Theory and Knowledge Systems for Sustainability

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organized by Nina Federoff (Penn State University, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and Santa Fe Institute, Luis Bettencourt (Santa Fe Institute), and Molly Jahn (University of Wisconsin-Madison)


A mature science of sustainability, robustly grounded in complex systems theory, is needed to guide the exploitation of Earth’s resources and shift socio-ecological systems toward a more sustainable space for both people and the planet. This workshop will bring together leaders from SFI and the broader research community to consider a framework for systematic inquiry to undergird predictive, hypothesis-driven, empirically testable practice. We will explore the current state of relevant theory and practice in sustainability science at the land/water/energy/climate nexus. It is increasingly recognized that decisions at the smallest spatial and time scales aggregate across dimensions into global long-term trajectories. Yet sustainability challenges are often focused on improving “fast” variables, such as crop yield and water quality, without recognition of slower, underlying dynamics, such as the supporting ecosystem services or shifts in human dimensions. The workshop will explore systematized experimental approaches that build our ability to recognize, describe and intentionally manage slow variables in complex systems that affect humanity’s ability to provision itself sustainably. We will highlight the development and application of open, learning, knowledge systems that better reflect interactions between theory, models, data and information applied within geographically specified cases.