Skip to Content
Report an accessibility problem

Sustainability Videos & Lecture Series

Complex Systems Theory, Sustainability, and Innovation

Humans have so deeply impacted our world that the study of the evolution of societies cannot be separated from the study of environmental change. In this talk, 2012 United Nations Champion of the Earth and School of Sustainability Dean Sander van der Leeuw outlines the three phases of human innovation in the processing of matter, energy, and information and the ever-greater environmental actions which led to this point. Van der Leeuw argues for the need of a societal shift to a focus on sustainability and innovation that includes awareness of consequences.

Related Events: Complex Systems Theory, Sustainability, and Innovation


Sander van der Leeuw: All right. Well, first, before I get into this, a couple of particular thanks. One thanks is to the person who not only made this lecture series possible, and has been very material in creating our Sustainability School and our Sustainability Institute, but who has also over the past six, seven years, very warmly encouraged me to continue on this particular path, and that is Julie Wrigley. I would also like to thank the organizing team, the GIOS team, who have set this up, who found this venue—and it’s true that I am totally overwhelmed by the venue, in particular by all these people who are walking around the path, and you only see their head in the water [laughter], which is—I think are a great distraction for all of you.

Then, a welcome and a thanks to all of you who have taken the trouble to come today, and in particular those of you who have my colleagues here and who have helped to create a conducive environment for reflection and research, alongside the administrative duties that I took on.

Now one of the interesting reasons why I feel that although I am only partially from outside Arizona—and I still feel partially from outside Arizona—this is appropriate, is that I actually realized as I was preparing this, that I have hardly ever talked about my own work with anybody of you, with either students or faculty or anything like that. When I have done it, it’s been sort of about fragments of what I’ve done. What I’ve tried to do this time, simply because it was a wonderful occasion to do that, is to sort of bring elements together that sort of began 35 years ago, and that is the privilege of somebody my age, that you come to a point where all kinds of bits and pieces begin falling into place, probably because your mind is closing down, and so there are less open paths to go in different directions. But that is part of it.

I should also thank in particular the two teams that worked with me while I was in Europe in part, and also after I came here, the Archimedes and the Iscomb team, who were also the ones who actually, I think, got me this prize from the United Nations. Behind them a couple of people in the European Union Research Directorate, who were prepared to take huge risks. In their speech, in their sort of way of talking, our project was called a high-risk project, which was basically one that was likely to fail. They nevertheless gave us money. They gave us money all together for about 15 years, and that has been a huge boon to be able to do this.

Finally, after you have listened to all of this, much of it has published, but it’s been published in bits and pieces, so if there’s any particular piece that you’d like to hear more about, I’m quite happy to get you the materials involved. Not everything has been published, but you can imagine that trying to synthesize that long sort of train of thought, means that I am oversimplifying to an absolutely intolerable degree, and I hope you will forgive me for the sake of getting the whole thing across, and then later being able to get into detail when that is possible. Let me now see if this works, which it does sometimes. Right.

I think the starting point for me, now about 25 years ago, is that our linear science, the science that is based on 200, 300 years of experimenting, thinking, trying to find causes and things like that, began increasingly to be insufficient with dealing things in the modern world. In particular, I think, that our impact far exceeds our knowledge. That is one of the fundamental dilemmas of sustainability. We act upon the environment, and you’ll see through the whole theme of this lecture, the fact that our action upon the environment creates unintended consequences, which we can’t even begin to see, let alone to understand. On the other hand, what is interesting in the present day and age, with the information revolution—and I’ll get back to that toward the end of my talk—there is a new potential to completely change the way we actually understand things. That is the challenge, I think, what we are working towards, and the challenge that I hope will ultimately serve as right in trying to deal with sustainability issues.

Part of that connectivity, that new way of networking, that new way of creating all kinds of links between concepts and ideas that were so far disconnected because of our fragmented world view that was the result of our linear science, basically has led to this approach, which a number of you here know well and that I have on occasion talked about, but I think is important to realize. It is here called—and there’s different names, and I’m anyway not somebody holds too much on a single word—the complexity of the systems approach.

These two elements are fundamental, and a few others that come on the next slide. Basically in that approach, we don’t go anymore for entities. We go for relationships, and we go for relationships of relationships. That is a really important part because it means that we actually get into the dynamics of things, because in relationships there is always a dynamic. A lot of what we did until now is actually a much more static approach. You can see that, for example, on a different level in the way economics has worked, and has built its understanding around equilibrium models, that is models that don’t fundamentally change, where you just look at the changes as aberrations of what is the stable situation. That has fundamentally changed.

Another important part of all of this is that these systems are adaptive, that the individual behavior, the collective behavior, makes them self-organize in ways that could not be determined by anybody, whether bottom-up or top-down. This little illustration, which is really a stupid oversimplification, basically serves to make the point that what we consider from that approach is how individual entities and relationships at a particular level, actually create patterns at a higher level. Rather than statistically look at those patterns, we actually look at the relationship between what happens at the lower level and what happens at the higher level.

The other aspect, and that is something that in this university I don’t really have to argue, is that this approach tries to bring many disciplines together. One of the fundamental aspects that it has helped doing so, is that it brings back historical trajectories into the hard sciences, whether it’s astronomy or physics or chemistry, now, in this particular approach—which looks at how things emerge rather than at how you look back and try and identify that origin—that historical trajectory of emergence is now something that gets to be accepted in the number of the natural sciences and the life sciences have clearly played a major role in all of that.

Another particular aspect is that in the evolution of such systems, there are moments when, as an individual or a stakeholder, there’s nothing you can do. The process is so dominant that it’ll go that way no matter what you do. There are other moments when that is not the case, when very tiny variations, this famous butterfly effect that everybody now knows about thanks to television, actually allow us to change things.

