UK Nonlinear News, October 1996

Complex Systems Research and Ecotechnology

A look at some of the research at the
International Ecotechnology Research Centre,
Cranfield University, Bedford, MK43 0AL.


The International Ecotechnology Research Centre (IERC) was set up in 1987 as a result of an endowment from the Honda Foundation.

Ecotechnology concerns itself with the changing relationship between science, society and the natural world. The research of IERC recognises that the ‘’future is open to choice’’. Consequently, the research agenda aims to explore policy options and their consequences, taking into account qualitative factors, uncertainty and conflicts. It focuses on change processes and the management of change, arising out of the dynamic interplay between science, technology, society and the environment.

Complex System Dynamics

Professor Peter Allen, Mark Strathern

The IERC's range of human and technological interests are wide, from the methodology of ecological assessment, strategy building for knowledge transfer, or the investigation of environmental perception, to odour control in waste management. One of the most fundamental aspects of its research is the continuing work on Complex System Dynamics, led by Professor Peter M. Allen, the IERC's Head of Ecotechnological Research.

Professor Allen has been involved for almost 20 years in work on the mathematical modelling of change and innovation in social, economic and ecological systems, and the development of integrated systems models linking the physical, ecological and socio-economic aspects of complex systems as a basis for improved decision support systems. Following a B.Sc. and Ph.D. at Hull University in Theoretical Physics, he was a Senior Research Fellow at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, where he worked on self-organizing systems with the Nobel Prizewinner, Ilya Prigogine.

The Complex Systems research addresses the whole question of the process of "modelling" reality: how detailed must a mathematical model be, to successfully reflect some situation ?

The successive assumptions behind this "classification" scheme choose the variables that will represent a situation: they are decisive in generating the shape of the model. In reality there is a temporal and spatial hierarchy of interaction, and this needs to be carefully identified; and of course the key issue is that non-linear interactions at one level can lead to emergent structure at the level above, so that internal microdiversity can lead to a creative evolutionary process characterized by a changing taxonomy.


Idealised mathematical models are being studied to investigate the effects of both the selective processes of structural interactions, and the creative motor of internal diversity. But the work also provides a fundamental background to the detailed modelling carried out in the Centre concerning strategic planning and policy exploration in complex situations. The detailed models can exhibit all of the characteristic effects of non-linear spatial dynamic models containing multiple feedbacks, including: Applications are being made to understanding emergent ecological organization in natural systems as well as in human ones involving innovation and technological change, and evolving market structures. The mathematical models that have been developed show how the occurrence of innovation and change require microscopic diversity among individuals. Their divergent values and/or imperfect knowledge lead to an exploration of possible behaviours and strategies which generate complex communities, whose interactions and possible responses to change can be largely unknown even to the participants.

Some of the IERC's current projects include:

PhD Opportunity

A PhD research studentship is currently available to investigate

For more details, see the Situations Vacant section in this UK Nonlinear News.

Further Information

More information about the Centre can be found from the IERC homepage:

This includes more details about
members of staff at the IERC,
its current main projects,
its entry in the postgraduate prospectus,
and current research students' topics

Alternatively, contact:
Mrs Maureen Mahoney (
Group and Student Administrator,
International Ecotechnology Research Centre,
Cranfield University, Bedford, MK43 0AL.
Tel:: +44 (0) 1234 754097, Fax: +44 (0) 1234 750163

<< Move to UK Nonlinear News Issue 6 Index Page (October 1996).

Last Updated: 31st January 2000.