A Letter from Luis Bettencourt

The Santa Fe Institute professor's solutions for the City Different

I have been studying cities with a group of colleagues for some time, including what makes them more or less successful. Our research shows, among other things, that a city's success is often predicated on good infrastructure that connects city dwellers not only to the outside world, but also to their neighbors and institutions within the city, especially those that promote new ideas with economic applications.

An environment in which people are not concerned for their safety and there is support for the broadest intellectual and economic access is also important for success, since these two factors increase the chances for the city to create new and better social and economic initiatives.

Although informed by these general ideas, my opinions and suggestions below are rather personal (and somewhat self-serving) and do not reflect any objective scientific recipe from our research. 

Santa Fe is a pleasantly exceptional city in many ways. This is also what makes it prosperous.

On the average, it is quite affluent and, for its size, it has an impressive cultural life, not only in the arts and sciences, but also in literature and music. In many of these activities, Santa Fe is also a center for excellence nation- and worldwide. Examples are research in physical and computational sciences, and in complexity science; some aspects of art (native and contemporary); and the opera.

In my opinion, in many other ways, Santa Fe feels quite parochial—eg in the new architecture it allows, and some aspects of tourism and art, which are grounded on a perceived image of the past rather than truth or excellence.


Much of Santa Fe’s economy depends on just a few key factors. The unique experience of the city as an excellent and exceptional place in the arts and culture drives much of the philanthropy (about 14 percent of employment in Santa Fe is in nonprofits), real estate and tourism.  State government is a significant economic generator. And last but not least, there are huge federal investments in the region, the largest of which is Los Alamos National Laboratory, which has a budget of about $2.5 billion per year (soon to be reduced) that directly and indirectly helps sustain the economy of northern New Mexico, well beyond Santa Fe.


There is a big hole right in the middle of Santa Fe’s demographic profile. Santa Fe is a nice place if you are very young, and it is also a smart place to retire. But it often fails as a place to be a productive adult. This is because there are no graduate programs; very few good jobs are available for people with advanced or specialized education; and the public schools aren’t up to the standards of the cultural and scientific institutions they feed, especially post-elementary. Perhaps as a consequence of this, many people are tempted to leave Santa Fe during some of their most productive years.

Big Ideas:

Bring a world-renowned research university to Santa Fe. Such a university would offer graduate degrees in science and technology and would capitalize on the strength of local, noneducational institutions—such as LANL and the Santa Fe Institute, which could be a source of faculty, at least initially. Such an institution would not be in direct competition with the University of New Mexico; indeed, it should specialize in areas where UNM could be better, such as in physics, computer and computational sciences, advanced engineering, complexity science, etc. Graduate programs do not need to be large, but they should be very good. Such an institution would offer new employment opportunities and provide a link to capital ventures (which do exist in the city but have very few places to go, eg as compared to California) to create employment beyond its walls.

Once upon a time, Rice University considered having a campus in Santa Fe. A good research university and its ripple effects have done wonders for Boulder, Colo., for example, not to mention Palo Alto, Calif.

Provide high-speed train service to the airport. Santa Fe is poorly connected to the outside world. This is not always charming. Why is the New Mexico Rail Runner Express not a high-speed train to the airport with hourly service? What a missed opportunity! Let Santa Fe pioneer high-speed rail in the West. People would visit just to ride the train.

Foster great public schools to attract and retain parents and train better citizens. This is diametrically opposite to recent budget choices, which may be understandable given immediate constraints, but which undermine social and economic development in the long run.  

Whatever we do, make Santa Fe a beacon of excellence in science and culture.  Keep it different by making it braver and smarter.

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