Santa Fe Institute

Addressing the 'wicked' problem of sustainability through the complex systems lens

May 20, 2015 8:37 a.m.

Sustainability is a "wicked problem," and technology alone cannot produce sustainable societies.

In an article for the Journal of Industrial Ecology, SFI’s Luís Bettencourt and Christa Brelsford take a complex systems perspective on the problem of sustainable development, describing differing scientific approaches to its exploration.

In the article, the researchers outline historical examples of the engineering approach, which tends to succeed “whenever objectives are clear and measurable and we have some means to intervene fast enough.” Thermostats, cruise control, and water-saving infrastructure exemplify the "optimal" solutions that can be engineered to solve discreet problems

Sustainability, however, is a "wicked problem," as are the related issues of economic growth and human development. The researchers explain how circular objectives, multi-dimensional causality, and evolving horizons place these issues beyond the scope of engineering because “the information necessary to solve society-wide issues is typically distributed across many different entities,” requiring “large-scale fluid coordination of many agents.” The decentralized nature of the problem demands an approach inherently different from the centralized optimization that characterizes traditional engineering.

The multidisciplinary, combinatorial approaches from complex systems offer approaches better suited to the nature of sustainability. The researchers describe how complex systems theory, combined with knowledge creation and engineered solutions, could respond to the growing needs of human societies on a finite earth.

“To think of engineering systems in increasingly adaptable ways and over the longer term… [is] the place where emerging complex systems theory and methods may be most helpful in creating transformative new integrated approaches for a more sustainable planet,” they write.

Read the article in the Journal of Industrial Ecology (March 11, 2015)

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