It’s a word being attached to products, businesses, fisheries, farms, and more – but what does “sustainable” really mean? And if you can find a definition that everyone agrees on, how do you know whether you are attaining it?

“The problem is that the term has been used in many ways,” says SFI Professor Luis Bettencourt. To some it means quick fixes to crop yield or water quality problems, with little consideration of the ecosystems services that support those fixes or the shifts they require in other human demand or consumption. To others it’s a useful, but general, aspiration.

“One important meaning is to provide improved well-being to humans without long-term damage to the Earth system,” Bettencourt says. “For a business, a city, or a nation, it’s a commitment to a path of scientific and technical improvement and ethics that speaks to improved uses of resources.”

What all notions of sustainability have in common is they are difficult to quantify, and therefore difficult to improve upon. A meeting this week at SFI seeks to promote the development of a theory of sustainability along with the identification of data and knowledge systems to support that theory.

SFI Science Board member and External Professor Nina Fedoroff says a science of sustainability must incorporate the impacts of economic growth and human development on the environment.

“Earth and its biological inhabitants, including people, are the most complex system we know,” she says. “We don’t yet have either a theory of complexity or an experimental approach to manage this system, our global system, wisely.”

Fedoroff co-organized the invitation-only workshop with Bettencourt, Molly Jahn of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Margaret Collins of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).

More about the workshop