Origins of Novelty in Biological, Social, and Technological Systems: Towards a General Theory of Innovation

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organized by Andreas Wagner (University of Zurich), Jose Lobo and Manfred Laubichler (Arizona State University), and Jennifer Dunne (SFI)

Where does novelty come from? This question, which is both general and ubiquitous, is the central theme of a workshop to be held at the Santa Fe Institute October 13-17, 2014. The ability to innovate (i.e., to generate novel features or behaviors) is a defining characteristic of complex systems. Biological, technological, socioeconomic, political and cultural transformations all presuppose that at some point in time “novelties” occur. But what drives the origin of new processes, structures, organizations, artifacts, solutions, or behaviors? Innovation has been an important topic, in a variety of guises, in many SFI-associated research efforts. The workshop—organized by Jennifer Dunne (SFI Chair of Faculty), Manfred Laubichler (Arizona State University, SFI External Faculty), Andreas Wagner (University of Zurich, SFI External Faculty) and José Lobo (Arizona State University)—will draw on the accumulated insights and available expertise present in the SFI community to vigorously scrutinize whether an overarching explanatory framework for the origins of novelty can be developed. Conceptually and empirically there are tantalizing hints that such a framework can indeed be built, but there are also formidable challenges (starting with identifying and measuring novelty) in building a formal and explanatorily rich theory of innovation. The participants’ research experiences will inform the discussions with the insights gained by molecular and evolutionary developmental biology, ecology, archaeology, anthropology, sociology, search theory, economics and technology studies. Invited participants are drawn from a large diversity of scientific areas and include SFI resident and external faculty, current and former postdocs, and science board members, as well as researchers drawn from outside SFI’s community. The workshop will serve as the start of a concerted effort, sponsored and guided by the Institute, to study innovation across disciplinary domains.