Another aspect of it is that we have tried to find different ways of beginning to understand this because of the complexity of these phenomena. In particular this has led to a resurgence in the last 20 years of model building of all kinds of different kinds. There is a number of people here in the university that are very actively involved in doing that.

Then there is one other element which is not always part of what complex systems is all about, one that I think is really important. Most of science, as long as it was sort of in the realm of the Royal Society, was built on proving every step. Well, in order to prove something, you can only relate the present to the past, because that’s what you can see. You can’t relate the present to the future. I think in the sustainability case, we need to actually learn for the future and not just from the past. That has its own challenges, and I’ll get back to those later on.

That being said, and this was a bit theoretical and probably the most complex of all the slides that I’m gonna show, I’m here going to basically argue that humans are clearly part of an infinitely complex system that is the earth system. Much of the thrust of my talk is going to be that we have always and still don’t really understand it, and therefore cannot understand what we’re doing in in and what the effects are of what we’re doing.

A number of things of characterize this system and any complex system. One of them is that it has so many dimensions that you cannot possibly grasp all those dimensions. That creates these unintended consequences. Very many stakeholders, people, plants, animals, planets, impact the trajectory of that system. Another very important part of it is that you never know what’s gonna happen next. The trajectory is always open ended. You can never predict exactly what the outcome of any action is going to be. Not even of an engineering innovation, because that will create affects in society, and those affects in society will then run away with this innovation and in part make something else of it. The other thing is that because of that we don’t’ have any long-term predictability. We can’t currently comprehend such a system. Our minds are wired in such a way that we have limits to the number of dimensions we can actually, at any point in time, relate together and collectively it’s the same thing. We’ll get to that more later.

Another element that is important here is that much of biology, for a long time and a lot of sciences, have argued that what distinguishes human beings is actually that they can learn. That’s outdated. So many animals can learn in different ways and to different extents that that doesn’t make any sense to distinguish. What I would argue that instead of that is a much more sensible distinction between our species and all other species is not only that they learn how to learn, but they can organize themselves, they can organize their ideas in categorizing them. They can organize their environment. Look here at the bridge and everything else that we’ve done. More than that, at the core we can as human beings experiment, plan—and a crucial word here is—design. We are about designing. We cannot not design. Sometimes we don’t design very well, but nevertheless, we always design.

What I’m basically arguing here is that rather than do something that biologists for a long time have done, that is to look at a population statistically and at the individuals in the population individually—and this is something that is still very—everywhere in medicine for example, we need to start looking at an organization perspective. We need to look at the organizations that we have and how they impact.

In order to get an organization going, you need to process information. That is this slide. Basically, of the three basic commodities, energy, matter, and information, energy and matter are subject to the conservation principle, which basically means we can’t share them. But if I throw, as I did originally with my students until we didn’t have them anymore, a piece of chalk at the first row. People start sort of—that makes the point, that when that person gets it, I don’t have it anymore. I cannot share matter in that sense. I can cut in the middle and we both have a bit, but I can’t share the whole thing.

The same goes for energy. The one thing that we can share is information, is learning, is knowledge. That is what keeps societies together. That is what brings societies together. Why do we do that? Well, because it’s by organizing ourselves and our society that we actually then are able from the environment, to draw the energy and the matter that we need to feed ourselves and to sustain ourselves.

What I’m gonna do in the first part of this talk, now that all of this theory is done, is go look at the history of human information processing, that is the history of human cognition. I’m gonna divide that up in four stages. One is this the really long term, from two and a half million years ago to about 70,000 years ago. That is the time when the evolution of our cognitive capacity was very strongly limited by our biological evolution. I’m not gonna go into detail. I‘m just gonna show you a little bit of the effect of that.

The second stage is when humans began to develop particular tools for thought in such a number that they can begin to interact differently with their environment. That comes to fruition in the third stage, 13,000 to 7,000 ago, when interactivity with the environment becomes the dominant theme. Then finally in the fourth phase, the emphasis and the difficulties shift from having impact on the environment and dealing with the challenges of the environment, to actually dealing with social challenges, because by that point the groups that we bring together in order to organize ourselves are so big that we get all kinds of conflicts.

Let’s go to that first stage first. This is a very simple graph which brings together a huge amount of data from different people. It basically is the evolution of the proportion of body size to brain size. That’s what they call encephalization. What it shows here is, all the way on the extreme right, is the chimpanzee, and what that chimpanzee can do is basically deal more or less, about 75 percent of them, can deal with three dimensions. An anvil, a nut, and a hammer to tap on it. Twenty-five percent can’t. That is really the limit for that species. Then it shows how over the various proto-human and early human hominid species in general, we have come to a stage, which is the present, where we can deal with seven, plus or minus two, dimensions simultaneously. All of that is the evolution of what one calls the short-term working memory. We can go into some of the specifics of that, but that’s not my field. I have worked with somebody else on this whole topic, and that has been published.

What the effect of it is is what I’ve been studying. For almost two and a half million years, people have been working with some tools. They had stones with which they did something. What I can show is that it took about two million years for them to understand that those objects had three dimensions. They dealt with these three-dimensional objects, but they way they dealt with them, they made them, they used them, was for a very long, long time, either zero dimensions or one dimension or two dimensions. It is only rather late in the [inaudible] that we end up with three dimensions. If you want to at the end, in the question, I can explain how all of this worked and what this graph showed, what these figures shows, but I’m gonna cut that just for the sake of time for the moment.

What the result is is this. That top left is one of the very first stone tools that have been found in a human context in Olduvai in Kenya. The bottom right is about two million years later. What kind of tools can we then make? It shows how learning how to think of them dimensions, and also to think of them across different scales and a number of other operations, allowed us to learn how to really deal with matter, and that is what this is all about. Oh, I gotta go this way.

