The Wicked Foundations of the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene describes how human society has now become the dominant force on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. The notion of the Anthropocene highlights a confounding contradiction: we have an unprecedented ability to control the world around us, yet we are using this power to destroy the preconditions for our own existence, and we seem strangely unable to do anything about it.

It seems our ability to change our world is not matched by an equal ability to understand it. The Anthropocene describes a world of intertwined drivers, deep uncertainty, complex structures, emergent phenomena, and unintended consequences expressed across different scales of analysis and subject to multiple and connected biophysical and social constraints. In comparison, the innovation of a marketable product is easy.

This blog focuses on the crises of the Anthropocene from the perspective of technological innovation, showing how our society’s innovation links two important aspects of the Anthropocene: unsustainability and uncertainty.

Why are these problems so difficult?

Crises and problems, such as those alluded to above, are often described as “complex” – but it is remains rather unclear what this concept actually entails. In complexity science, its meaning is often explained by separating between complexity and complicatedness.

Complicatedness is the property of a car or a space shuttle: these systems have lots of bits and pieces, but while it may take a long time to explain how they all fit together, it’s not very hard to do so: each part fills a logical function in the larger whole.

Complexity, on the other hand, can be exemplified by an anthill, in which hundreds of thousands of simple interacting ants give rise to a whole from a bottom up process that is hard to predict or understand.

Image of an anthill with a few ants walking on top of it
Photo caption: Anthill of soldier ants, on a rainforest trail in Costa Rica. Credit: Sebastien Chorney. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This separation between complicated and complex makes intuitive sense, and helps us be more specific about what we mean when we talk about problems that are hard to deal with. But it also begs the question: what about the Anthropocene – is it complex or complicated?

There are clearly good arguments for either position: societies are undeniably complicated with large structures of qualitatively different institutions. At the same time, a society can also be convincingly argued to be a self-organized bottom-up system – full of examples of mass-interaction among individuals which are hard to analyse, let alone predict.

Clearly, there is no reason – except tradition – why these properties would be mutually exclusive: a system could be both complicated and complex at the same time, and in fact, the Anthropocene world would appear to be an excellent example of such a system.

Studies departing from this idea have shown that the combination between complex and complicated is more than the sum of its parts, constituting a separate category of systems with qualities different from both. Wicked systems – the term sometimes used to refer to this category of systems – is a system where central assumptions of scientific methods no longer hold, making them toothless.

Why is our society producing crises?

Wicked systems have been shown to be closely interlinked with innovation: they are both produced and producers of innovation. This provides the link to our contemporary society.

systems graphic
Claes Andersson, Anton Törnberg, Petter Törnberg, Societal systems – Complex or worse?, Futures, Volume 63, November 2014, Pages 145-157, ISSN 0016-3287.

Today, innovation has become reified as a goal in its own right: explicitly subjected to itself, and elevated to a moral and economic imperative, with the aim of improving its own function. We have entered into an “innovation society” in which innovation has become an ideology. This ideology praises that a natural growth has in a deep sense turned cancerous: it is no longer motivated, controlled or limited by needs, but has become a goal in itself.

As was shown in a recent research project, our innovation processes take the form of a cycle of positive feedback, as demand and supply both became part of the process. These dynamics have become ever more important in the organization and ideological superstructure of our society.

Constant self-driven innovation entails the generation of externalities – unexpected side-effects. Humans are certainly capable of responding to such side-effects, but are limited by the uncertainty of the world we inhabit, which not only prevents us from designing effective interventions but also keeps us from aligning and organizing action. This leads to externalities piling up and turning into crises.

This closes our circle, in that our system of constant innovation has the two characterizing features of the Anthropocene as its outcome: a constant increase in society’s wickedness, and the generation of ever-larger and more frequent crises.

This calls for solutions to the problems of the Anthropocene that are not directed at its symptoms – the multitude of crises – but at the root cause: the structure of the innovation system that will inherently result in these crises. We need to find alternative sustainable processes for producing innovation and monitoring its social and environmental effects.

There already exists a substrate of such alternative processes: hackerspaces, crowdsourcing, open source technology and social innovation. These can all lend inspiration in our transition to a socially and environmentally sustainable innovation system. We must realize, however, that the construction of such a system is not an engineering problem, but calls on us to embrace, and indeed harness, the wickedness of wicked systems.

by Petter Törnberg. Petter works as a doctorate within the complex systems group at Physical Resource Theory, Chalmers University of Technology. His work focuses on applying a complexity perspective to analyse the social implications of the innovation processes of our society, attempting to find ways to improve these processes to reduce their negative social and environmental externalities.