problems by incorporating models from a variety of disciplines.

A few years ago, Little taught a class on sustainability. “I thought I would look into the sustainability knowledgebase and pick out the quantitative procedures that can be used to evaluate sustainability, so I could teach those. I found that what I was looking for hardly exists and thought that there had to be better approaches to evaluating sustainability,” said Little, the Charles E. Via Jr. Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech.

The idea behind this approach is to simplify each system, or upscale it, in order to capture the essential dynamics. Within each system, there are multiple interacting elements. Systems connect to other systems when their elements interact. For example, agricultural systems often interact with soil and land use systems; the business of farming interacts with economic systems, which interconnect with social systems.

“The idea is to upscale the models to the systems level and connect them together there. There may be some cases where we don’t have a process level model, so we go directly to the systems level,” said Little, an affiliated faculty member of the Global Change Center, housed within the Fralin Life Science Institute. “By connecting them there, we can see what the main drivers are of the problem that we are trying to solve. In a way, modeling is the common language of science.”

Little and colleagues recently published a study in the journal Environmental Modelling and Software. They proposed that a tiered, system-of-systems framework would be most useful in developing sustainable and resilient solutions for complex socio-environmental problems.