Now, the question then comes during the whole period, and here we only see the last 450,000 years of it, the climate hugely changed, but people’s behavior didn’t, not that we can see, apart from these better tools. People roamed around in small groups. They found what they find and ate it, and when they didn’t find anything anymore they moved on. That’s the long term of human existence. We are here in a very exceptional situation, which generally we take for normal because that’s the one we live in. This shows a little bit of that, so mobility, multi-resource harvesting, always remaining below carrying capacity, and adapting to permanent change and risk. Those are characteristics of that mode of life.

One interesting way to think about this carrying capacity is that in Australia, we have lots of skeletons, and we can find in a skeleton whether that person was at any point subject to a famine. Turns out that the people in the desert, in the center of Australia, never suffered famines. The only people who suffered famines are the ones who were living in the rich forests in the southeast. Why? Because they had the allusion that they could keep going, and they could create more and more population. They were not aware of the limits of the carrying capacity, and so they regularly overshot those.

The second stage, this is a sort of transition phase between that long-term, mobile, hunter/gatherer situation, and what comes after, which is the Neolithic, which is where people settle and have a very different lifestyle. In this situation we have actually a lot of data but we don’t have any coherent perspective on what is happening in that period, so I have to put a few things together to give you a general sense. What is crucial I think at that point, what we see from the artifacts, because people start making all kinds of new artifacts, is that the biology is no longer the constraint. What happens now is a social constraint. Is a social constraint simply because we have to learn how to create tools for thought, and to link tools for thought in order to be able to think more and more complexly and deal with more and more complex situations.

My argument here would be that the driver of what is happening is no longer—or the constraint is no longer the biological situation, but that we don’t know whether it’s climate or the sort of freeing up of human cognition that actually allows all these artifacts to come into being. Then we need to look at what the consequences are, and in particular what we begin to see then over the timescale of two and a half million years, is that suddenly we see and acceleration in inventiveness, and that is where we come next.

What are the tools for thought that are available around 35,000 before the current era? On the one hand there’s this interesting this thing that people are able to distinguish reality and conception. They can change how they intervene on stone tools, so they can make plans that are alternatives to the ones that they actually have executed. That basically means that they can distinguish between ideas that they may want to implement, and implementations that is between reality and conception. They categorize. They recognize patterns. That is evident because you see many different kinds of stone tools emerge that differ functionally but also differ in shape, and so and so forth, so those categories are basic.

What is interesting if you study the technology in much more detail is that you get feedback mechanisms that get in there in the sense that people are beginning to look at the results of what they’ve done and then try and modify those results. But also, that is much more interesting from my perspective here, is we see feed-forward mechanisms. In much of our current science we actually don’t pay much attention to those. But people start anticipating, and because of the fact that about 200,000 years ago there is a fundamental modification in brain structure in which the frontal lobe emerged, which allows linking past, present, and future. That begins to allow people to start anticipating. What we see in the stone tool technology here is that people get better and better, and stretch longer and longer, their anticipation in the process of stone tool manufacture.

Basic hierarchies—small things, larger things, very large things—I’m not gonna go into that. Also, partonomies, in the sense of—that word is a bit difficult, but I had to fit it in one word—it basically means that you can study the relationships between a whole and its parts, and you can dismantle the whole into its parts and compose the whole from the parts—in both directions, because only if it’s in both directions can you argue that this is real.

Finally, I had again there, the anticipation, which is due to the production, the separation and production stages. One of the fantastic examples of course is the way people start taking three dimensional objects and project them on two dimensions with a life likeness that is absolutely exceptional. These are some of the tools that are being created, but still people live in very small groups. They now don’t only make tools out of one piece of stone, but they have several bits that they put together. Some of these tools that they make, for example, these bone fishhooks, are very focused on a particular kind of subsistence economy, so there is specialization in subsistence strategy. What we see, which is very difficult to show like this, is they begin to territorialize. People start no longer moving around all over the place, but actually focus on a particular area because there they have a particular kind of way of feeding themselves, a particular familiarity with landscape, and so and so forth.

Now, what happens next is really strange. We see an explosion that has led us from that moment over the last 10,000 years through the present situation. Interestingly, the climate stays stable for that whole period, so the climate is out as a driver. That is an important part of my earlier argument about the role of climate in all of this. Strangely enough, this graph you need to read from right to left. It’s the only one, but that’s the way these people think about these things. [Laughter] Nothing I can do about it.

Change accelerates when the Holocene climate is stable. Why is that? Well, I think because a completely new way of life emerges, and some of the outside phenomena are this. People start investing in the environment. They’ve never done that before. They’ve harvested things that presented themselves to them and that they could use, but now agriculture, cultivation, means that you have to clear off a bunch of forest. You have to take all those horrible stubs out, because the trees are huge because they’ve never been attacked. You then need to plow the earth, seed things, and you need to wait until they come back up again. And with stock raising it’s even more so because you need several years for any herd to be sufficient so that you can actually live off it.

We see lots of new technologies. We see pottery. We see basketry. We see larger groups of people living together. That’s a very important part of this, because with the limits of individual cognitive capacity, once you get more challenging situations, you’re bringing together more people to think about them and could try and come up with a solution. One you’ve found that solution and implemented it, that creates untended consequences that pushes you to bring even more people together. You get a feedback loop that is between innovation and invention, the environment and then more and more people. People start settling down. They start living in one place. They have villages like you see up there.

They start making all kinds of very complex three-dimensional objects in the opposite way from how it happened before. Because before they took a big piece of stone and hacked things off so that it became smaller. Now they start with an individual fiber or an individual reed, and then first make it into a longer piece of string, then they weave it together into something two-dimensional, and finally they sew it together to make a garment which is a three-dimensional object. The cognition there also changes fundamentally. That leads, in the case of pottery, to the fact that suddenly people are able to deal with a completely topology. In this particular case it is the first time that you have a solid, round void. So far we had either solids or voids, and we begin to get that very strange combination, which leads to huts, as well as pots, as well as baskets, and other things.

