Complexity or Control?

Paradigms for Sustainable Development (CCP)

Ideas about “sustainable development,” “sustainability” and “sustainability science” currently dominate the public and scientific discourse worldwide. The overall state of our planet and the fact that a majority of the world’s population is exposed to substantial ecological, social and economic challenges warrants urgency and justifies the need for action. But what kind of action? Based on what scientific information? Aiming for what goals? Set by whom? Once these questions are asked, the consensus that sustainability is a self-evident value and that we have the right kind of scientific insights needed to achieve sustainable development disappears fast. We disagree about who gets to set the agenda (“top-down” or “bottom-up” — ideally both, but then in what combination); what the methodological foundations of sustainability science are (the natural, social, or economic sciences — again, ideally all of them, but how can we integrate across deep methodological and conceptual divides); and the epistemological and cultural values for achieving sustainability (the techno-scientific ideal of control or the idea of open-ended interactions and co-evolutionary dynamics leading to emergent phenomena)?

Furthermore, our track record of making progress on known problems is, to be blunt, miserable. We focus on saving water and are confronted with corroding pipes and raising ground water levels; we fight infections with antibiotics and breed resistance to the point that we face an imminent and catastrophic shortage of effective drugs; we increase life expectancy and bankrupt pension systems. The list goes on. All these failures are linked to a fundamental property of those systems we aim to sustain: as complex systems they are governed by non-linear interactions between their parts that lead to emergent behavior and unintended consequences as part of co-evolutionary processes. In light of these reflections we propose the following question for our project:

What are the fundamental conceptual, theoretical, methodological, epistemological and social/cultural dimensions for a science of sustainable development, one that takes all the complexities of the problem into account?

Our project focuses on the foundations for a science of sustainable development from an interdisciplinary perspective that combines approaches from digital and computational history/history of science, media studies, transdisciplinary methods development, complexity theory and sustainability science.

In our analysis we will focus on the following interrelated questions:

  • 1) Knowledge and media history of control: What role does the discourse of cybernetics and control play in shaping ideas about sustainability?
  • 2) Knowledge and media history of complexity: In what way do ideas about complex systems replace the notion of cybernetics and control in the context of sustainability science?
  • 3) Knowledge history of sustainability science: What modes of transdisciplinary research have emerged in the field of sustainability science?
  • 4) Methods of transdisciplinary research: What are the necessary elements of a critical and historical epistemology and methodology of sustainability science?

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