This paper summarizes some personal impressions of the 7th conference of the International Complex Systems Society, co- organized with ‘‘Future Earth’’, held in Stockholm on August 24–26, 2017. The main point is that it is urgent and important to consider the sustainability conundrum as long-term, society-driven one, and to place societal dynamics at the core of how we, as a global society, came to this point, how ongoing dynamics are driving us towards a tipping point, and which role the Information and Communication Technology revolution plays in that process. A much wider involvement of the social sciences is essential. This also requires major changes in our thinking about sustainability—we need to develop an approach in which change is the natural state of affairs and societies attempt to impose stability on the dynamics involved. We need to focus on learning from the past, about the present, but above all for the future. And we need to shift from an entity-focused approach to a relational one, which pays more attention to contexts and networks. Other issues raised by such a shift in our thinking are about the role of science, the adoption of complex systems approaches and a few others that the paper points to. Keywords ICSS2017 Future earth Sustainability Introduction These changes concerned ﬁrst of all a rejuvenation of the community, with the presence and input of many This conference was for me a very pleasant surprise. I have younger researchers and in particular also the active par- been involved from very early on both in the history of ticipation of many women, and second a much more ICSS, as one of its founding members, and in the emer- diverse and sizable participation in the discussions on the gence of Future Earth after the demise of IHDP, IGBP and part of scientists and scholars from the developing world. other earlier Global Environmental Change research com- But the changes I observed went much deeper. Some of munities. At this conference, I observed early signs of a the sessions presented successful attempts at co-design, convergence among some of the very important changes in showing ways to achieve intellectual fusion among scien- the Global Environmental Change community that both tists and scholars of different disciplines [e.g. KAN session ICSS and Future Earth have been working towards for a ‘‘Mobilising multi-scalar energy sector transformations’’], number of years. and between these and various representatives of stake- holder communities [e.g. session II: ‘‘Innovation and knowledge systems’’]. Other sessions showed a growing acknowledgement that Handled by Sander Ernst van der Leeuw, Arizona State the dynamics that we are dealing with are in effect very University, Arizona. complex, ‘‘hairy’’ ones that need to be approached by & Sander van der Leeuw means of Complex (Adaptive) Systems thinking [e.g. KAN firstname.lastname@example.org session on ‘‘Urban tinkering’’]. 1 To my mind one of the tangible changes in thinking also Arizona State University, Tempe, USA concerned the fact that both the natural and life sciences Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, USA 123 1590 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:1589–1596 and the social sciences were (in my opinion) for the ﬁrst technology-dominated world of today and many of our time meeting each other on a more or less equal basis in sustainability challenges. both the research done and in the debates during the con- Some details of that process are relevant here. In the ference (for example the ‘‘Framing the conference’’ 1830s–1840s, a major change occurred, initially in Great session). Britain, inverting the balance between society and econ- In the following pages, I will comment on some of these omy (Polanyi 1944; Munck 2004; Graeber 2001; Frieden things in more detail, but before I do so, I need to position 2006). Whereas until that time, the economy in societies myself and my intellectual outlook. I am an archaeologist had generally been at the service of the society, from this and (medieval) historian who has, for a considerable period period onward society became in myriad ways dedicated to now, developed a Complex Adaptive Systems perspective the well-being of the economy, thereby laying the basis for on many sustainability-related challenges (van der Leeuw the current market-based conception of society that is 1998). essentially focused on the acquisition of wealth. The perspective that I bring to bear on the sustainability A second change occurred after the Second World War, conundrum sees it as a current manifestation of develop- when a new global political order was created (Bretton ments that have occurred throughout history in many Woods, United Nations, etc.) to deal with the tensions societies. Creative destruction has always been part of between capital and labor (Haass 2017). As part of that human history, and it is an inherent part of all human institutional reordering, growth in wealth and consumption societal dynamics, whether we like that or not […….]. became an essential part of our current societal dynamic, so Humanity has gone through many such phases of creative that consumerism thus became an essential feature of the destruction. Among the ones that are most commonly modern developed world, with all the attendant conse- acknowledged I need only mention the demise of the quences for our Earth and its resources (Durning 1992). Roman Empire, the Sassanian Empire, the Empire of the The third major change that we have to take into con- Moghuls, and numerous others. Tainter has ﬁrst drawn sideration is the current Information Technology Revolu- attention to this in his (now famous) ‘‘Collapse of Complex tion, It will have similarly fundamental, Societies’’ (1988). Nothing new, therefore, except that this unpredictable consequences for our societies as it concerns time it concerns the society in which we are living. the foundations of our human