Journeys in transitions

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Stellenbosch University has asked systems biologist Prof Jannie Hofmeyr and I to be the Co-Directors of a new Stellenbosch University ‘flagship’ initiative called the Stellenbosch Centre for Complex Systems in Transition (CST). Our conceptual project is to build a framework that synthesizes complexity thinking, sustainability science and transition from a transdisciplinary perspective.

We have three empirical case studies:

1. Water systems with a focus on the Breede River (in partnership with the Water Institute and Faculty of AgriScience)
2. Embedded Photovoltaic systems for domestic households across South Africa (in partnership with Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies),
3. Peri-urban food systems (in partnership with the Sustainability Institute and the FoodLab).

We had a meeting to dream and strategise, followed by a three day workshop with Dave Snowden on how to use his Sensemaker tools for conducting qualitative research from an applied complexity perspective. In the meeting we agreed to each sketch out what we think our ‘core body of work’ is about.

This is what I found myself writing out:

“My core interest is in the dynamics of transitions that over time and at different scales unevenly and in non-linear easily reversible ways, result in a fundamental structural change in the nature of societal organization and its concomitant relationship to natural systems.

  • At the temporal scale there are the metabolic shifts from the hunter gatherer societies to agricultural societies starting some 13000 years go, and still incomplete (there are still hunter gatherers);
  • and then the shift from agricultural to industrial societies that started some 250 years ago, and also still incomplete (there are still predominantly agricultural societies);
  • and the start now of the shift from industrial societies based on fossil fuels and resource exploitation to sustainable societies that will probably take a century, and will not complete itself either.
  • At the scalar level I am primarily interested in the massive shift in population from predominantly rural to predominantly urban environments in the global South over a mere 8 decades, with 50% of what is predicted to be urban in 2050 still to happen over the next 4 decades globally.

These are all structural shifts – the metabolic shifts from agricultural to industrial, from industrial to sustainable, and the structural economic shifts over the five cycles of industrial growth and decline since the start of the industrial revolution.

What I am really interested in is how the transitions took place, and what this means for our understanding of how we can accelerate the transition that needs to happen now (see my 2013 paper on this).

This is why I am interested in the micro-dynamics of societal and institutional actors and the non-human actors (in the Latourian sense) with whom they either consciously or unconsciously interact (hence the importance of the 4 films from the Food Revolution project).

I am particularly interested in cities because this is where we find particularly intense interactions between societal and institutional actors and their ecological counterparts giving rise not only to alternative visions to drive the global transitions.

And at the centre of these interactions is the built environment – the artefacts of modernization that we have constructed on a massive scale, all made possible by energy from fossil fuels, which is coming to an end. And so, out of crisis, like always, emerges the dynamics of innovation and transformation that underpins the emergent outcomes we call ‘new paradigms’. However, this time round it is not happening because a great thinker came up with a great new way of thinking about the world – there is no Galileo, no Newton, no Adam Smith, no Marx, no Keynes, no Bateson, no Shakespeare, no Hobbes or JS Mill.

We now work within this environment that Castells refers to as making possible “self-managed mass communication”, where mass communication no longer emanates from a powerful centre.

The future, therefore, is being made out of unprecedented and increasingly accelerated modes of collaboration – think of the Amsterdam Declaration of 2001 signed by scientists from over 100 countries to create the Earth-System Science Partnership, or how the IPCC works, or how the SDGs were formulated, and thousands of other global networks that are reshaping every day how things look.

And therefore the incredible significance of the sensemaker technology for gathering stories in a way that bridges the age-old gap that social scientists have always been plagued with.

While I want to continue to work on cities and their dynamics of transition, and also on the metabolic transition with my colleagues in the International Resource Panel (see my overview of this work), I also want to work with the World Academy of Art and Science on the development of a New Economic Theory that at its core must be driven by what I call ‘realworldism’.

That is, instead of what economics is now as a form of extreme reductionism (rooted in the notion of the rational individual), that it is instead translated into beautiful mathematically elegant models, and projected back onto to society based on the assumption that the models accurately reflect the real world.

An alternative must be TD-type thinking to build new kinds of models that are derived from the COMPLEXITY of real world dynamics – that, to me is the key to a new economic theory and paradigm.”