Complex systems theory: The role of invention, sustainability, and innovation in societies


On November 15 the Dean of the School of Sustainability, Sander van der Leeuw, spoke at the Tempe Center for the Arts about complex systems theory on the role of sustainability and innovation in societies as part of the distinguished Wrigley Lecture Series. The lecture focused on the evolution of human minds and how people have historically worked together to improve societies through the role of invention and innovation.

Through Complex systems theory, van der Leeuw suggests that the study of evolution within societies cannot be separated from the study of environmental change. Sander van der Leeuw focused on three specific phases of human innovation: the subject of matter, energy, and information.

  1. Energy and matter cannot be shared but are necessary for survival.
  2. Information can be shared and shaped to evolve new ideas.
  3. Problem solving increases information processing capacity.

In other words, humans cannot share energy and matter but are able to harness it by transforming the organization of their environment. By transforming the environment, there is a need to innovate new ideas to adapt into a new environment thus broadening humans’ availability to information by sharing and evolving new ideas together. Problem solving increases collective cognitive development and allows a society to move from one direction into a new one that makes up the environment fit for their current way of life. This new way of life is a different, more complex system made in order to keep up with an environmentally changing world. An example of the transfer into a more complex system would be the transition of people moving from hunter-gather lifestyle to a point where people settle into a specific area. People choosing to settle in one spot needed to develop different tools to survive. They accelerated their inventiveness and made tools alternative to ones that they had already made. The invention of agriculture and harvesting tools made it easier for people to control their food in a consistently changing environment.

Currently, humans are in a geologic period that some geologists and sociology scientists call the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is an epoch that marks the extent and evidence that human activities have had a considerable global impact on the Earth's ecosystems. The purpose of Sander van der Leeuw’s lecture is to think about the types of innovation that will need to happen in order to keep up with a rapidly changing environment. Although humans can never predict what is going to happen in the future, with the use of sustainability we can practice planning and design to prepare for change.

Preparing for change is, in other words, forecasting into the future. As sustainability-conscious people, we must be able to boldly ask questions such as: What sort of future would we like to see in the year 2050? What are our current energy needs and how are they going to change? What are scientific projections of climate change and how can we build systems that start making a positive impact on the environment? Simply being aware and asking these questions can help society tremendously and benefit the continuation of research and development within sustainable science fields.

“In the core of societies we need to be more innovative,” said van der Leeuw. “Innovation drives organization.”

The collaboration of people organizing to communicate energy problems is a great opportunity taking place here at Arizona State University. Continuing workshop efforts like the recent LightWorks Inaugural Lecture Series “Envisioning Sustainable Transportation Trajectory- System 2012-2050” workshop and the upcoming Energy Club workshop on the Water-Energy Nexus will greatly help in planning for future needs on a regional to international level. Societies will depend on these innovative thinking groups to envision and plan for a new environment that benefits us all.

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

Photo by Anick Coudart of ASU News

Additional Information: