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All of humanity is facing the increasingly urgent challenge of finding pathways to the emergence of new, more sustainable patterns of living that promotes the co-evolution of natural and cultural systems. We address this challenge by proposing changes in scientific and scholarly research communities and transformations in roles, resources, actors, and institutions of scholarship (i.e., natural and social sciences, humanities, and arts), which can contribute substantially and effectively to co-designing solutions for sustainable, just, and equitable human societies.
The critical challenge facing humanity is the increasingly urgent need to find and implement pathways that lead humankind into a new stage of dynamic equilibrium that promotes the co-evolution of natural and cultural systems. We address this challenge for scientific and scholarly research communities and the transformations in roles, resources, actors, and institutions of scholarship (encompassing natural and social sciences, humanities, and arts), which can contribute substantially and effectively to co-designing solutions for coping with unsustainable practices and systemic risks. Our perspective builds upon a series of four workshops to identify and address global sustainability challenges at a regional scale. It is anchored in the view that nature and society are inextricably interwoven, that planetary boundaries are fundamentally societal, rather than solely environmental issues, that viable solutions to the global challenges mentioned above can be developed and most effectively implemented at a regional to local scale in conjunction with substantive changes in the education systems at all levels, and that these considerations require a complex adaptive systems approach to seeking and implementing solutions. We call for rethinking, finding creative approaches, and acting to make scholarship more capable of effectively creating just and equitable sustainable futures in diverse cultures and contexts.
Social media summary
Transforming scholarship and education to enable co-design of societal transformations to sustainable futures.
Our time seems to be trapped in a paradox. On the one hand, the capacity to master information has tremendously increased, but on the other hand the capacity to use the knowledge humanity produces seems at stake. There is a gap between our capacity to know and our capacity to act. We attempt to better understand that situation by considering the evolution of knowledge processing along human history, in particular the relation between the development of information technologies and the complexity of societies, the balance between the known and the unknown, and the current emergence of autonomous machines allowing intelligent processes.
Information-processing capacities developed historically in conjunction with the complexity of human societies. Positive feedback loops contributed to the co-evolution of knowledge, social organization, environmental transformation, and information technologies. Very powerful loops now drive the rapid emergence of global digital platforms, disrupting legacy organizations and economic equilibria. The simultaneous emergence of the awareness of the sustainability conundrum and the digital revolution is striking. Both are extremely disruptive and contribute to a surge in complexity, but how do they relate to each other? Paradoxically, as the capacity to master information increases, the capacity to use the knowledge humanity produces seems to lag. The objective of this paper is to analyze the current divergence between knowledge and action, from the angle of the co-evolution of information processing and societal transformation. We show how the interplay between perception and action, between the known and the unknown, between information processing and ontological uncertainty, has evolved toward a sense of control, a hubris, which abolishes the unknown and hinders action. A possible outcome of this interplay might lead to a society controlled to stay in its safe operating space, involving a strong delegation of information processing to autonomous machines, as well as extensive forms of biopolitics.
Social media summary
The sustainability conundrum and the digital revolution are entangled phenomena leading to complexity and disruption.
This chapter, building on previous ones, outlines the main characteristics of the complex adaptive systems approach and its differences with the traditional scientific approach. The fundamental change in focus from an a-posteriori perspective looking for the origins of present-day dynamics, to an a priori perspective that studies emergence through time has many consequences that are summarized in this chapter.
The chapter points out how much of sustainability science has focused on manifestations of the current predicament, answering questions raised by the study of environmental dynamics, in particular the interactions between environmental dynamics and their societal counterparts. Instead we need to view sustainability as a societal phenomenon, and investigate the societal dynamics that have led to the current situation. It concludes with six fundamental points that the book develops.
Arguing that in order to understand socio-environmental dynamics we need to adopt the co-evolution of human cognition, demography, societal organization, technology and environmental interaction as the driver of the long-term changes human societies have undergone, this chapter presents a perspective on long-term human societal evolution from early hunter-gatherers to the present as the history of societal information-processing.
This chapter asks whether our current world system is coming closer to a tipping point, irrespective of any potential tipping of the earth system due to human CO2 emissions. It covers a variety of longer-term dynamics in demography, health, and aging, in the financial system, in water, food and energy provision, wealth distribution, urbanization, etc. It then develops a complex adaptive systems perspective on crises and tipping points, pointing to the inadequacy of the information processing systems to deal with the dynamics in which our societies are involved.
In an attempt to provide a more theoretical framework for the approach outlined in Chapter 8, this chapter develops the idea that the evolution of human societies can usefully be conceived in terms of “dissipative flow structures” as defined by Prigogine. By structuring information, these dynamic structures dissipate the chaos around them. This approach harks back to the original significance of “chaos” in ancient Greece, as the environment that enables creativity. It also describes the Aristotelian approach that assumes stability and aims to understand change from the Heraclitan perspective, which assumes change and questions how humans develop stability.
Innovation is here seen as a fundamental driver in these transitions in information processing. Summarizing some of the history of innovation studies in economics, the chapter makes the point that the dynamic of invention has not really been studied scientifically, but has often been conceived as a “black box” because our reductionist science could not really deal with the emergence of novelty. It then approaches invention as a case of niche creation, of an interaction between an existing environment and the subjective perception the inventor has of it.
This summary first reiterates the main elements of the book’s argument, and then argues that breaking the information-processing feedback loop that has driven the co-evolution of western societies to the point where they currently are is essential. The chapter then argues why I am a long-term optimist and a short-term pessimist on the chances of human societies to bring about the kind of profound change that is necessary.
If we are to develop such a holistic approach to sustainability, we must consider much longer timeframes than is usual in current research. This enables us to include slow changes, to study a wider range of socio-environmental system states, and to include second-order changes in our understanding. It avoids looking at the situation as if we are seeing a seriously ill patient without knowing what a healthy one looks like.
Here, the book looks at a number of trajectories that have been proposed to achieve more sustainable societies. Steady-state economics to de-growth, sustainable development goals, and polycentricity are some of the examples chosen to make the point that a profound re-thinking of our relationship to our natural environment, but also our society, is essential if humanity is to achieve some form of sustainability. Can information technology help? Certainly, if it is much more closely integrated into human information processing and helps foster the changes in approach that are necessary.
This chapter asks whether there is a way out of the current conundrum, argues that citizens must re-engage in politics, and outlines a trajectory for the design of plausible and desirable futures. It then looks at the role of narratives in shaping our futures, and how this might help reconstruct the fundamental building blocks of our societies: local communities. How can we, in this process, deal with the acceleration of information processing? And finally, how can science contribute to this process?