The question is the old systems, groups running around, could have continued—why didn’t it? Because the climate would have allowed that without any further trouble. Okay. This is an important slide which I really sort of anticipated. This is the slide in which I argue that what is happening is a feedback loop in our own minds, initially, in which problem solving structures our knowledge. That then increases our information processing capacity. That in itself allows the acquisition of new data, the observation of new problems, and creates new knowledge.

But at the collective level this plays out even more strongly. Because of the individual limits in the interaction between ourselves and the environment, we create all these unintended consequences that are in many ways challenges. Those become bigger and bigger because of the infinite dimensionality of the world around us, as compared to the very limited dimensionality of what we can cognize. The end result is the only way to do that is bring more and more people together, deliberate, and so on. What is the constraint then also shifts from the information processing in an individual, to actually the group’s information processing, and there a new element comes in, and that is the role of communication. We’ll get back to that in a moment.

The first step of all of this long evolution, because from now we’re actually outlining the drivers of what got us to the present, is this—simple pots, something like Stonehenge, a plow—which is here reconstructed but I have actually seen the same ones used in Syria in 1974—and the three dimensionality of statues is not emerging for new, but is becoming more and more widespread. How did that change the dynamic? A fundamental aspect of that is that now we intervene in nature. Because we intervene we have unintended consequences. Because we have unintended consequences, the risks that we are exposed to as a society start shifting, and they start because we take out all the short-term risks that we observe and that we then do something about, they sift toward the longer-term, unknown risks.

The tendency then becomes okay, how can we control that? So we start simplifying the environment, for example. Fields, cultivation fields, are simplified bits of the environment, because we’ve killed off most of the other plants that were there. We differentiate in space certain activities here, other activities there. In a sense the emphasis then is no longer one of feeding yourself that remains a problem, but we are more and more confronted with larger problems that need to be solved. That focuses us on collaboration, communication, and so on, and group growth. The result of that is, of course, and I mentioned that before, that suddenly the cost of growing of our social complexity and the fact that we need to deal with all the conflicts that that entails. Anybody working at a university knows how bad they are.

What happens then is that more and more people start living together, and so we see the first cities. For a long time, about cities the argument was that they were more efficient from an energy perspective. If you think about it, the more people you bring together, the further you have to go to get the food to feed them. That’s not necessarily so easy an equation. My argument is that what brings cities together is the need to process more and more information together, and to shorten the communication lengths, and in particular the time it takes to find exactly the right person that you need to solve a particular problem.

What then happens is that you get a very interesting feedback loop between organization happening at the core of society, and being used to harness from a wider and wider area the actual energy and matter that are needed to feed the individuals that constitute the society. That means that in the core of that society, and that is in the towns, we need to keep innovating because we need to get interesting people to be part of this. If they all know what’s going on, then they can go their own way and we see many instances of that. Innovation drives organization. As José Lobo knows, who is here, one of the things that you can demonstrate is that is still the case for our modern cities. I’ll leave him to explain that someday.

Now this is an old illustration, but it basically says okay, you have a group of people. They start interacting. The ones at the core will get more information than the ones in the periphery. As they get more information they also develop more knowledge and they can process even more information. There is a driver that makes the core—and that’s here represented by this third dimension, move up and then move out. But at a certain point energy becomes a constraint that can’t be lifted, or something else happens—a big plague or something like that. At that moment, of course, that sort of what I call a dissipative flow structure, which is this sucking in of energy and putting out of information, stops. That is when the whole thing collapses. I’ll give you a couple of examples of that in a moment.

What are these cities look like? These are a couple of things. I just put the one on the top right in there because that’s one that I discovered and excavated myself a long time ago. Sort of a real trip back into the past here. These are the things that come with cities. Everywhere in the world where you begin to see cities, not only do you see that cities never emerge alone, but they always emerge in networks. They’re always based on trade and trade links. But we also then suddenly in every culture, find ways to do accounting. That is what this next one is. It’s a way to register numbers in clay tablets.

We still get development of writing. People need to communicate. They don’t only need to communicate with the guy very far, but they also need to communicate because if you have a lot of people together and you interact bodily, visibly, you communicate many more feelings that you may want your recipient to know. Writing serves as a damper on conflict generation in these kinds of societies. Another thing that does that is this column at the right hand, which is the first document that we have from Mesopotamia, which is the Laws of Hammurabi. It’s the first time that you get laws that operate, and you get an administration, which is the clerk that you see sittin’ down there from Egypt. We have these things, [inaudible] from all over the world.

That then is fine for a city for a while, but then ultimately the city becomes so big that getting the food and other things that it needs stretches much, much, much wider. That is what I argue here is the imperial way of life. It’s no different from a dynamic perspective, but it simply means that it now crosses cultures, that adds difficulties, that has to strengthen the military, that has to strengthen the administration. That is actually what the Roman Empire, for example—and I’ll talk in a couple of slides on the Roman Empire—actually does. The interesting thing is that Roman Empire was only able to expand over much of Europe and North Africa because in the centuries before those societies had become organized. The most telling illustration of that is when Cesar comes to Belgium. He’s conquered all of France. He’s decapitated or otherwise defeated all his big enemy bosses. He’s defeated all the armies. He’s conquered all the cities. He comes to Belgium and says, “What the heck am I doing here? There’s nothing I can conquer. There are no generals. There are no cities. There are no armies.” There is no more organization. This reminds me of a particular phase in recent American history, where you were confronted with a society where also there was very little organization on land, and where armies were not very effective in conquering them.

Another thing that you get into in the society, is you move from power to do something, enabling power that is delegated both [inaudible] to power over, that is top-down power, to actually force people to do certain things. Institutions play a role. Armies play a role and so and so forth.

Then the last element, really important, of course, if you want to keep an empire together you gotta build roads. The Incas did that all over the place. The Romans did that all over the place. I think the only empire that didn’t really do that are the Mongols because they all had their horses and they ran over natural countryside faster than most Roman armies could move. This shows the growth of the Roman Empire, and that other shows, but you can’t see it from any distance, how the roads are actually the backbone of that empire.

Now the end of the Roman Empire. Okay. From about 250, there was no more treasure to be conquered around the Mediterranean. People did not invent any more. There is a very wonderful example of that—at some point in Alexandria around that time, people invented a steam engine. They went to the emperor, and the emperor said, “I have slaves. I don’t need it.” So invention was actually stopped socially. We have other examples of that in prehistory that I could come up with at some point. What that does is that the system can no longer go up, but it begins to dissipate. What that shows here is, on the right hand side, the graph, the devaluation of Roman coinage, which really goes over two and a half centuries, from 350 to 0, almost in the silver content of the coins that are there.

At the same time, of course towards the end, people are no longer interested in being part of the Roman Empire, so they start their own little things, the provinces in particular in France, the big landholdings, the estates, but also cities start developing their own little culture. That’s a very fundamental change. I would argue that in many cases when we have a crisis like that, it is not a demographic crisis, but it’s simply a collapse of organization.

Then we go, and I will very quickly continue this story for Western Europe. The next stage, there’s hardly anything. Villages disappear from the map. Cities become absolutely infinitely small. The story is that at that particular time, this Roman amphitheater in Arles actually housed the whole of the city. The next stage is beginning to see this whole movement go back up again. Initially we see little locations where a prince or somebody who is a little bit more advantaged, grabs power. They start fighting among each other. They get bigger and bigger units, but it’s all more or less the same process, with competition for access to local resources. This is Le Bull, one of the more famous ones of these kinds of early places in France.

Then you get the Renaissance. Suddenly the whole thing starts expanding. On the next map I’ll show you a little bit more of that. It’s not only that it starts expanding geographically, at the same time the information processing becomes richer, which is what you see here. You see these buildings in Venice. You see Leonardo and you see actually the ruler of Venice in that kind of time. Now what has happened here is that the various cities in Italy and the cities in northwestern Europe close to England in the Low Countries, are suddenly linking up with roads, with annual fairs and things like that.

We see again a growth of this system, which I think is best illustrated maybe on the next map, if I can get there. At the top left you basically see that the very early stage, the stage of about 1000, is cities, individual dots on the map that are linked by trade routes but not maps. The next stage is the Renaissance, when each individual city in Italy, but also in northern Europe, starts expanding and created territory around it. Then finally these are the various stages of the unification of France, which took about 500 years, and which then finally brought a whole territory together. You see this growth emerging.

What you see next is the modern world. Suddenly we end up 1492, we end up with needing resources from a much wider area, creating the technology to and get them, creating the organization to go and get them. These [inaudible] companies, the armies over there, and so and so forth. One of the interesting things that happens here is that that is the era in which cities are actually dominant, because they have the money. The princes have nothing. They borrow and they borrow and they borrow. Then it goes broke and then they start all over again.

What is important about this is that that is the introduction of market systems, that is decentralized systems that become important, whereas the hierarchical systems that the original rulers come out of, are losing in importance. We see that sort of happening. This is a map that shows how this expands in the world. I’m sorry that the visual images are not very easy in this particular room. This is the first time we’ve tried this room. It would be better if we could get them a bit sharper.

But anyway, next big stage is that political and economic power get in cahoots. The cities and the princes get into a dependency relationship that allows the heterarchical system, the market system, and the centralized system, to process information together. I can give you at some point the reasons why that is systemically inevitable. Has nothing to do with these princes or with these cities, but from an information processing perspective that is fundamental.

What we start doing is getting intercontinental resource acquisition, that also means that we get a different dynamic, in which little by little, the people at the periphery, just like in the case of the Roman Empire, start learning that were there in the center. Unless the center can keep going faster and faster, they lose their power over the periphery. That’s a lot of what you have seen after the Second World War was decolonization. At the same time you see a shift in the period, between 1600 and 1800, and in particular close to 1800, towards more and more industry, that becomes more important that agriculture. This is sort of how the world map changes.

Then we get to a very crucial point. Around 1800 we have all over Europe a set of semi-revolutions exploding on us, whether this is the French revolution or the ones that follow in Germany and in other places. The system is under such stress that I would argue that it would’ve collapsed but for one thing. The “but for one thing” is the increasing use of fossil energy. Suddenly, by tapping into coal and later oil, and inventing machines to use that energy in a more effective way, we give western society a new lease of life. Because suddenly we take away the energy constraints of our innovation potential, and suddenly with the Industrial Revolution, you see that absolutely amazing spread of new innovations that are made possible because there are hardly any energy costs. That ultimately drives our current system, that makes a couple of really important changes, in particular that from that moment on we have to keep expanding our total conceptual value space so that innovation becomes endemic. At the same time innovation shifts from something that was driven by need to something that is driven by supply.

If you go back in prehistory—and I gave you already the example of the Alexandrian steam engine—you go back even further, there is 1,000 year time lag between western Europeans knowing how to work iron and introducing the iron working all over the continent. What had to change is a complete new social structure. Bronze, which they had before, is something that’s easy to control if you’re the boss. There’s only four or five places in Europe where you find it, so you can basically stifle the flow of bronze any time you want. Iron you find anywhere, in any bog. That’s an information revolution which suddenly sort of decapitates the existing society. Now I would argue that the society needs to lose control before that actually sees its resurgence.

