This special issue brings together articles that illustrate the recent advances of studying complex adaptive systems in industrial ecology (IE). The authors explore the emergent behavior of sociotechnical systems, including product systems, industrial symbiosis (IS) networks, cities, resource consumption, and co-authorship networks, and offer application of complex systems models and analyses. The articles demonstrate the links, relevance, and implications of many (often emerging) fields of study to IE, including network analysis, participatory modeling, nonequilibrium thermodynamics, and agent-based modeling. Together, these articles show that IE itself is a complex adaptive system, where knowledge, frameworks, methods, and tools evolve with and by their applications and use in small and large case studies—multidisciplinary knowledge ecology.
In the special issue “Complexity and Industrial Ecology” (Volume 13, Number 2, 2009), Dijkema and Basson (2009, 157) propose that “…complexity theory and its tools has potential to shift the frontier of Industrial Ecology, by enhancing the quality of systems analysis and by underpinning recommendations for redirecting industrial development towards sustainability.” Indeed, in action-oriented IE (Nikolić et al. 2009), we arguably study “complex, layered and dynamic systems that interact with their environment and thereby perpetually affect one another” (Dijkema and Basson 2009, 157). Indeed, we study sociotechnical systems, where the social evolves the technical and vice versa (de Bruijn and Herder 2009). Both their evolution and impact occur at multiple spatial, temporal, and systems scales. Where it has been argued that “sustainability” is an anthropocentric, normative concept (Allenby 2009; Ehrenfeld 2007), from complexity science we may learn that sustainability is an emerging characteristic of the complex adaptive system of our planet earth and any subsystem or part thereof (Nikolić et al. 2009).
Taking a complex systems approach and applying complex systems methods can thus deepen and broaden our understanding of resource, production, and consumption systems. In fact, these methods can help us determine how these systems shape both the relation and the mutual impact between us humans and the planet. It provides information to underpin policy and strategy for sustainable development.
The articles, columns, and forums in this special issue, “Advances in Complex Adaptive Systems and Industrial Ecology,” reveal the frontiers of the application of complexity theory in IE, building on the success of the 2013 Industrial Society for Industrial Ecology conference in Ulsan, Korea (17–20 June 2013).