Conversations with a Founder: Constrained Optimization

Rural System is committed to:

  • Enhancing the history and beauty of the rural region,
  • Generating meaningful work with salaries and benefits,
  • Stabilizing and building the strength of small rural communities (first in western Virginia), and
  • Improving lasting natural resource management.

In speaking with the founder of Rural System, Dr. Robert H. Giles, just yesterday, I discovered that Rural System has at least three different kinds of objectives. “The first level of objectives,” he explained, such as those listed above, “is grandiose and stuff that you find in legal documents that start off the business. The second level is still very general, but sort of why you’re doing it in more specific terms. The third calls in constraints.”

With every type one or type two objective that Rural System sets, there will be type three objectives that set conditions or boundaries on how the first two types of objectives may be achieved. Rural System’s valuable operation is to use prescriptive software, drawing on data organized spatially, to find optimal solutions to type one and type two objectives within the constraints of type three objectives.

Constrained optimization is a type of mathematical operation used in a variety of fields to try to solve complex, realistic problems in the best possible way. Alex Edelman, a Ph.D. student of condensed matter physics at the University of Chicago, provided this succinct explanation of how constrained optimization works.

Dr. Giles elaborated with a helpful example as well, “When somebody says that my objective is to go to Roanoke, I have other objectives of not going too fast or too slow, not being damaged, so these are limits to every first objective. I must not speed. I must not injure any dogs or cats.”

Constrained optimization is a principle that acts on every level of Rural System. The best example of its application, perhaps, is in how Rural System approaches profits. “Rural System works on the premise that we’re not going to maximize profit, because if we maximize profit we will do exactly what has caused problems for land management in past years,” Dr. Giles stated. He elaborated that the traditional rural business approach in Virginia and elsewhere in the United States was to try to maximize profits, only to find that conditions change and soon after a maximum is reached, profits bottom out. This traditional boom and bust model makes farming extremely risky, and in fact requires a great deal of government bailout in order to support.

“We have to get away from this traditional rural approach,” Dr. Giles emphasized, “and so what Rural System is designed to do, its strength, is to set boundaries on profits according to current, ongoing ecological research in order to sustain profits in the long term. The only way that society is going to achieve success and stability by 2050 is for us to implement an agricultural system, all of us, in our nation, to provide stable profits.”

Dr. Giles likened his business model to a common strategy used by stock brokers. Brokers set the bounds for how far they will tolerate the ups and the downs of different stocks. As long as they stay within the bounds, they know they will not lose too much. They are risk intolerant. In this way, constrained optimization is just a form of risk management.

The administrative group of Rural System, System Central, would be comprised of a board of businessmen and women who would set the bounds on their projected profits, based on information given to them by Rural System ecologists.

Dr. Giles sketched it out, speaking as he drew, “So we know, here’s constraint number one here, here’s the other constraint here, and as long as our curves stay up in here, we’re ok.”

Rural System profits optimized within constraints

Constrained optimization is clearly one of the most important keys to Rural System’s anticipated success. The approach is Dr. Giles’ original answer to a problem that has plagued land managers for decades. Do we conserve natural resources, or should we use them freely? Dr. Giles insists that there will be no lasting motivation to use natural resources wisely without some profit incentive, but if it can be shown that maximizing profits is not possible without periodic ruin, perhaps a crucial balance may be found. Without such a balance, our limited natural resources are surely doomed.

“We don’t know what life is, but this is life,” Dr. Giles drew a circle. “If this is all possible life then a person’s life can be talked about in terms of constraints,” he drew lines cutting through the edges of the circle. “We can talk about how fuzzy these boundaries are and whether I can attack these constraints. Before you know it, if you see these as limitations, if you recognize these as real constraints or as constraints that can be modified, if that’s all that can exist, then in one sense life is just a bunch of constraints. If you see then that life is constraints based, it may be a thing to accept or it may be an opportunity.”

Sketch by Robert H. Giles showing life as constraints-based

Perhaps we won’t work through our lives so mathematically, but the truth here cannot be denied: when we choose how to live our lives, we need to be able to recognize the constraints we can push and those we must accept.

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About Laurel Sindewald

Laurel is an alumna of Warren Wilson College with a BS in Conservation Biology and a BA in Philosophy. She is a writer for Rural System, Inc.

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