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Sustainability, Collaboration and Complexity Science

John Motloch, Landscape Architecture & Land Design Institute, Ball State University

We are living in an exciting, unprecedented time, when the world within the mind (of an individual or culture) and the world beyond the mind (the physical-ecological -social system) are changing at an accelerating pace. Until recently in Earth's history, these two worlds operated as one complex adaptive system, with both worlds co-adapting, and humankind surviving as many different cultures each co-adapted with its place. Through the past two centuries, rate of human-induced change has increased profoundly and has occurred without the collaboration needed to enable co-adaptation. This has produced human impacts that exceed the rate at which the complex adapting system co-adapts its huge number of interconnected entities and interactions in ways that sustain whole-system complexity. Humanity is only now beginning to understand that, as an integral part of this complex adaptive system, humankind relies totally upon this complexity and co-adaptation for our survival and sustained health and prosperity.

Through the ages, modern man learned to adapt behaviors so as to populate virtually every bioregion on Earth and then, over time, to live outside local, regional and eventually global limits. Along the way, escalating technologies empowered by scientific knowledge have increased the impact of these technologies on Earth ... to now exceed the rate of DNA-informed co-adaptation. As a result, about four decades ago Earth arrived at a change threshold. As humankind continued its failure to embrace a co-adapting worldview, and continued its failure to operate as an integral part of complex adaptive systems, the very systems upon which we ultimately rely have been pushed to their tipping point.

Humankind is now in the process of deciding whether Earth as a complex adaptive system emerges to a higher level of health and productivity, sustains its current level, or only regenerates at a lower level. What we decide, and resulting global human behaviors, will determine whether, as part of that complex adaptive system, global society operates at a higher or lower level of sustainable production, health and prosperity. Fortunately, for 50+ years the world within the mind has been adapting toward a post-modern worldview that can empower it to embrace complexity, collaboration, and co-adaptation. Science has likewise been evolving to embrace the diversity of knowledge systems, and to appreciate complexity. Together this new worldview and science can help humankind learn how to sustain diversity and to collaborate so as to re-empower Earth as a complex adaptive system.

Complexity science also has the ability to see the very things that differentiate humankind from other species as integral parts of the complex adapting system that we refer to as nature. Science can appreciate that the majority of human-impacts to complex adaptive systems occur within built-environments; and that co-adaptation of the whole of nature – including its human-built and non-built environments – is essential to natural system health and regeneration. Complexity science can realize that in today's human-dominated ecosystems, to be sustainable, development must be part of a healthy, complex and co-adapting system, where collaboration informs decisions that sustain the system's ability to complexify. This includes collaboration among people who have different ways of thinking: people with laboratory-based knowledge and people who make things work in the complex, messy world; people within and outside specific disciplines; people with traditional knowledge and others with science-based knowledge; academic scientists, vernacular scientists, and artists; and people focused on built environments as well as those focused on non-built environments.

Unfortunately as Earth's biocapacity decreased, global societies intensified their competition for limited resources (to the detriment of Earth and humankind), rather than embracing the deep-collaboration needed for Earth to co-adapt into a more productive system. Education that promotes the collaboration needed for diversification, co-adaptation, and sustainability is the goal of my teaching, research, and co-leadership in U.S. Department of Education (FIPSE) funded international consortia at Ball State University. It is also the mission of The Sustainable Communities Institute (non-profit 501-3C) that I co-direct that focuses on whole systems, clean technologies, whole-system solutions, and sustainable development.

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Sustainability, Collaboration and Complexity Science (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB Jul16 12)