societal organization, which Part of the perspective that I bring to bear on these is shaped by the way we collectively process information. dynamics is a long-term optimism, coupled with a short- As a result, everything about human societies will change term pessimism. Humanity has thus far always found a to the point of becoming unrecognizable (Friedman 2016; solution for its most pressing problems in the nick of time, Brynjolfsson and McAfee 2011; Ito and Howe 2016), and under pressure of circumstance. But in the short term, that that this well happen in the same time-frame as the impact is the next decades or century, I am more of a pessimist, as of climate- and environmental change on our Earth. I think the major changes that need to occur will be difﬁ- Beware! cult to implement and will entail major collateral damage. The real challenge is societal, A long-term perspective not environmental on the sustainability conundrum Indeed, the social science community now has reached a The current sustainability conundrum is part of a much more or less equal position, vis-a-vis the natural and life longer history, and ignoring that biases our approach in sciences, in the domain of sustainability studies. As part of unfortunate ways. Its main driver is the co-evolution of that development, sustainability is now viewed as a socio- human cognition, societal organization and society’s environmental challenge and much research is dedicated to engagement with the environment (Read and van der the immediate relationship of societal and environmental Leeuw 2015). dynamics: so far, so good. But we must now go a step The most relevant phase of this development begins further and ﬁnally acknowledge that the real sustainability with the discovery and harnessing of fossil energy in the challenge is societal, not environmental. After all, societies run-up to the Industrial Revolution. Fossil energy reduced deﬁne what they consider their environments, what they the energetic cost of implementing inventions and it is, see as the main challenges in the environment, and what therefore, no surprise that with effect from the Industrial kind of solutions they can try and offer. If humanity is to Revolution, innovation in our western societies hugely re-equilibrate with the environment, that will have to come increased in frequency, and began spreading beyond the from societal changes, changes in mindset and societal western world (Wrigley 2011). That trend gave birth to the structure. As Luhmann argued a while ago (1989): societies 123 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:1589–1596 1591 do not communicate with their environment—they com- phase of relative chaos in our societies before other sets of municate among their members about what they see as values can emerge. their environment, and they do so self-referentially. This shift—placing society at the center of the sus- tainability debate—is the next, necessary quantum jump Change and stability that we have to implement in our thinking. It, and only it, will stop us going round and round without getting any- Much of our current, western, societies are based on an where. At the current conference, the participation of a Aristotelian approach to the world around us, which younger generation, more women and more colleagues assumes stability interrupted by phases of change (‘‘punc- from the developing world has already shown some shifts tured equilibria’’, Eldredge and Gould 1972). Currently, the towards fundamental criticism of the existing societal future seems to be catching up with us, or rather we seem world order, including a stronger focus on transition to be eating our future (Flannery 2002), so we can no dynamics. longer delay focusing on a society subject to permanent This reﬂects a number of ‘heavy’ tendencies that are change. Some of this shift is already emerging in the already transforming our societies, some of which have ‘‘circular economy’’, but this trend will of necessity over- been mentioned in the conference: take much of our interaction with the environment. Hence, for the 21st century, we would do well to con- • Consumerism is confronted with limited resources and sider in more detail the perspective of Heraclitus of Eph- the need to reduce pollution esus (535 BC–475 BC): ‘‘Everything always changes, • The ‘‘developed’’ world is being overtaken by cumu- nothing remains the same’’. Making that mental change has lated debt and by wealth discrepancies, leading to a number of important implications for our sciences. potential ﬁnancial and social instabilities. For centuries, most of our studies have focused on the • There is an active global megatrend towards producing origins of the present. This is driven by the fact that to have more volume at lower prices, driving economies to the a career in science, ever since the foundation of the Royal bottom, which is ultimately unsustainable Society in 1664, one is required to prove every step of • Our current explosive population growth is environ- one’s argument. As it is impossible to prove anything for mentally and socially unsustainable the future, scientiﬁc careers have predominantly focused on I conclude that the shift towards a new societal mindset the relationship between present and past, elaborating the will come in its own good time, willy-nilly, no matter what origins of a present that was assumed to be stable by we do as scientists (or politicians, for that matter). Societies invoking dynamics in the past. are forced to move in that direction by forces beyond their In more recent years, a growing emphasis has emerged control! The best we can do as scientists and scholars is to on the study of ways to understand and stimulate innova- begin to think seriously about the kinds of changes that the tion and change, rather than understand stability (Fagerberg shift will entail, and how we might best contribute to et al. 2013). But the existing paradigm is less