While it’s all but accepted that novelty and innovation are defining characteristics of many a complex system – from biology to economics – the deeper question is: Where does novelty come from? What gives rise to new ideas, new behaviors, new processes, new structures?

An October workshop at SFI, “Origins of Novelty in Biological, Social, and Technological Systems: Towards a General Theory of Innovation,” asks those questions of some of the top experts in fields ranging from archaeology and search theory to ecology and technology. The meeting is co-organized by SFI Chair of the Faculty Jennifer Dunne, Jose Lobo (ASU), and External Professors Andreas Wagner and Manfred Laubichler.

“It was time to bring together a number of groups of SFI researchers working on innovation in different kinds of complex systems to see what progress is possible in developing a general theory,” says Dunne, who initiated the meeting.

The word novelty itself doesn’t really work for Wagner, the workshop’s host; it already has a very special meaning in economics and evolutionary biology, he says.

But if the participants can settle on an overarching theory that can be applied to various disciplines, he says, “then we’ll have somewhere to go. We’ll have made that step forward. Because theories unify knowledge.”

“Innovation is something that’s really central to human life,” he adds. “It’s intrinsically interesting to study it.”