About: Steering complex systems

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 a strategy 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.

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