Creative Ecosystems

How can the metaphors and mechanisms from biological ecosystems be adapted to enhance human creativity?

Sonic Ecosystem by Ollie Bown. Left: the sonic ecosystem model is coupled to the real acoustic environment of a gallery space (shown here running at the International Computer Music Conference, McGill University, Montréal in 2009) via speakers and a microphone. Right: each agent’s behaviour is specified by an evolved neural network controlling a generative music system via a set of preset synthesis parameters. The network responds directly to the state of the environment through its inputs.

Understanding artistic creativity, and the ways in which computers can enhance that creativity, is a grand challenge for scientific and artistic research. This interdisciplinary ARC funded project, which ran from 2008 – 2011, looked at expanding our knowledge of “creative systems”, in particular those that include computers as part of the creative process. Using processes and metaphors from Biological ecosystem dynamics and Darwinian evolution, we developed a number of new methods for enhancing creativity in the digital arts. This included adding features such as niche construction, resource recycling and energy conservation into evolutionary, agent-based models.

A niche represents a zone of conditions or resources that are viable for an organism.

An image from “Niche Constructions”. Line drawing agents use drawing density as an evolving niche preference.

Some project highlights:

  • Holding a workshop on computational creativity at the famous Dagstuhl international Leibniz Center for Informatics in Germany in 2009.
  • A new book, “Computers and Creativity“, edited by Jon McCormack (Monash Uni.) and Mark d’Inverno (Goldsmiths, Uni. of London) published by Springer in 2012.
  • A number of new artworks created as part of the project which demonstrate the concepts developed as part of the research. These works include: Flicker (McCormack & Bown, 2010), Niche Constructions (McCormack, 2009), Sonic Ecosystem (Bown, 2009).
  • A series of performances, exhibitions and workshops, including Hands Free (Guildford Lane Gallery, Melbourne 2010), Long Division (North Sea Jazz Festival, Rotterdam, NL) and Live Algorithms performances in partnership with the Goldsmiths research group.
  • A number of journal and conference papers (see the publications section for more details).
  • Beads – Java software for real-time digital audio, developed to support the music and sound art components of our research.

A good review of the methods developed can be found in the following research articles:

Computers and Creativity, published in 2012.

Left: the basic process in building an ecosystem-based artwork. An ecosystem design, consisting of a context and one or more agent designs, can be used to generate ecosystems and individual agent behaviours (which evolve over time). Observation and analysis of these feed back into the design of the ecosystem. Right: ecosystem design currently focuses around the use of code. Interactive design tools can be used to create ecosystem designs and also to interactively modify running ecosystems. Management tools can be used to save, organise and load entire populations or individual behaviours.


  • Jon McCormack
  • Oliver Bown

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