Workshop Announcement: Steering Living and Lifelike Complex Systems

To be held at ALife XV: The 15th International Conference on the Synthesis and Simulation of Living Systems

Cancún, Mexico Monday, 4 July Friday, 8 July 2016

Organised by: Alexandra Penn (University of Surrey), Rob Mills (University of Lisbon) and Emma Hart (Edinburgh Napier University),,

Workshop Outline

New technologies that exploit or emulate the unique properties of living systems have great potential, but create new engineering challenges and social dilemmas which must be addressed before they can become broadly utilised. Conventional approaches to working with such systems are, for the most part, “brute force”, attempting to effect control in an input- and effort-intensive manner and are often insufficient when dealing with their inherent non-linearity and complexity. Such systems, by their very nature, are dynamic, adaptive and resilient and require management tools that interact with dynamic processes rather than inert artefacts. “Steering”, in which we continuously interact with systems, manipulating them or their environment via effective leverage points which exploit their structure and dynamics, monitoring their response and responding to their adaptation, is one means by which this might be accomplished. However, the tools, techniques and methodological frameworks required for this approach are at a nascent stage.

Living systems have been used technologically for millennia, most obviously in agriculture,   with an enormous impact on human society. Humans interact with living systems from the scale of ecosystems to individual organisms, from agriculture, fermentation or bioremediation to symbiotic relationships with dogs and horses. To be able to modify the behaviour of the communities or organisms involved can thus have significant consequences on human activity. However, fighting against innate behaviours with attempts to force living systems into states that are far from natural equilibria will be inherently unstable and require much energy to maintain. By using “steering” strategies we can attempt to manipulate these systems to move between attractors, allowing them to remain stably in a preferable state without significant energy needed to retain it. Such strategies have been broadly described as “systems aikido” and have been suggested as an approach to manipulate the evolution of bacterial biofilm communities by altering their environment. In ethology, the creation of bio-hybrid societies integrates robots immersively into animal societies, such that the animals accept the robots as actors in their collectives. In this way, robots can inject information into the society, providing an opportunity to ‘steer from within’. Although early experiments and theory in a number of systems shows promise, general methodology for steering a wide variety of communities remains to be developed.

Conceptually-related approaches are also being proposed in life-like complex adaptive systems such as regional economies, industrial networks and smart cities. The many conceptual and technical challenges in understanding and manipulating this broad class of systems, and the similarities and differences between steering the living and the life-like are exciting new areas to be explored. Numerous crucial living and life-like systems consist of, or are profoundly influenced by, interconnected ecological, economic and social dynamics. Thus, as well as impacting on society, many have significant social components. Developing steering approaches may therefore require the integration of participatory or political processes with tools from artificial life and complexity science. Accomplishing this effectively will rely on interdisciplinary efforts encompassing social and political, as well as natural, sciences, engineering and philosophy.

Workshop Format

Following on from our highly successful interdisciplinary workshop at ECAL in 2015, this will be a broad-ranging and discursive event aiming to identify key ideas within and implications of this new paradigm. We will invite submissions for short, provocative talks pulling out key themes and questions on steering complex systems from different perspectives. A range of guest speakers will be invited to complement submissions and to allow a structured discussion ranging from technical issues, to societal and ethical implications. Using talks to frame the issues, we will discuss key points, attempting to identify and make real progress on some of the important issues, opportunities and challenges in steering complex living and life-like systems. In order to facilitate a productive outcome and to allow initial ideas to be developed, we will organise several follow-up events over the course of the conference including a workshop dinner and scheduled coffee time discussion meet-ups. We will finish with a second meeting towards the end of ALife to pull together and develop ideas from the workshop for a position paper and to form a working group to take the community forward. An initial aim is the organisation of a Lorentz workshop or Gordon Conference in the near future.

Target Participants and Audience

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.

Videos of last year’s talks and discussion can be found here


Key topics include:

  • Conceptual, philosophical and technical issues in steering living systems-what are the key challenges, opportunities and methodologies?
  • Examples of steering living or life-like systems: Case studies, experiments and models
  • Ethical and societal issues in manipulating natural or life-like systems
  • Technical, philosophical and social implications of a “life-like” systems approach to societal issues – metaphor or more?
  • Strategies for predicting, mitigating or adapting to unintended consequences of intervention in complex systems
  • Methods for identifying key points of intervention or “system levers”
  • Manipulating selective contexts and fitness landscapes for system steering
  • Designing interventions in complex systems
  • Adaptive management, whole-systems and complexity design approaches
  • Impact of intervention in models of self-organisation and collective behaviour
  • Synthetic ecology, living technology and bio-hybrid societies and systems
  • Societal involvement in system steering: participatory approaches, narratives for understanding complexity, political processes, policy design and evaluation in the context of complex adaptive systems.
  • Experiential steering of complex systems: intuition, craft and interaction vs modelling and scientific understanding. Constructing experiential environments for understanding complexity
  • “natural complex system steerers” – niche constructors, environmental engineers etc
  • Other perspectives: approaches to steering complex adaptive systems from other domains, what can we learn?

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