Providing sound theoretical roots to sustainability science: systems science and (second-order) cybernetics

Abstract

After its infant stage, a new science usually starts reflexing on its identity and theoretical roots. Sustainability science is not an exception, and the needs of self-reflection are even more pressing because of its inter- and trans-disciplinary characters, which involve a plenty of different approaches, theories and practices. In fact, such a variety does not provide a consistent ground for its future development. Without a solid grounding on a reliable base, the plethora of different theories that currently crowds its arena could in the near future produce a rejection from disciplinary specialized researchers, thus confining sustainability science to a scientific fad. Convincing theoretical roots can be found in systems science and cybernetics, and in particular second-order cybernetics, once amended from autopoiesis theory and radical constructivism, which raise serious doubts of validity and applicability. If sustainability science acknowledged its systemic and cybernetic nature and adopted second-order cybernetics in its amended version, it would gain a powerful reference paradigm and a theoretical common denominator and language to support its researchers and facilitate their knowledge exchange. From their part, systems science and cybernetics would be better understood and embraced as powerful sources of knowledge for understanding modern challenging problems, and second-order cybernetics, after decades of scarce relevance for other scientific disciplines, would be revitalized and would finally evolve adequately in a promising science and social practice.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This polisemic state of the art is confirmed by the scientometric analysis made by Kajikawa et al. (2008) on about 10,000 papers concerning sustainability published up to 2005.

  2. 2.

    I am not arguing here that what survives is necessarily the absolute best, the optimum. On the contrary, each best is always local and temporarily, and tomorrow or elsewhere could reveal unfit or far less than the best.

  3. 3.

    Indeed, nowadays at list these journals are focusing on and systematically contributing to some common issues. Just to name one of them, let see at the question of creating appropriate indexes for a sustainable society. The list would considerably lengthen when enlarging the spectrum also to methodological aspects, in which case we should add journals like Environmental Modelling & Software, Ecological Modelling, etc.

  4. 4.

    Among the exterminate and fast growing literature on applied sustainability using cybernetics or systems principles, see Blay-Palmer (2010), Kopainsky et al. (2012), Lang and Barling (2012), Smith and Stirling (2010), just to name a few recent ones.

  5. 5.

    The claim for trans-disciplinarity is frequently made also by other authors within the field of SS: see for instance, Lang et al. (2012).

  6. 6.

    Jernek et al. (2011) and Kumazawa et al. (2009) deepen the issue of knowledge structuring, but do not touch SS theoretical grounds or roots.

  7. 7.

    As in many other fields of science, art and literature, most scientists were Europeans escaped from Nazis’ persecution or war life. To have an idea of the key-scientists in the cybernetics group see Heims (1982, 1991) and Scott (2004). More recently, Kline (2015) revisits that history, and provides arguments to explain the relevance of cybernetics for current and future society.

  8. 8.

    It is worth specifying the adjective “mechanical”, because scientists often forget that, though its properties are very different from those of the mechanical systems, even social systems—at least those that are intentionally built up—are "artificial" in the sense of men-made, that is, produced by the society and not by the nature alone.

  9. 9.

    As Wiener says in the introduction to the original edition of his foundational book (1948), the term “cybernetics” was chosen by him and the Mexican neurophysiologist Arturo Rosenblueth to recall the concept of feedback and its regulation mechanisms that Clerk Maxwell called “governors” in a paper published in 1868. Wiener writes also that his ideas and those of Shannon regarding the mathematical theory of communication were consistent and supporting each other. In fact, the debate developed during the 60s and 70s on the nature of self-organizing systems referred always to Wiener’s and Shannon’s works on feedback mechanisms and information entropy, respectively. See Ashby (1956, 1960) and von Foerster (1982).

  10. 10.

    Not to say of the special recursive logics elaborate to his aim by Günther (1962, 1967) and Spencer-Brown (1968), then applied by Varela (1979) to biological systems and particularly to the immune system.

  11. 11.

    Since the logical and semantic paradoxes discovered by Russell’s and Withehead’s “Principia Mathematica”, circular thinking has been almost always rejected as source of paradoxes or avoidable difficulties.

  12. 12.

    In physics, Haken (1983), Nicolis and Prigogine (1977) and Eigen and Winkler (1993) deserve self-organization a primary place; in mathematics, I have already mentioned the theory of recursive functions, and more precisely into the field of logical self-reference, Günther’s (1962, 1967) works; in computer science, von Neumann (1958) made the seminal work on self-reproducing automata, soon followed by cellular automata (Wolfram 1994) and Boolean network studies (Kauffman 1993, 1995), then evolved into artificial life (Waldrop 1992) and later into artificial societies; in biology, Kauffman L (1986) and Kauffman SA (1993, 1995); in various other fields, Foerster and Zopf (1962), Roth and Schwegler (1981), Yates (1987), Yovits and Cameron (1960), Zeleny (1980, 1981). The axiomatization of self-reproducing automata was provided by Löfgren (1968).

