Self-Organizing Systems

The individual is going to be universalized, the universal is going to be individualized, and thus from both directions the whole is going to be enriched.
—Jan Smuts, Holism and Evolution

You are a self-organizing system. I am another. Our collaboration with colleagues around a common vision is yet another. In general, self-organizing systems contain, interpenetrate, and even generate other self-organizing systems ad infinitum. The process similarity to fractal art, which contains self-similar images at every level of magnification ad infinitum, is more than coincidental.

What is a Self-Organizing System?

Self-organizing systems are defined not as physical structures, but as process structures. The three essential characteristics are:

  1. The system incorporates auto-catalytic (self-generating/renewing) processes.
  2. The system is open and supplied with an abundant flow of energy/information from its environment, and exports entrophy (e.g. heat).
  3. The system is so far from equilibrium that it is in a non-linear, "chaotic" state.

Self-organizing systems can be chemical, physical, biological, cybernetic, neural, ecological, sociological, sociocultural, and more. It appears that any sufficiently intense and complex energy/information regime will spontaneously generate self-organizing systems, and that self-organizing systems will spontaneously generate new regimes and more complex self-organizing systems. Thus the progression from molecule to cell to multi-celled to plant to animal to us to ??? The very process of evolution evolves.

Which begs the question, what isn't a self-organizing system? What isn't a self-organizing system is any system that spontaneously devolves toward equilibrium, which is the final state when change has stopped, i.e., death. None of the ideal systems described by Newtonian physics with linear, deterministic, time reversible equations can be self-organizing. All are equilibrium systems. They run down and die.

Self-organizing systems are generally unpredictable, although most exhibit behavior that clusters around an "attractor" region of likely states, at least until some fluctuation comes along to push them over the edge into a new regime. Such events are variously known as "symmetry breaks," "phase changes," and "bifurcations." The new attractor or region of stability is also unpredictable, but the new regime will generally be more complex and better adapted to more severe fluctuations.

There are many more fascinating properties of self-organizing systems. They tend to create the environment required to evolve. For example, the primeval prokaryotic cells created an oxygen atmosphere (poisonous to themselves) that made possible the evolution of the eukaryotes which could not function without the higher energy availability of oxygen chemistry. If this had not happened, higher life forms, like us, could never have evolved. Then there is the Gaia effect in which the biosphere of Earth maintains just the right temperature range and other life support systems required to survive and continue to evolve. The micro-processes co-evolve with the macro-processes in a harmony that simply can't be understood by studying either in isolation from the other.

"Live order forms by itself, if processes are allowed to unfold."
—Erich Jantsch, The Self-Organizing Universe

How do we fit in as agents of change?

First by asking that very question at every decision point. Human creativity is a major source of fluctuations that can produce major change with minor inputs of effort, advertently or otherwise. The more we know about how the process works, the better shot we have at ending up somewhere we like. It is not our task to control the process, but to intelligently manage those energy and information flows that are within our power, and be flexible about outcomes. We need to think in process terms and let structure evolve, to understand and value the necessary balance between order and disorder, and to become catalysts and facilitators rather than controllers. The most effective among us already live by these principles.

The most important thing we can each do is insist on the free uncensored flow of complete, accurate information. Faulty information is faulty feedback into the system resulting in faulty results, as lying leaders consistently demonstrate.

Tell the truth, trust the process and get the hell out of the way.

Great video:

The Secret Life of Chaos

Suggested reading:

Jantsch, Erich, The Self-Organizing Universe, Pergamon, 1980

Prigogine, Ilya, and Stengers, Isabelle, Order out of Chaos, Bantam, 1984

Postrel, Virginia, The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise and Progress, Touchstone Books; ISBN: 0684862697; (December 1999)

net symbol
Real Time Analytics