than suit- anticipating and mitigating their impact on society. able for such studies—its focus on origins of existing As mentioned, the ICT revolution is adding a major, phenomena rather than the emergence of novelty allowed accelerating, dynamic in the mix: the loss of the distinction us to improve our understanding of the conditions under between signal and noise. Because anyone can now com- which innovation happens, and its consequences, but did municate with anyone in the world, be it one-on-one, one- not really clarify the dynamics of invention themselves. on-many or many-on-many, anyone can now establish a Understanding these requires an approach that assumes community of people with a set of values according to their permanent change; one that focuses on feed-forward and own taste. As a result, the alignment on certain basic values anticipation rather than feed-back! (Dearing et al. 2010; that has until now been responsible for a degree of societal van der Leeuw et al. 2011) coherence in our societies is being eroded away. The way Assuming that change is permanent and omnipresent, in which that has emerged in recent politics is the idea of but interspersed with phases of stability, also shifts our ‘‘alternative truths’’ propagated by government ofﬁcials perspective on the role of innovation. Rather than empha- who no longer believe in the values of the majority of their size the study of the dynamics of change, once change is societies. Ultimately, this trend is likely to inaugurate a assumed one will be drawn to the study of the conditions for stability. Modern evolutionary theory in biology is a good example: it has clearly concluded that both stability and change are the result of a complex regulatory dynamic It is remarkable that a Google search does not yield among the most that can engender phases of both. Understanding such cited references any that speciﬁcally makes this point (dd. March 22, 2018). 123 1592 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:1589–1596 regulatory dynamics in the societal domain would be a Tinkering and complex systems major step forward (Laubichler and Renn 2015). Jacob’s (1977) paper ‘‘Evolution and tinkering’’, which was referred to by several of the participants (Day 2, ses- Some difficulties in changing our thinking sion ‘‘Tinkering in an urban context’’), is fundamentally a plea for adopting a Complex Adaptive Systems approach. As we come to introduce this novel approach, we are It assumes that the world is so complex that we will never hampered by some of the ways to process information that be able to control its dynamics, so that many of the out- we have acquired as part of the existing paradigm. It is comes of any human interaction with the environment are characteristic of every paradigm that the thinking within a unpredictable and best considered as ‘‘unintended conse- discipline or school of thought is limited by the questions quences’’ of those interactions. Change is unforeseeable, ad and issues that have never been raised within it (Kuhn hoc, and rather than trying to construct or control out- 1962). comes, humans should adapt to, and live with, the changes In our case, the existing approach to sustainability has that their (and other dynamics’) interactions are triggering. served to limit change. Much of our resilience and sus- Human impact, in Jacob’s vision, is best described as tainability thinking is aimed at enabling our societies to ‘tinkering’’ (‘‘bricolage’’), and has at best a very limited continue on their current trajectories while reducing or impact on the overall dynamics. Jacob builds on an argu- limiting the negative impacts of the ways we do things: ment that was ﬁrst launched by Monod (1970), who argued CO emissions, ocean acidiﬁcation, pollution and waste that complex processes auto-regulate themselves for con- dispersal, etc. siderable periods of time, creating an appearance of sta- The approach that I think will inevitably emerge will be bility because the dynamics involved are so strong that one in which our thinking must permanently adapt to the deviation seems impossible, whatever humans try to do. changes that are occurring, rather than try to limit or But at certain times, these strong dynamics reach ‘‘tipping control them. That is the true essence of the Complex points’’ at which they do no longer drive the system in any Adaptive System thinking that accepts the ontological particular direction and, at such moments, human action uncertainty of our future (Mitchell 2011; Lane and Max- can indeed impact on the direction processes take. Most of ﬁeld 2005). It requires that we emotionally accept the you will recognize this as very similar to the perspective of importance of ambiguity and uncertainty in a society that Holling and the Resilience Alliance (and Research Center) has for centuries tried to focus on certainty and dis-am- (Gunderson and Holling 2002). biguation. We must embrace change and design for it! Our I am emphasizing that because this approach forces us to worst enemy in this domain is our fear of fear itself. admit a degree of humility in what science can actually do Another aspect of that transition is a necessary move to change the large-scale complex socio-environmental from an intellectual approach focused on deﬁning and dynamics that the Earth system is undergoing in the arguing in terms of entities to an approach that includes an Anthropocene. ‘‘Tinkering’’ is taking the old, recycling, emphasis on relationships. Here, we can learn, in the West, modifying it, reusing it with a (partially) different function. from the ways people in East Asia cognize phenomena. It implies a continued use of experimentation and learning When confronted with a complex image that represents from experiments, including according value to experi- both a subject and its context, westerners seem to focus on mental failure. It relies more upon human and social cap- the subject and