Where we are getting now is that in that dependency of ourselves of innovation, we have to go faster and faster and faster. That’s clearly what we’ve seen over the last 60 years. We get thereby also into our sustainability predicament. One of my colleagues calls this, and this is something economists detest and I’m not doing it for anything else except that it will be a mnemonic for you. The biggest Ponzi scheme of all, because we have to go faster and faster, and draw in more and more value by inventing to actually keep our system going and intact. One of the questions that I think is a really interesting research question to raise, but which I haven’t really explored, is in how far the explosion of material culture that we’ve seen over the last 60 years has actually stabilized our democratic system, which has consequences in itself for sustainability.

This is the result, and many of you have seen this image. Basically over the last 250 years at most, the whole thing explodes unless all these curves, whether they are population or McDonald’s or energy or waste or whatever, they all show the same pattern. This acceleration has come to a point over the last 250 years. What then is the dynamic behind these crises that we are getting, the crises that we are seeing all around us? Now I go back for a little bit for the theoretical part of the talk.

Basically the result of the fact that although—no, that because our minds, even collectively, are limited in the number of dimensions they can grasp at any time, it basically means that yes, we have huge amounts of progress in science and elsewhere, but because the world outside that is not touched by that has many more dimensions, the unintended consequences actually even rise faster than our knowledge, and ultimately what I would argue is that our crisis currently, whether it’s the financial or it’s the economic or the social or the environmental, are all due to the fact that we are being overwhelmed by the unintended consequences of our own actions. I think that is the basis for where we are at this particular point.

As part of the process we’ve become more and more short-termist, because we need to deal with all these problems all over the place. That makes it much more difficult to keep thinking strategically and thinking long-term. I would define a crisis or these crises as temporary incapacities of our society and its information processing to deal with the dynamics that it’s involved in, and that it has in part generated itself.

Although we think we know more and more, we actually know less and less. But I argue that the situation isn’t hopeless because it makes no sense giving up. In particular from my perspective as an archeologist, I can affirm that humanity has at any point in time, when the crunch really got bad, found a way out. There’s several million years to prove that. So, let’s look at what could be done. That directly relates back to the whole sustainability issue that we’re all about.

A, it looks like a bad situation but we don’t know how far we from the cliff. I meant he fiscal cliff, yes, we do know, that’s only a couple of months, but the environmental cliff, we don’t have a clue. We’re still trying to find out. The future is clearly full of things that may change. Apart from an asteroid hitting us, we may suddenly find that something else changes. We’ve seen that to some extent in the CO2 balance, when the economic crisis hit. There is a bunch of imponderables, and we cannot—and that is in keeping with the complex systems approach—predict what will happen. We can only see that there may be a number of things we don’t like so much.

Even if there were a huge disaster, and this is a difficult argument that I’m not trying to push, is basically is that from again, my archeologist perspective and would probably mean that a lot of people go back to the land, and that they leave the cities which are in many ways the most vulnerable part of our society. There is a real difficulty there. That is that most of us wouldn’t know how to deal with the land. The loss of knowledge that we have undergone over the last 60 years is a huge break in trying to deal with the kind of environmental challenges that we may have to deal with.

Another good argument not to despair is the fact that there are societies that have overcome such crises. A good example is Byzantine society. The eastern half of the Roman Empire, after they split, actually tuned down its hierarchy and decentralized virtually everything, and in doing so, so far reduced the total overhead that it could culturally hang more or less together and have, a number of hundreds of years later, a new flourishing around Byzantium.

Now let’s look at what we need to do. One of the things I want to accentuate here is that in this development towards what I call the Ponzi scheme, we have effectively also changed our philosophy about the past and the future. The very interesting study about the [inaudible], who argues that in the 16th, 17th century, if something didn’t fit, people would refer to history and say, “It doesn’t fit because in history it wasn’t like that.” By now we only value innovation. We only value change. Our mindset about where we are has changed. Our mindset about our time perspective has changed.

Society has become innovation-dependent. I said that. But more importantly I think, and a real issue that we need to deal with in sustainability, is that our economy and our need to drive up GDP is now such that we innovate not [inaudible], anything. As soon as somebody’s discovered it, we stuff it down our own throats and we actually accept it. We can call this for cell phones. We can call it for a lot of things. I’m not saying that these inventions don’t have their positive side, but what I am saying is that too rapid an accumulation of inventions like that really disorganize a society, because every invention needs the society to adapt to it. If you go too fast you can’t do that. I heard Michael Crow say a number of years ago that the real threat about nano-technology, for example, is that people don’t know any more what’s happening. You can be breathing the most foulest of things without even realizing that you’re doing it. You can’t even imagine what it’s like. We are basically exceeding there our own cognitive capacities.

So, we need to re-think innovation. That is what I’ve been working on over the last eight years. Basically saying our classical science, because it was all reductionist, basically whenever innovation or creativity came, it put it in a box on the side, a black box on the side. We can’t deal with this as scientists so it’s not important. We deal with the conditions under which it happens and we deal with the results in our economy, but we don’t study the process of innovation. As such, we don’t really know how innovation works. That is where Jose and a couple of other people and myself have been working in recent years, trying to begin to see whether if you really look at the process of creation there isn’t some logic to that, that from a complex systems perspective, you could try and grasp, because that is a perspective that looks at emergence of new things. Whereas our preexisting origins perspective, doesn’t in any way allow that.

That’s ongoing. That’s not something where we’re done, but in particular, with the help of Deborah Stremsky, we are looking only eight and a half million patents that the US has in its database, and that we, for the first time—and I was really surprised by this—we started looking at it as historians. Nobody has done that. We came to very different conclusions about the role of that whole process.

