On-going ECCO research projects


The following is an overview of the main topics currently being investigated in ECCO, including the names of the most directly involved researchers and some representative references. Elswehere you can find a summary of previous research. For more details, check our publications or Working Papers.


Mediator Mechanisms in the Evolution of Organization

This project in a sense provides the theoretical framework for all other, more specific ECCO projects. It tries to understand how initially independent or competing agents can form a cooperative system, through the evolution of "mediators". These are concrete or abstract systems that regulate the interactions between the agents, so as to minimize conflict or "friction", and to maximize synergy. The mediator scenario integrates several more specific models of self-organization and the evolution of cooperation. It helps us to understand evolutionary progress towards higher organization, complexity and adaptability. It further suggests concrete applications, e.g. in economic development or the regulation of self-organizing systems.

ResearchersHeylighenGershensonStewartMartens, Loengarov, Göktepe

Selected References:

Evolutionary-Systemic Philosophy

Here we investigate the new philosophy, including ontology, epistemology and ethics, implied by the science of complex, evolving systems. The resulting integrated world-view should allow us to address the age-old questions: What is? Who are we? Where do we come from? Where do we go to? What can we know? What is the meaning of life?...

ResearchersHeylighenVidal, Gershenson Gontier, StewartBernheim

Selected References:

Evolution and Development of the Universe

Here we look at cosmology and the origin and development of the universe from an "evo-devo" perspective, which combines the unpredictable dynamics of variation and natural selection of cosmic laws and constants, with the more predictable "developmental" dynamics of an organism growing towards more mature organization.


Selected References:

  • Vidal, C., 2009 (editor) Charles Auffray, Alex H. Blin, Jean Chaline, Louis Crane, Thomas Durt, Borje Ekstig, Horace Fairlamb, Jan Greben, Rob Hengeveld, Francis Heylighen, Gerard Jagers op Akkerhuis, Giuseppe Longo, Nicolas F. Lori, Denis Noble, Laurent Nottale, Franc Rottiers, Stanley Salthe, John Stewart, Ruediger Vaas, Gertrudis Van de Vijver, Nico M. van Straalen, Clément Vidal, (authors), The Evolution and Development of the Universe. Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris 8-9 Oct., 2008: Special Issue of the Conference on the Evolution and Development of the Universe, 12 peer-reviewed papers with 20 open commentaries, published in Foundations    of    Science,    355
  • Smart, J.M. (2008) Evo Devo Universe? A Framework for Speculations on Cosmic Culture. In: Cosmos and Culture, Steven J. Dick (ed)., NASA Press
  • Vidal, C. (2008). The Future of Scientific Simulations: from Artificial Life to Artificial Cosmogenesis. To be published in Death And Anti-Death, Volume 6: Thirty Years After Kurt Gödel (1906-1978), ed. Tandy, C., Ria University Press.


High Energy Astrobiology

The increase of complexity in our universe might already have appeared outside Earth, and possibly beyond our level of development. Yet, all high energy astrophysics models implicitly suppose that phenomena we observe are "natural" or simple, rather than "artificial" or complex. Here, we investigate if advanced intelligent life exists in the universe, and develop criteria to distinguish between natural and artificial systems. Vidal (2011) has argued that some close binary star systems in accretion might be extraterrestrial civilizations. This hypothesis needs to be further assessed.

Researchers: Vidal

Selected References:

Self-Organization of Intelligent Artefacts

This research applies general principes of self-organization and distributed cognition to design an "ambient intelligence" environment, in which several simple artefacts and/or sensors (e.g. traffic lights) communicate and coordinate to provide an integrated service.

ResearchersGershensonBollen D, Kiemen

Selected References:

Bootstrapping paradox for learning novelties

This research is based on the discovery of similarity in self-organization and distributed cognitive systems to regulate novelty. Novelty is the common entity between discovery, creativity and innovation. The research aims at building a theory for novelty and make it applicable for regulating breakthrough innovation via the Internet

Researchers: KiemenHeylighen

Selected References:

Social Construction of Shared Categories

This  a four-year project funded by the FWO, in collaboration with the Social Cognition Lab (Psychology Department, VUB). It tries to determine how individually learned concepts or categories can become consensual through communication between the individuals, and in what ways the consensual concept is different or "better" than the individual ones. The issue is investigated in parallel through computer simulation and experiments with groups.

ResearchersHeylighenGershensonVan Overwalle, Biebaut

Selected References:

Connectionist Modelling of Social and Distributed Cognition

This collaboration builds on the previous one to examine more generally how cognitive processes can be distributed over different individuals connected by communication media. It assumes that these connections are variable, adapting to the task by reinforcing successful ones and weakening the others. Computer simulations of such processes help us to understand how knowledge and information propagate and self-organize within groups and organizations.

ResearchersVan OverwalleHeylighen

Selected References:

From Information Society to Global Brain

This projects, now performed by the ECCO subgroup "The Global Brain Institute", extends the connectionist perspective to better understand the future evolution of world society. The emerging knowledge-, network- or information society is conceptualized in analogy with the human brain, which is an immensely complex, self-organizing network of neurons and synapses, where information is processed in a distributed way, and where knowledge is developed through connectionist learning mechanisms.

