In “The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves,” W. Brian Arthur, a noted complexity economist who works at Santa Fe, has put forward a new theory of the relationship between science, economy and technology. McKinsey Principle Eric Beinhocker has described it as “The most important book on technology and the economy since Schumpeter

Arthur’s basic argument is that the relationship between technology, science and the economy is more symbiotic that previously thought. Not only does he see the three as co-evolving, but he argues that technology may be the leading factor.

But one of the core challenges faced in understanding technology and its contribution is that it is so hard to discuss and debate in an objective manner. Arthur likens technology to music, as follows:

…Technology is a bit like music in that there is an enormous amount known about individual technologies, and in music we know the scores of every composer who left records. We know every note in every composition, but if you ask what music is, and where the musical part of music comes from, you’re in a quite deep philosophical conversation…”

This question as to the nature of technology is at the heart of the book (as the title suggests). To answer it, Arthur draws extensively from his and others’ work on complexity science.

He describes technologies evolving based on the chaotic and constant recombining of already existing technologies. Technological breakthroughs emerge as novel combinations of existing technological components, which have themselves come into existence through the same process. In his own rather poetic terms:

Technology is “alive” in the sense that a coral reef is alive. The reef is an ecological system with many species, and technology in the broadest sense is an elaborate and constantly changing structure made up of thousands of discrete technologies, themselves composed of separate technologies.”

What then drives this technological ecosystem? Arthur points to the human propensity to solve problems as the force that leads to new generations of technology, through recombination of existing technologies. This is a profoundly social and complexity-informed view of the relationship between economy, innovation and technology. 

There are a number of development researchers who are already working with such a dynamic, complexity-informed approach to the interaction between society, technology and development – the STEPS programme at IDS comes immediately to mind. Elsewhere, UNESCO researchers have highlighted the importance of complexity for understanding how social transformations result from scientific and technological innovation. Operationally, the work of Practical Action stands out. 

Much experience in international development would appear support one of Arthur’s conclusions – you can have the best technology in the world, but ultimately, social transformation comes down to technology which speaks to and engages with the reality of peoples’ lives. As Practical Action put it in their mission statement:

“The tools may be simple or sophisticated – but to provide long-term, appropriate and practical answers, they must be firmly in the hands of local people: people who shape technology and control it for themselves.”

 (With thanks due to John Markoff)

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. Aw, this was a really quality post. In theory I’d like to write like this too – taking time and real effort to make a good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and never seem to get something done.


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Economics, Knowledge and learning, Reports and Studies, Technology