Governments pursue economic development primarily through the innovation of new technologies, goods and services. It is imperative that strategies for achieving such innovation be based on a deep understanding of the processes whereby innovations happen and become embedded in economic and social practices. These processes include the cognitive processes whereby people generate new ideas about possible artefacts and the technical and organizational processes that produce such artefacts, as well as the social processes through which these artefacts come to be valued and exchanged in the marketplace. To formulate effective strategies to encourage innovation processes, it would certainly be desirable to model them, in order to improve understanding of their dynamics, to identify likely candidates for control levers, and to evaluate the effects of alternative policies. But successful innovations bring in their wake large-scale transformations in the structure of the relationships between agents and between agents and artefacts, transformations that bring into being new kinds of entities, new kinds of relationships, and new kinds of activities around which agent and agent-artefact relationships are structures.
But on the other side of the coin, these profound changes that are, as it were, unintended (or at least unforeseen) consequences of innovations, can threaten the stability of social systems. In the past, generally, there was enough time to integrate such changes into the fabric of society as they occurred. More recently, however, the predisposition of our societies to innovate more and more rapidly, leaves less and less time for that integration. In a way, we seem to be out-innovating ourselves. What, for example, will be the consequences of the combined NBICS innovation cascade that is about to hit us, and on which our institutions have no grip whatsoever? This would seem potentially dangerous for the stability of global society, because it will engender a very small elite that has the know-how and the information to control ever more aspects of our social and environmental dynamics, and because the remainder of society can no longer even intuitively form itself an image of what is actually going on.
In those circumstances, it would seem of the utmost urgency that we gain sufficient understanding of the innovative process itself to be able to anticipate some of its outcomes, and at least avoid the most dramatic surprises.
Complex systems theory provides a set of concepts and tools that can be mobilized to address these important issues. In fact, ideas of multi-level hierarchies of heterogeneous interacting entities, engaging in processes with very different spatio-temporal scales are necessary merely to describe the organization of agent-artefact space and the transformations in this structure, which generate new attributions of artefact functionality.