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Transition and stasis in society and biology: models, theories and narratives
March 18, 2013 8:00 am
March 22, 2013 5:00 pm
Claes Andersson
March 6, 2013
Sala Dorigo 3rd Floor, Ca’ Foscari Dorsoduro 3246
Ca Foscari, Dorsoduro 3246, Venice, VE, Italy

Last year, a workshop at the European Center of Living Technology entitled “Innovation, society and complexity: the dynamics of detecting, solving and creating problems” generated a number of interesting themes and contacts. Almost precisely a year later, we are now following up on one such theme with a workshop on “Transition and stasis in society and biology: models, theories and narratives”.

The workshop will be divided into two parts. Monday and Tuesday will consist of scheduled talks and discussions, while Wednesday and Thursday will be dedicated to working groups that form around topics of common interest that have emerged during the first two days. On Friday morning there will be a wrap-up discussion session.

The speakers have been invited to hold a short presentation as an introduction to a problem, concept or something else that they wish to put on the table for the workshop. The time allocated per talk is 30 minutes; discussion is pooled into sessions per day – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – so as to avoid fragmentation.

Topic Summary

Innovations in the domains of agriculture, technology, social and economic practices and institutions, among others, have shaped our current society. Yet unbridled innovation in every domain has also resulted in our current unsustainable situation. While our society pushes us towards more and more rapid innovation, we lack a general theory of innovation in biological, technological or other social and cultural systems, and have developed little understanding of how innovation has influenced the evolution of biological or cultural systems.  Indeed, most studies of innovation, whether at the origin of new clades of organisms, in the development of new technologies, or in the construction of new social systems and institutions, are primarily individual accounts or case studies.

We propose to bring together a group of scholars who are studying innovation in two major domains: biology and society. In both areas we need to view invention and innovation ‘ex ante’, as a process that does not have any predictable outcomes (and can therefore not be studied ‘ex post’). From a systemic perspective, innovation could in both be described as ‘self-invention’ – as a process that originates and is driven by internal dynamics rather than by external events or processes. In both, there is a starting point (heritable material and persistent environmental structures in the biological realm, existing sociotechnical structure in the social), and many factors influence the course of invention and innovation, so that the outcome cannot be predicted.

The point of departure for the workshop is the observation that the speed, mode and drivers of historical change are an understudied problem of great generality. Transition and stasis are salient problems in both biological and societal systems; and not least in archaeology and paleoanthropology where the two intermingle in interesting ways. In both cases, the complex systems whose evolution we need to better understand exhibit a multi-level organization where the different parts of the systems are widely entangled. Hence, the study of innovation shares similar methodological challenges in biology and in society.

In recent days, we are observing a degree of convergence between the ways in which biologists and students of innovation in society approaching these questions. Hence it seems to us that a fruitful and creative dialogue can be initiated by bringing members of these two communities together in a workshop in which they exchange ideas.