Okay. Part of this is that for sustainability we have always been looking forward. But at the same time for innovation we have been looking backward. We have been looking at the result of it is. We need to complement in each case that particular perspective with its obverse. We need to start looking in a back-casting way on sustainability. We need to decide socially what kind of future do we want and then start saying well, how do we get there. At the same time we need to start looking at innovation from the perspective of once there was nothing, now we are creating something.

My conclusion here is that we need to move what is what I would call adaptive design. What we do in most cases is we design things for stability. We should be designing things for change. I know there is at least one architect in the room, who I will not call, who is I think sensitive to these things. I recently gave a lecture to a whole collection of architects here in the Valley, and I think that became a really interesting point of discussion. In that context we don’t only need to learn from the past, as I said, but we need to learn for the future. What is the difference? Well, for our relation with the past we can construct causative narratives. For the future we can’t. We have to start thinking a different way, no longer linearly but in terms of alternatives.

That is I think something that we need to stimulate in our children. What we do is they come to class very early. The teacher has two options—either to socialize the students or to stimulate their creativity. It’s a lot easier to socialize them. How are they socialized? By telling them stories that everybody shares. That basically, I think at least, reduces their native and inherent capacity to think in terms of alternatives, and to start at every moment thinking, well, what else could’ve happened. I think that is an educational problem that we are beginning to deal with in our new program on sustainability science for teachers that Lee Hartwell and I sort of hit it off on that one.

That is that much. I’m getting quite close. I don’t know how far we are. Oh, we’re not that bad, actually. I have one more minute. That’s okay. I’ll probably use about four or five, but nevertheless. The question then becomes if you start saying okay, we have to design a future, which as Michael Crow always says is the easiest way to control that future, is whether that is really true from this perspective. I would argue that it isn’t really, because even if you design, there will always be those unintended consequences. You cannot make that design last forever. Then I come to a phrase the planner’s fallacy that I took from Canamon, who is a Nobel Prize winner in cognitive science, and who basically pointed out that most planners overrate the time over which their plan will actually be relevant, active, doable, and so on and so forth. We need to start thinking very, very differently about what we design. We need to design resilient systems.

Finally we have the information revolution. There I’m going to be really, really short and go immediately to the next thing. One of the things is we need to fuse what information technology does and what we do in our own lives. It’s very interesting to talk to these information people. They all think that the information society is a new thing. Well, I would argue that it was there since the Paleolithic, but that we simply get a new technology to enhance it. That’s a very important one, and one that may help us get out of the problems where we are. Nevertheless, I think that is not a new thing in that sense.

Here are some suggestions about things that I think that can be done. We’re working in a project in Europe to realize in particular some of those first three things in using information technology to get to people in a different way. We need to, as I said, spread compunatational thinking in in society and generalize the informational processing thinking in computer science. That is a difficult boundary that we need to conquer and that we need to get over.

The other thing that informational technology can do is the massive date evolution can undermine something that has made us very past-dependent in our thinking. It is the fact that our theories are always heavily underdetermined by our observations, simply because we can’t observe enough instances to get a sense that we can actually sort out on a real basis rather than intuitively what our theories actually should be how we should explain many phenomena. Big date helps there.

Another thing I think is trying to overcome the limitations of the short-term working memory. That entails in particular that we start using our computers in a very different way. We should start using our computers not in the way we have traditionally done, but to actually learn for the future. That is we should use computers to enhance the number of dimensions that are implicated in any particular problem, rather than reduce them so that we can understand them in our own minds. There’s a very interesting attempt at that is going on at Harvard in the medical domain, that at a colloquium that George and Anna and I organized last June came out, where a man called Walter Fontana is creating a system where on the basis on the set of date, he creates the thousands of potential hypotheses that can actually link those data. Then goes the next step and looks at which ones are the more probably, which is I think a really interesting way to that way.

Okay. After this is only one more slide, okay? Complex systems we have said are unpredictable in the long term. We need to start looking at feed-forward and feedback together. We need to come up with a relational logic that does that. One person who is working on that Europe is a man called Bellnap, who I can give you the citation for. Then finally we need to look at—and that is a really important task that as complex systems people here in the university we feel we should propagate, is basically look at decision making under uncertainty in a different way, and look at it as a complex system by itself, with all the actors involved. One of the things that I found in Europe, that we all look for this decision maker, right, who is the person we aim our model at. Well, in most cases it doesn’t exist because most decisions are made by default simply because nobody thinks about anything else. That’s a really interesting lesson. When you start looking at decision making on a more sort of systematic basis, you come up with a number of things like that.

Another part of that is more forecasting, more future-ing, more scenarios. We have a huge need for more scenarios. In particular making scenarios right now is in the hands of industry or government. There is very little that goes on in academia. There is very little that is on forecasting and that is actually has the critical aspect of what academic disciplines are all about. I would argue that we need more of that. Finally, we need to evaluate the things that we choose against the things that we haven’t chosen.

Now, this is not very much. I will leave that one because I am over time, and this would be a long story to explain. So, thank you very much. We’ll leave it at that. [Applause]

As you know, we have a little bit of time to have questions if you feel like it. No obligation but if there is anything that I can try and explain better, because I went through all of this very, very fast, very heavy. Somebody out there. I have a real hard time with this shining light to actually see all of you.

Audience Member 1: Your brilliance is blinding [cross talk ] [laughter]. Thank you. That’s an incredible, wide-ranging presentation. I was really interesting in one of your last slides that said all these changes require a new mindset. It was red so I think that’s probably ‘cause it’s pretty important. You’ve indicated there’s a number of different mindsets—reductionist scientific mindset. You’ve talked about how our cognitive evolution and metabiological evolution and social evolution has created the mindset. I’m wondering if you could talk about what you see are some of the key elements of the mindset we need going forward to address all of the issues sustainability and otherwise you identify in your presentation.