retain that better than the context, whereas ital, and uses them better, while reducing our reliance on in East Asia, the context is better retained and the subject material capital. Although in this context it may seem less precisely (Nisbett 2003; Acar et al. 2011). Whatever novel, it is not: most European, Asian and African cities the reason (and one can think of the complexities of were built that way, and many people love them for it. learning a Chinese or Japanese script against the relative simplicity of distinguishing a western alphabet), the dif- ference is fundamental, as considering the context is Power to … power over … power to inevitably relational, whereas the subject is an entity. Hence, there are different pattern recognition techniques The role of power was touched upon a number of times in involved, and we would do well, in a world in which this conference but was not really central to any of the change is assumed, to acquire ways to deal with the con- discussions. I nevertheless want to devote a few lines to it, textual nature of all kinds of change and reinforce our skills as we can no longer avoid according it its natural role in in understanding complex patterns. our discussions. My long-term perspective on these matters sees current dynamics as the late impact of the Euro- 123 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:1589–1596 1593 American colonial system that began in the 16th century As part of globalization, many communities have been and spread worldwide in the following years until the 2nd destroyed as part of the migration towards towns, and the World War and its aftermath. This globalization for cen- fact that governments took over healthcare and care for the turies drove a transition from local ‘‘power to’’ (achieve old, thus undermining one of the major functions of local results) to global ‘‘power over’’ in the hands of a few communities worldwide: mutual assistance. If we are to nations and their ruling classes. In the process, local, regain our ‘power over’ as citizens, we need to rebuild homegrown sustainability was generally replaced by glo- communities, networks, local institutions and local value bal, imposed unsustainability. systems. Those are the new challenges of co-design and co- In the 20th century, this process changed in form, from implementation. military to economic, but did not change in essence. 20th But maybe most importantly, our own thinking has for century globalization forcibly aligned the many different so long been part of that system that we have difﬁculty cultures with their wide-open stable social value systems distinguishing in our own thoughts and actions how it into a single global value system ubiquitously based on the impacts all we think and do. One of the major and tena- lowest common denominator of all these cultural value cious dimensions of that phenomenon is our assumption systems: ‘wealth’ and ‘money’. that our global demography, health, technology, etc. are on The reduction in dimensionality triggered two dynam- a linear growth trajectory. That assumption is ﬁrmly rooted ics: ﬁrst, a competition to become the ‘best’ in the only in the ‘‘idea of progress’’ that western cultures have remaining dimension along which individuals and nations adopted centuries ago! now compared themselves (wealth). This is driving the growing wealth gap that is currently becoming a threat to societal coherence. Second, growing popular resistance to The role of scientists current trends, as people no longer feel they share a group or cultural identity, while at the same time feeling devalued As I have repeatedly said, major transitions are on the way as individuals because they have lost their personal and the world will change whether scientists contribute to identity. these changes or not. Unfortunately, our scientiﬁc enter- For social wellbeing worldwide, it is essential that prise is functionally suboptimal. It has reached a state of people rediscover their personal and group identities, and stagnant tolerance. The social sciences missed their win- this requires that societies rediscover the full dimension- dow of opportunity to become well organized, contrary to ality of their value systems. As part of that process, indi- the natural and life sciences who grabbed that opportunity viduals and groups need to assume their societal in the last half of the 20th century. The community of responsibilities by being politically active. That, and only social scientists is fragmented and introverted. Career that, will both bring societal stability and resilience, and structures are functioning as straitjackets, and so is the ‘‘free up people’s animal spirits’’ of entrepreneurship and funding structure for science. Indeed, science has lost optimism. control over its own destiny, and has become an instrument of control in the hands of industry and governments. The current loss of trust in science is in part due to the It’s a major battle! fact that it overpromised miracles in the 1940s–1970s, while at the same time some of the unintended conse- The entrenched ‘power over’ system located in the multi- quences of its advances were highly negative in the eyes of national corporations and the governments that either society. But there are other, more fundamental reasons, actively support or condone them, as well as subcon- which we ignored to our detriment. Paramount among sciously in most of our minds, is extremely powerful. The those is the fact that the general public judges the results of transformation it will—without doubt—undergo will not be science contextually. And in the modern world that means accepted smoothly, although an increasing number of that many scientists are seen as part of the techno-industrial businesses and governments are beginning to see the need complex that pays for their work; however, independent for change. In short, the battle between the two worldviews and controversial their results may be. In many places that will be rude. is an afﬁliation that those in society who have no scientiﬁc In many instances, governments and societies have in training, but developed different ways to explain the world the last ﬁfty years lost control and functionality to corpo- to themselves, distrust (Wynne 1992a, b) … rations. In the West, maybe the most powerful sign of that were the consecutive ‘‘big bangs’’ in New York and Lon- don in the early 1980s, when governments in the US and UK gave up control over the ﬁnancial world. 