(Pre)history of ECCO

Although ECCO was founded under the present name only in 2004, it grew out of a series of formal and informal collaborations centered around Francis Heylighen, that go back 20 years. In 1984, as a young physics researcher, F. Heylighen came in contact with the psychologist Prof. De Waele and his then assistant Luc Van Langenhove. As they shared the ideal to promote interdisciplinary research at the VUB, they founded the informal "Transdisciplinary Research Group". Its primary activity was the organization of seminars and discussions involving many of the active researchers from the VUB and Ghent University, including E. Rosseel, P. Burghgraeve, J-P. Van Bendegem, and D. Aerts.

By 1987, the ambitions had expanded to the international level, resulting in the organization of the well-attended 3-day conference "Self-steering and cognition in complex systems" [Heylighen, Rosseel & Demeyere, 1990] and a summer school on "Self-organization of cognitive systems" in 1988. The time seemed ripe to officialize the informal group, and a concrete proposal including an outline of the research philosophy [Heylighen, 1988] which then already centred around the three themes of evolution, complexity (systems), and cognition, was presented to the VUB authorities.

However, at the same time, the late philosopher Leo Apostel independently submitted a similar proposal for a transdisciplinary research group focused on the construction of integrating worldviews. Given Apostel's fame, the VUB decided to honor only the latter proposal, so as not to divide resources over two transdisciplinary research groups. Out of this proposal was created the Center Leo Apostel (CLEA). However, the activities of this Center became increasingly infrequent, given that its members were mostly senior professors with a busy agenda and little time to invest in interdisciplinary research.

In the meantime, Francis Heylighen and collaborators independently continued their research, obtaining funding from the Fund for Scientific Research (FWO), while working to create an international network on complexity research [Heylighen, 1989]. This eventually got realized as the Principia Cybernetica Project, for the computer-supported, collaborative development of an evolutionary-systemic philosophy [Heylighen, Joslyn & Turchin, 1991; Heylighen, 2000].

In 1995, CLEA was drastically reorganized under the leadership of Dirk Aerts, taking in many younger researchers, including F. Heylighen and his then research assistant J. Bollen, and other members of the former Transdisciplinary Research Group. Thus, the kernel of what would become ECCO was now part of CLEA, being involved in CLEA's now very active program of research, projects, conferences (including the very successful "Einstein meets Magritte"), seminars and other activities. In addition, the ECCO group remained active on the international level, organizing conferences, developing the Principia Cybernetica Website, and helping to found the Global Brain Group and the Journal of Memetics.

Thanks to the worldwide recognition of these activities, the ECCO-related research of Heylighen and his collaborators gradually began to attract more and more applications from students and outside researchers wanting to work with them, especially from abroad. On the other hand, the differences in research philosophy and interests between this group and the majority group in CLEA, which under the leadership of Dirk Aerts was focusing on interdisciplinary applications of quantum structures and cultural aspects of world-views, became increasingly clear. As the informal group was growing quickly, with most of the present core members joining in 2004, it was finally decided to establish it as an independent research group under the name ECCO.