  13. 13.

    There is indeed a third sense of including the observer into his observations: the idea is that when an observer interacts with an observed system (at least some kinds of observed systems), he modifies it, so that object is no more the previous one: it becomes a new object derived from the interaction between the observer and the observed. Thus, it is a source of true (insurmountable) complexity (Biggiero 2001a). It can be read as a manifestation of Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle, which in fact is very well-known also into the realm of organization science under the label of the Hawthorn effect. More generally, all expectation- or observation-based phenomena, such as self-fulfilling prophecies, produce forms of Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle when they concern social systems (Biggiero 1997).

  14. 14.

    In “Useful amendments and integrations to second-order cybernetics”, while proposing amendments to the adoption of SOC, I will come back on this point. To place autopoiesis and radical constructivism within the development of SOC see Glanville (2004) and Scott (2004).

  15. 15.

    Viewed from current eyes of modern cultural anthropology, sociology and social network analysis, this conceptualization could sound not so innovative. However, the judgment changes when considering not only that more than 40 years passed, but (more importantly) that through that conceptualization the concrete problems of social, political or economic conflicts that sustainability choices can raise within communities can be analyzed and understood at a deep level.

  16. 16.

    Unfortunately, through operational research methods and its consistency with mainstream economics, the trivialized, oversimplified and inappropriate view is taught to students and applied to society and economy. For some criticisms on this issue see Biggiero (2016a). Interestingly, when these departments began to deal with robotics, and especially advanced robotics, such as robots societies, then they started to come back (or go forth) to the typical issues of SOC. In other words, when machines become truly complex, then the fundamental issues of self-organization and communication are unavoidable. For a discussion of the implications of robotization for economy and society, and its relationships with cybernetics and hierarchy, see Biggiero (2018).

  17. 17.

    For applications into the fields of economics, finance, technology policy, and management science, see Biggiero and Laise (2003, 2007) and Biggiero et al (2005).

  18. 18.

    Let us remind that there is also a sociological constructivism, born and developed totally independent of cybernetics, even though during the same decades. For an articulated answer to both sociological and cybernetic constructivism see Biggiero (2012), who places this issue within the debate on two alternative views of knowledge, seen as practice or possession, which he sees as a false juxtaposition suggested by the constructivist epistemology.

  19. 19.

    The researches of Maturana and Varela at Foerster’s Biological Computer Laboratory of the University of Illinois were focused exactly on the perceptions and view of frogs through its nervous system.

  20. 20.

    Eigenvalues are the fixed points, the attractors of a recursive function. This idea has been revalued and relaunched by Müller and Riegler (2017) and Kauffman (2017) as the ground on which building a new subject-based epistemology. I will come back on this point later on.

  21. 21.

    Let us notice that a good reason to not use reflexivity or self-reference as the broad term to indicate the operation of an entity on itself is that in the realm of logics we can admit simultaneity while in the realm of natural or social or artificial phenomena there is time sequence. Therefore, it should be used the concept of recursivity: an entry operates on itself in a different time lapse. The lack of distinction of these radically different domains and the undistinguished use of the term “reflexivity” is a source of many suggestions made by von Foerster, but also a source of confusion when attributing the properties of reflexive logics and mathematics to the properties of recursive processes in the real world. The concept itself of circular causality would be more appropriate to indicate that A determines B at the moment t, while B determines A at t + 1.

  22. 22.

    See Biggiero (2016a, b) for a short discussion of this point and the essential references to the broader debate.

  23. 23.

    See various papers in this same journal, and in particular Wiek et al. (2012).

  24. 24.

    Since the research on epigenetics in the nineties and post-genomics in the first decade of this century, we know that due to pseudo-Lamarkian learning processes or induced from the environment through food and chemicals, our deep inner structure do change over time. See Jablonka and Lamb (1995, 2000) and Choi and Friso (2009). It should be noticed that through bionics engineering the integration of a biological system with other biological or non-biological systems will be more and more strict.

  25. 25.

    To get a stimulating clue of them, check on wikipedia “List of cognitive biases”.

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Acknowledgements

The author thanks the two reviewers and Bernard Scott for their useful comments.

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Correspondence to Lucio Biggiero.

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The author declares there is no conflict of interest regarding the Journal Sustainability Science or the content of this specific contribution.

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Handled by Marialuisa Saviano, University of Salerno, Italy.

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Biggiero, L. Providing sound theoretical roots to sustainability science: systems science and (second-order) cybernetics. Sustain Sci 13, 1323–1335 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-018-0573-2

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Keywords

  • Complexity
  • Cybernetics
  • First-person account
  • Recursivity
  • Second-order
  • Self-organization
  • Sustainability
  • Systems science