Managing Complex Systems: The History of Cybernetics as Seen from the Biological Computer Laboratory at UIUC

Stuart A. Umpleby, School of Business, George Washington University

The Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) at UIUC was a key center for cybernetics research between 1958 and 1975. This paper will describe three mental models used in cybernetics, including the conception of self-organizing systems, which was the subject of three conferences around 1960 and which became a foundation of the field now known as complexity theory. A key difference between current cybernetics and complexity theory is the use of a different epistemology. Complexity theorists use a realist epistemology and assume that complexity exists in an observed system. Cyberneticians use a constructivist epistemology and regard the system of interest as being defined by the observer. Cyberneticians assume that the task is to manage complexity through a circular process of interaction and interpretation. In social systems observers both construct descriptions and participate in the operation of the social system using those descriptions. BCL is increasingly used as an example of a highly productive research team. The work done at BCL continues to inspire leading edge research 30 years after it closed.