ECCO philosophy

General Approach

When studying the evolution of complexity, our emphasis is on the emergent organization or system: what is it precisely that the whole has more than the sum of its parts? In particular, our focus is on the intelligence of the system, i.e. its capacity to understand, adapt, solve problems, take adequate action, and learn from its experience. This is the perspective of collective intelligence, distributed cognition or the extended mind. We approach this problem with the help of the concept of stigmergy, i.e. a spontaneous, indirect coordination of actions, where the result of one action stimulates the performance of a subsequent action.

A complementary emphasis is on the dynamics or evolution of emergence: how do the interactions become gradually more coordinated? Which are the "forces" or selective pressures that push the system in the direction of increasing organization? Hoe does it self-organize and become cooperative, in spite of intrinsic obstacles such as uncertainty, conflict, competition and complexity?

This general problem is approached using a variety of ideas and methodologies from all the traditional disciplines:

  • conceptual analysis and theory-building, e.g. using systems theory or thought experiments;
  • computer simulation, e.g. with multi-agent systems or connectionist networks;
  • mathematical modelling, e.g. using dynamical systems theory or multidimensional state spaces;
  • case studies, e.g. of specific organizations or historical developments;
  • empirical observation, e.g. of group processes, discussions and "games".
  • practical applications, e.g. in collaborative technologies or knowledge management.


Transdisciplinary perspective

ECCO aims at transdisciplinary integration, i.e. at the development of a unified conceptual framework that can be applied to problems in all the scientific disciplines, from the natural sciences to the humanities. As our name implies, we find the foundations for this framework at the point where the three approaches of complexity, evolution, and cognition meet.

The emerging science of complex systems extends the tradition of general systems theory, which sought to unify science by uncovering the principles common to the holistic organization of all systems, from atoms and molecules to mind and society. However, the classical systems approach failed because of two shortcomings: the systems it studied were considered as

  1. well-defined static structures,
  2. that are objectively given.

To really understand systems, you need to know how they have emerged and evolved, i.e. how they came into being and gradually developed their organization.

This brings us to the second strand of our conceptual framework: evolution and self-organization. Self-organization is the spontaneous process through which systems emerge and evolve, becoming ever more complex, more adaptive, and more synergetic. We see self-organization of a system as the co-evolution and mutual adaptation of the system's components. This process is driven by variation and selection internal to the system. Evolution in the traditional, Darwinian sense is then merely the adaptation of the system as a whole to its encompassing environment, driven by external, or "natural", selection. This holistic view of self-organization/evolution allows us to overcome the pitfalls of genetic or biological reductionism that are often associated with Darwinian approaches.

The other shortcoming of classical systems theory is overcome by noting that knowledge cannot be developed through passive observation of what “objectively” exists, but only through active construction combining a variety of subjective experiences. This brings us to the domain of cognitive science, which until recently was also stifled by a too reductionistic and static perspective. The newer approaches, however, emphasize the constant evolution and self-organization of knowledge, and the on-going interactions between subject and environment. This helps us to understand the intrinsic limitations, subjectivity and context-dependence of models, while still providing us with heuristics to improve our knowledge—however subjective or limited.

The integration of the three approaches—cognition, systems or complexity, and evolution or self-organization—points us to a wholly new philosophy of nature, mind and society. It sees the essential building blocks as processes and relations, rather than as bits of matter or energy. Their most important product is intelligent organization, which can be found at all levels, from molecules to global society. However, this deep metaphysical perspective is merely a starting point for concrete, scientific research with plenty of practical applications.


Theory and practice

Another unique aspect of ECCO’s perspective is that we develop and test our fundamental theories by applying them directly to concrete problems. The problems that presently confront individuals, organizations and society at large all concern complex, evolving systems, such as the global ecosystem, society, the market, and our own internal system of thoughts and emotions. Thanks to the success of classical, reductionist science, most of the simple problems have already been solved. The issues that remain are typically ill-defined, open-ended, with ramifications extending into an unlimited number of other domains, and constantly changing. Coping with these problems requires a set of new methods that take complexity and change as their starting points.

The advantage of the ECCO approach, with its high level of generality and abstraction, is that the concepts it produces are applicable to any system from any domain, whether biological, technological, mental or social. These concepts are applicable in particular to hybrid or mixed systems, such as the World-Wide Web with its technological, social, economical and psychological aspects. 

Unlike other high-level, abstract approaches, however, our concepts directly address problems and the processes that can solve them. Indeed, evolution is merely a giant problem-solving process in which systems are constantly trying to adapt to new circumstances, or improve their handling of existing situations. Cognition is merely an interiorization of this on-going process of trial-and-error and a registration of shortcuts that have proven to be useful for re-application later. Complexity is both a feature of the problems that need to be solved, and of the solutions that are most robust in handling multifarious and ever-changing demands.

Therefore, the ECCO perspective encompasses both the most abstract realms of ontology, epistemology and metaphysics, and the most concrete methods to solve problems in organizations, technology and society. These two aspects constantly interact and feed back into each other: practical experience in tackling problems suggest new concepts and principles for understanding complexity in science and philosophy. Clarifications and integrations in our theoretical framework, on the other hand, immediately suggest new ways to tackle concrete problems.