Steering living and life-like complex systems

Workshop: Steering Living and Life-like Complex Systems, to be held at ALife XV in Cancún, Mexico, Mon 4th July 2016, 2:30-6:30pm

  • Next meetup – Coffee break  Wednesday morning 10-10.30am – near room Contoy
  • Lunch meetup – Thursday
  • Shared online doc – contact rob.mills at for access


Workshop – main session


New technologies that exploit or emulate the unique properties of living systems have great potential, but living and life-like systems inherently exhibit non-linearity and complexity, for which conventional “brute force” approaches appear insufficient. An emerging collection of approaches use “steering”, whereby we continually interact with systems and attempt to move them between attractors.  This may be achieved, for instance, via manipulating the abiotic environment (e.g. in the evolution of biofilms) or by artifacts injecting social information (e.g. in bio-hybrid societies), in each case, understanding system dynamics and using effective leverage points can thus reduce the effort needed to retain a given desirable state.  Conceptually-related approaches are also being proposed in life-like complex adaptive systems such as regional economies, industrial networks and smart cities.  Numerous crucial living and life-like systems consist of, or are profoundly influenced by, interconnected ecological, economic and social dynamics; and thus developing steering approaches may require the integration of participatory or political processes with tools from artificial life and complexity science.


The workshop will be a broad-ranging and discursive event, with a number of short, provocative talks covering key themes and questions in steering complex systems from different perspectives.  To maximise output and progress on ideas, it will comprise two main sessions, as well as a workshop dinner and informal scheduled coffee time discussion meetups.  The main sessions aim to: (1) frame the dialogue and identify issues, opportunities and challenges in steering complex living and life-like systems and (2) pull together and develop ideas from the preceding interactions for a position paper in an interdisciplinary journal.

Invited speaker: Aaron Bugaj – Biosphere 2, a case study. Lessons learned from an ambitious systems ecology experiment and how they can be applied to modern day complex systems management and intervention.


Our hope is to bring together a broad range of participants to provide a diverse array of perspectives. Last year’s workshop brought together members of the ALife and complexity community with social scientists, computer scientists, environmental scientists, mathematicians, neuroscientists and philosophers. We are keen to retain this broad scope in order to discuss broader issues arising from these approaches, but to connect specifically to the regional context.

For this event therefore, as well as a cross-section of the ALife community, we would aim to attract regional participants who might not have previously engaged with ALife, but who work with living or life-like complex systems or who can bring unique perspectives to bear on the subject. This should ideally include practitioners as well as academics.  We would expect this workshop to be of interest to a variety of groups:

  • those working in living technologies, bio-hybrid societies or systems and synthetic biology;
  • those using ALife and complexity practically in managing or understanding real world complex systems such as ecosystems, regional economies and societies;
  • those concerned with the societal impacts and ethical implications of living technology or the manipulation of living systems;
  • those interested in the philosophy, theory or practice of interacting with complex adaptive systems as a means to increase understanding of those systems;
  • those interested in evolutionary, ecological or behavioural processes by which organisms “steer” or construct their own complex contexts.



We invite contributions in the form of one-page abstracts for oral presentation, indicating ideas, challenges, or solutions in steering complex living or life-like systems (please see the full list of topics).  Abstracts will be selected on the alignment with topic and capacity to provoke debate.

Submission of abstracts is now closed, but get in touch with the organisers if you would like to contribute!

Main conference website:


  • Alexandra Penn (University of Surrey) a.penn AT
  • Rob Mills (University of Lisbon) rob.mills AT
  • Emma Hart (Edinburgh Napier University) e.hart AT