Complex behaviour can result from simple agent-based rules, a fact often touted as the hallmark of complex systems. However, most well-known emerging patterns are either random or shaped by boundary conditions, and rarely exhibit an intrinsic architecture. Biological morphogenesis appears as a unique case of combined selforganisation and truly complex structures. Living multicellular organisms are made of parts arranged in specific ways that resemble engineered devices—yet, they also self-assemble in a completely decentralised fashion, under the guidance of genetic and epigenetic information spontaneously evolved over millions of years and stored in the zygote. Therefore, embryogeny is a prime example of programmable complexity. It demonstrates that complex systems can also include diversity, modularity, and reproducibility.

The seminar will focus on the often underappreciated abilities of complex systems to offer such controllable properties, at the same time (or despite the fact) that they are self-organising. There is a great demand for such precise self-formation properties in a variety of distributed engineering systems (e.g., self-forming swarm robots, self-architecturing software, self-connecting micro components) and is also an important challenge in complex techno-social networks made of myriads of human users and/or (mobile) computing devices (e.g., self-configuring manufacturing chains, self-deploying emergency taskforces, self-regulating energy grids or market economies).

At the core of this enterprise lie paradoxical challenges: Can autonomy be planned? Can decentralisation be controlled? Can evolution be designed? Can we expect specific characteristics from systems otherwise free to assemble, and possibly invent, themselves? It is suggested that the resolution of these apparently inconsistent objectives can reside in the change of scale at which design operates, to become “meta-design”: instead of building the puzzle directly, shape the pieces in such a way that they will build it for you.


  1. ReneDoursatSeminarJune2009final.pdf
  2. ReneDoursatSeminarJune2009PresentationSlides_final.pdf