ResearchersHeylighen, Weaver, Veitas, Busseniers, Kiemen, Rodriguez

Selected References:

Support Systems for Collective Intelligence

Collective intelligence is the ability for a group to produce better decisions than the best of its members. This requires various methods for integrating the ideas and experiences of the members into a collective preference. These methods are most easily implemented on the web, leading to tools such as recommendation systems based on collaborative filtering, electronic democracies, prediction markets, wikis, and social networking systems. We are studying these various approaches to find out their benefits and shortcomings, and use these insights to propose more powerful, integrated systems.

ResearchersRodriguezWatkinsHeylighenBollenKiemenCoenen,  Gershenson

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 From Knowledge Organizing to the Interversity

The concept of stigmergy explains how collaboration and cognition can self-organize with the support of a medium in which provisional results are recorded, so as to stimulate further improvements. We apply this perspective to the collaborative organization of knowledge, in the form of a shared semantic network of concepts and their relations. A computational medium for such knowledge organizartion would support all the functions of a true university: research, to develop new concepts; education, to help students assimilate existing concepts; and assessment, to test in how far an individual has effectively assimilated concepts. The medium is intended to guide users towards a better grasp of concepts, either by pointing them to the most relevant existing material, or by eliciting new insights from them.

Researchers: NagarjunaHeylighen, KiemenRodriguez,

Selected References:


The Extended/Embodied Mind

From a cybernetic perspective, cognition is not limited to what happens inside the brain: it involves interaction with the environment via perception and action, and the use of tools to support thinking and memory. By redrawing the boundaries between mind and world, we hope to better understand fundamental cognitive processes (including consciousness). This will also help us to design external supports to augment individual and collective intelligence.

ResearchersKiemenBollen D., HeylighenNagarjuna

Selected References:

Neural Mechanisms of Intelligence

Here we try to understand and model the fundamental processes underlying intelligence (perception, inference, problem-solving, thinking, creativity, ...) as the spreading of activation through a network of concepts and associations. Major hypotheses are that such propagation is more efficient in more intelligent brains, that the essential function of cognition is anticipation, and that activation cycles "up" and "down" between percepts and concepts in a bootstrapping fashion. The framework is inspired by recurrent connectionist models and by the "memory-prediction" framework proposed by the brain theorist Jeff Hawkins in his book "On Intelligence".

ResearchersHeylighenMartin (Sheehan), Van OverwalleRodriguez

Selected References:

Memetics and Cultural Evolution

This projects further develops and operationalizes the theory of memetics, which studies the propagation of memes, "idea viruses" or units of imitation as a process of variation and natural selection, and its implications for the evolution of culture. Practical applications include "memetic engineering", i.e. the design of effective vehicles to propagate positive ideas, and the creation of of an "immune system" at the socio-cultural level to minimize the spread of harmful memes or "viruses of the mind", such as fundamentalist ideologies, superstitions, and unfounded rumors.

ResearchersMartin (Sheehan), VadaHeylighenChielens

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Complex Systems Models of International Governance

Principles of systems, cybernetics, non-linearity and self-organization help us to better understand the interaction between actors in the international community, the emergence of new actors, and the possibility for creating a flexible system of governance that involves all stakeholders, while transcending the rigidities of the traditional legal framework.


Selected References:

Measurement and Promotion of Well-Being

Happiness, quality-of-life, or well-being can be seen as the intrinsic value guiding personal and social development, providing the motivational equivalent of the evolutionary concept of "fitness". This projects tries to develop more accurate measures of this fundamentally subjective property, and to determine which basic factors promote the increase of social and individual well-being. The intention is to formulate guidelines that would most efficiently help us to augment overall well-being, individually, in the workplace, and in society at large. Such guidelines could be used to decide about policy at the global, national or organizational level, establishing a reliable standard for progress.


Selected References:


Facilitating Interpersonal Problem-Solving

When two or more parties have to solve a problem together, their judgment is often clouded by avoidable conficts and emotional tensions. We try to develop methods that help them to reformulate the problem towards a win-win situation, using methods such as emotional management, empathetic understanding of the other's perspective, and systematic analysis of the cognitive preconceptions underlying the problem.



Complexity Thinking for Innovation Management

The general concepts and principles of complexity, evolution and cognition apply in particular to present-day business, which takes place in an ever evolving ecosystem of competitors, suppliers, customers, technologies, rules, etc. A successful business entreprise requires constant innovation to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, and a broad and deep understanding of future opportunities and risks. The concepts and mechanisms underlying complex, adaptive systems need to be developed into a concrete toolbox for the entrepreneur or manager, that would help him or her to see clearly through the web of non-linear interactions and dependencies, and to steer an efficient, goal-directed course through the unpredictable changes that accompany them, ready to exploit any novel idea or opportunity.

ResearchersKiemen, GoldchsteinVadaHolbrouck, IlianoHeylighenGershenson

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This project is focused on links between resilience, self-organisation, and evolution of agents in complex adaptive systems and pathways through which these agents can enhance their synergy, coordination and fitness. These dimensions are particularly important for the design processes and engineering methods of future urban structures and ecosystems.

Selected References