123 1594 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:1589–1596 What can we do as scientists? Bringing in outsiders I do not think scientists of any kind can successfully try to Awareness of the more modest role scientists should be change the world or the transformational trajectory it is on. playing in society entails also makes it easier to accept the That is a dangerous illusion. Scientists can do two kinds of need to bring in outsiders. Not only is the relatively small things. First, they can ‘tinker’ in the margins of the major worldwide community of scientists insufﬁciently strong to societal dynamics, and second (and maybe more usefully) engage in a major way in the forces that will shape our they can try and alert our societies to the kinds of changes futures, but it is too narrowly focused to explore more than that are coming, so that people can begin to prepare a very small part of the total possibility space of our future. themselves for these changes. That is the signiﬁcance of Our societies need to have the fullest panoply of ideas and ‘‘studying the back loop’’ (Gunderson and Holling 2002). capabilities to experiment with, as is brought home pow- Part of the disconnect between scientists and the wider erfully in Ito and Howe in their recent book ‘‘Whiplash’’ civil society is the fact that scientists are perceived as (2016). arrogant, while they are not aware that they are so per- The contribution of outsiders is also important because ceived. They have been trained to strongly believe in the they actually live with the consequences of their decisions, superiority, values and results of a particular way of whereas scientists often point out the uncertainties, but then thinking that does not resonate with non-scientists, and go home to devote themselves to other questions. Living in they are often not capable of (or inclined to) relativizing a world of self-generated risks teaches a degree of modesty the contribution of that approach. Their great strength is in about one’s potential impact on events. They have a much rationally reducing the dimensionality of complex phe- more holistic and high-dimensional approach to pattern nomena to the point that clarity is gained, but in the process recognition in the muddle that is the real world and are, they often discard so many dimensions that their scientiﬁc therefore, likely to ground us scientists and scholars. That thinking to an extent loses the relation to the reality it is a necessary precondition for a successful role of scien- attempts to ‘explain’. Gregory Bateson’s son asks him (in tists and scholars in the society of the future. the 1972 ‘‘Steps to an Ecology of Mind’’): ‘‘Why do things always end up in a muddle?’’ Well, reality is so complex, and our cognition is so limited that it will always come Conclusion across as a muddle! As scientists, we need to let go of the idea that we can do more than tinker at the margins. Summarizing my impressions of the conference in the But that should not discourage us in the practice of our current context of sustainability research, and in particular (scientiﬁc) professions because alerting our societies to the referring to the efforts of Future Earth to bring the science kinds of changes that are potentially coming is in itself a community out of its isolation into the wider world, I very, very valuable contribution as it helps society prepare would point in the following directions: for dealing with them. Science can usefully accompany • The conference testiﬁed to a serious effort at enlarging societal change, but should shed the idea that it can control global participation in the discussions. I noticed a it. rejuvenation of the community, the active participation We can help such a transition by making our science of many women, and a much more diverse and sizable more transparent, admitting both its strengths and its participation on the part of scientists and scholars from weaknesses, being explicit about our methods and their the developing world. That had the very positive effect strengths and limitations, and communicating these. Under that the nature of the discussions themselves changed, the impact of Mertonian philosophy (Merton 1942)we bringing important societal issues to the fore that had have set ourselves apart, arguing for an ‘objective’ and until now only been discussed in the background, ‘even-handed’ way to interact with the rest of society. But among a limited subset of sustainability scientists in the we are no different from other citizens in society, except humanities and social sciences. This should in my that we have been trained in a particular way of thinking opinion be a major driver of Future Earth efforts. that is as relevant to the dynamics of society as any other. • Both the natural and life sciences and the social Modesty about our role is the way forward! sciences were (in my opinion) for the ﬁrst time meeting each other on a more or less equal basis in both the research done and in the debates during the conference. In part due to the inﬂuence of scholars from the developing world, there was an increased acknowledg- ment that many sustainability challenges are actually 123 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:1589–1596 1595 Funding The funding was received by Organization for Economic societal ones rather than environmental ones. 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