Sander van der Leeuw: Some of those are more hidden in this overall thing, and because I went a little bit faster doesn’t come out. I think one of the fundamental things about that change in mindset is this thinking about what might be the unintended consequences of what I’m actually doing, and that in everyday life, whether it’s on your bicycle or eating a steak or lighting a cigarette—which you can’t do anymore at the university which is very good. [Laughter]. Basically you need to start thinking about the consequences of what you’re doing. Because over the last two centuries we have so quickly moved from no longer simply respecting the way it is because it is that way, which is what we had in the 17th century, to the point where now we need to always change things. I think that is a fundamental aspect. That goes for economy, for many, many different areas. I think that is the most—the shortest way in which you can actually summarize what I am talking about. There are many other aspects to it.

One of the things that I would like to accentuate here is that when we deal with technology we are able to create just about anything nowadays. I would argue that the limits are in what we would like to create. We need to be much more selective about what we would like to create. We need, in that context, to think about the social consequences of what we engineer. I’ve tried for several years now to get—and maybe we’re getting there—to open a little window for socially responsible engineering, for example. It’s not because these people are irresponsible, but because science and technology studies have never really yet managed to get the point across that whatever you invent, it will change society no matter what. It will change it not only in the desired way, but also in a number unintended ways. That is what we need to think about more.

Evaluating our choices against the other options and their potential unintended consequences is another really fundamental aspect of where I would like to see us go. But then there are educational aspects, there’s a lot else.

Audience Member 2: Thank you for a very stimulating presentation. I’ve been interested in complexity as it applies to the theory of medicine and disease. Much of what you said is transportable to that particular sphere as well. I’ve given a significant thought—I don’t know how deep my thought is—but significant thought to the notion if we solve the problem of complexity, then what?—the notion of unintended consequences. I think it’s a slippery slope and it’s dangerous. The reason why I say that is if we solve complexity, creativity then becomes compromised. Economic systems collapse because we can then predict the stock market. Human behaviors can also be predicted, and I’m not sure where that would lead. I wondered if you would comment on that in terms of the ultimate unintended consequence. Thank you.

Sander van der Leeuw: Okay. I don’t believe that we’ll ever solve the complex systems. It’s as simple as that. It is a new way of looking at some of these things. Some of it will work, some of it won’t work. It’s now what Edison always said, the blood, sweat, and tears that come into this. We are only beginning to get to that phase. I should also say that having been infected over recent months by Anna Barker and George Post in developing ideas about biomedical aspects of medicine and of complex systems, I’m beginning to see more and more elements of medicine where this can actually be useful. I was very pleased to hear Anna say, just before we started, that she’s just given conferences in London and in China and got a huge amount of attention about the potential for certain, very specific questions to actually start looking at them in this particular way. The whole thing is way too complex. We’ll never do that. We may just lift the tip of the whole mystery and get a better grip on how we’re going.

But, and I’ll go back to my last answer, I think another way to do this is to actually literally slow down our rate of innovation and focus it much better. Because in part from everything else and the unintended consequences, it’s a huge waste of material and human capital to keep innovating in every which way. I think we can do much better than that. Okay.

Moderator: There’s time for one more question.

Sander van der Leeuw: [Inaudible], it’s two. [Laughter] We can have two. Sure.

Audience Member 3: I’m actually a student with the school. A couple of semesters ago, I was asked to write, as a class project, a energy plan for the United States in a 50 year time scale. The problem that kept coming up over and over and over again as I was trying to write this was the unpredictability of both technology and social systems. How, over long time scales—50 to 100 years and beyond—do we account for the uncertainty and unpredictability in these systems?

Sander van der Leeuw: We don’t account for that [inaudible]. We basically design for change. We have a permanent, and much more frequent that we do now, feedback system that creates a reflexivity against where we are in this system and what we would like and what we wouldn’t like. That would be my personal answer. Now I know an energy specialist and I’ve discussing some of this with people. It’s an incredibly difficult issue. What I said actually is more general. I think it is a characteristic—and it goes back to the last question, also in part—a characteristic of complex systems that you don’t predict where it’ll end up, but that you permanently explore all the possible scenarios where it could go next. Because as soon as one of those is implemented, the attractions, the attractivities around the system change, and so something else will start happening. There will always be a dose of unpredictable in it, hence this idea of adaptive design, and trying to begin to think about that. Now, he—he or she over there.

Audience Member 4: Hello.

Sander van der Leeuw: Hi.

Audience Member 4: First, thank you for an amazing lecture. I think all of colleagues really enjoyed it. When you say focus our innovation, do you think it’s more productive to focus on things like complex systems, or is it more productive to focus on building off the research of others?

Sander van der Leeuw: I am not arguing for one kind of innovation or another. What I am saying is the fact that right now in New York, according to the bar codes, there are more than a million and a half objects being sold, and all are a little bit different. The question is do we really need to keep going in that path? If we look at the last 50 years that’s been a huge explosion. I would argue maybe we can do with a few fewer gadgets, you know, and maybe we can do—and this is another really interesting aspect. I’m glad you raised that because I forgot to talk about that earlier on. We need increasing value to keep or society together. How about immaterial values? The really interesting anthropological example, which is open to a lot of debate but I’ll nevertheless present it to you ‘cause I think it speaks for this, that is this famous Kula Ring, which is the trade of objects across a large part of the South Pacific. In order to trade things you always want to trade up. You want something that has more value. Interesting thing is these objects keep circulating, and they’re the same objects. Why would they circulate? Well, because the value attached to them is in the story that goes with them. It is the immaterial value that actually creates the value of the object. I would argue we can use quite a bit more of that.

Audience Member 4: Awesome.