Workshop (2015): Steering complex systems & FoCAS meeting

Workshop held 20th July 2015 at European Conference on Artificial Life 2015, University of York

10:00-13:00 Timetable

Organised by Alexandra Penn (University of Surrey) and James Dyke (University of Southampton), Emma Hart (Edinburgh Napier University) and Ben Paechter (Edinburgh Napier University)

The potential of new technologies which emulate or exploit the unique properties of living or adaptive systems is widely lauded. Such technologies however, create new engineering challenges which must be addressed before they can become broadly utilised. Additionally, many pressing challenges for society today are inherently concerned with gaining a better ability to understand and manage interacting living or life-like systems upon which we rely. Problems in these areas demand a better ability to manage complex adaptive systems (CAS) than is currently available.

Socio-technical adaptive systems are often comprised of extremely large numbers of different units, each of which may have individual properties, objectives and actions.   Boundaries between or within CAS can be fluid and the units can operate at different temporal and spatial scales often with conflicting goals. Decision-making is usually distributed and possibly highly dispersed, and the interaction between units may lead to the emergence of unexpected phenomena. Understanding the mechanisms that underpin the design and operation of CAS systems poses significant challenges.

Conventional approaches to working with CASs 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 plethora of tools and techniques plus overarching methodological framework required for this approach is at a nascent stage.

Importantly, many of the complex systems which we would most like to influence have significant social components and may require the integration of participatory or political processes with tools from complexity science. Accomplishing this effectively will rely on interdisciplinary efforts encompassing social and political, as well as natural, sciences, engineering and philosophy.

This will be a broad-ranging and discursive workshop aiming to identify key ideas within and implications of this new paradigm. A range of guest speakers will set the scene with short talks pulling out key themes and questions from their different perspectives and domains of focus. We will then move onto structured discussion attempting to identify and make real progress on some of the key issues, opportunities and challenges in steering complex adaptive systems.

Videos of talks and discussion can be found here

Guest Speakers:

Setting the Scene: Overarching questions

  • Sarah Cornell, Stockholm Resilience Institute, “Sustainability challenges in a complex world” Abstract
  • Vivek Nallur, Trinity College Dublin, “Where shall we have lunch?” Problems for a computer-aided future. Abstract

Examples and Tools: Technological and Bio-hybrid Systems

  • Thomas Gabor, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat Munchen, “The Liquid Computing Paradigm” Abstract
  • Rob Mills, BioISI, Faculty of Sciences, U. Lisboa, “On manipulating attractors in collective behaviours of bio-hybrid societies with robot interactions” Abstract

New Approaches: Sociological and philosophical perspectives on managing living systems

  • Anna Krzywoszynska, University of Durham, “Uncertainty, intuition and care in the management of vineyards and wine fermentations” Abstract
  • Simon McGregor, University of Sussex, “Wrangling Complex Systems” Abstract





The Evolution and Resilience of Industrial Ecosystems (ERIE) is an EPSRC “Complexity Science for the Real World” interdisciplinary project. Linking collaborators from the departments of Sociology, Maths, Computing and The Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey, ERIE applies complexity science to socio-economic systems to provide practical tools for decision makers and stakeholders managing large-scale human ecosystems.

FoCAS brings together researchers active in Collective Adaptive Systems. This FP7 coordination action is funded by Future and Emerging Technologies at the European Commission.