Disambiguating self-organisation


Copyright 2017-9 Graham Berrisford. One of more than 100 papers on the “System Theory” page at http://avancier.website. Last updated 31/10/2019 21:52


Preface – recap. 1

State change: changing the values of given state variables (typically triggered by inputs) 1

Update. 1

Accretion. 1

Flocking. 1

Order from noise. 1

Self-regulation. 1

Self-sustaining. 1

System change: changing the variables or the rules that update their values. 1

Reconfiguration. 1

Leverage. 1

Morphogenesis. 1

Mutation. 1

Other possible meanings of self-organisation. 1

Challenges to self-organisation. 1

Conclusions and remarks. 1

On self-organisation beyond the scope of the discussion above. 1


Preface – recap

"First-order cybernetics is the science of observed systems” von Foerster

This is a curious starting point for discussion, since general cybernetics is also about observed systems.

Ashby suggested infinite systems may be abstracted from a concrete entity.

Every abstraction requires an abstracter – the system observer or definer.


“Something strange evolved among the philosophers, the epistemologists and, the theoreticians.

They began to see themselves more and more as being included in a larger circularity; maybe within the circularity of their family;

or that of their society and culture; or even being included in a circularity of cosmic proportions!” von Foerster in "Ethics and Second-Order Cybernetics"


Von Foerster is credited with initiating second-order cybernetics, said to be the recursive application of cybernetics to itself.

"Second-order cybernetics is the science of observing systems." von Foerster

He asked: “Am I a part of the system, or I am apart from the system?

This is typical of his playful phrasing of aphorisms and questions.

How would Ashby have answered the question? Here is a reply based on Ashby’s writings


“Heinz, cybernetics does not ask "what is this thing?" but ''what does it do?"

It is thus essentially functional and behaviouristic.

You must distinguish yourself (a concrete entity) from the actions you perform in various systems.

The part you play in any social or socio-technical system is the behavior you contribute to it, rather than you as a person.”


Second order cybernetics turned attention to the concept of self-organisation.

The system theorists Ashby and Maturana, said the concept of a self-organising system makes no sense.

However, term is widely used, and has been interpreted in an extraordinarily wide variety of ways.

People rarely make clear which way they are thinking of.

The term has been used in different sciences with remarkably wide variety of different meanings, for example.

·       In chemistry, the self-assembly of a crystal in a liquid by accretion.

·       In economics, the emergence of order in a free market as price changes influence supply and demand (after Hayek).

·       In biology, the emergence of complex life forms from the process of evolution (after Darwin).

·       In mechanics, the maintenance of homeostasis (after Weiner and Ashby).

·       In chaos theory, arriving at an island of predictability in a sea of chaotic unpredictability.

State change: changing the values of given state variables (typically triggered by inputs)



This means changing the values of variables in response to inputs.



This means growth or increase by the gradual accumulation of additional layers or matter.

E.g. The accretion of a crystal growing in a super-saturated liquid is a simple process that has been called self-organisation.

The accretion of a city growing as it attracts more people and money has also been called self-organisation.



This means to move or go together in a crowd.

E.g. The shoaling behavior of fish.

The behavior of a flock of starlings wheeling in the sky.

In both examples, many simple interactions between many adjacent actors produces a complicated moving shape.

However, the complexity of these state change (visual) effects is more in the eye of the observer than in the system itself.


Order from noise

The means the emergence of order from interactions between initially disordered elements.

Noise is random events or perturbations that stimulate a system to move through a variety of states in its “state space”.

As it does this, the system may arrive near an “attractor” drawing it into a steady state, or an orderly state change pattern.

This kind of self-stabilising behavior can be observed in simple mechanical systems.

It is a feature of general rather than second-order cybernetics.



With reference to self-regulation, Ashby popularised the usage of the term “cybernetics”.

Self-regulation means an entity maintains its own state in a stable, orderly or homeostatic fashion.



With reference to self-sustaining organisms, Maturana coined the term “autopoiesis”.

Self-sustaining means the system’s processes maintain the structures that perform processes that (and so on).

System change: changing the variables or the rules that update their values



This means changing behaviour in a pre-ordained way.



This means switching a system (randomly or by design) from one given configuration to another.



This means the inexorable growth an embryo into an adult

By any measure, the morphogenesis of an organism is a complex process.

The process, predetermined by DNA, inexorably builds an adult organism from an egg.

As the process proceeds, new kinds of component and interaction emerge, increasing the complexity of the organism.



This means changing behaviour (randomly or by design) from one generation to the next.

Some systems cannot be changed by the actors who play roles in them.


The variables and rules of this system

are found in

Planets in a solar system

The law of gravity produced by the universe

Termites building a termite nest

The DNA produced by a process of reproduction

Players in a tennis match

The laws produced by the Lawn Tennis Association.


By contrast, many human social systems are partly or wholly defined by the actors who play roles in them.

In this context, the term self-organisation means the actors who play roles in a system can observe and change the variables or rules of that system.

Other possible meanings of self-organisation


Self-organisation = absence of a design or pattern?

This means there is no law, rule or definition of how a system forms or changes.

However, one may say there is a blueprint for much so-called “self-organisation”.

The blueprint for self-organisation in:


·       a solar system is found in the laws of physics

·       a molecule is found in the chemists’ periodic table

·       a biological organism is found in its DNA.

·       a social system is found in the minds or documents of its actors.


In the first three examples, the self-organisation is predetermined and predictable (in theory if not in practice).


Self-organisation = decentralised control?

Decentralisation means there is no central control - no overarching controller of system processes.

Rather, the processes of the system are distributed between atomic components or agents. E.g.


In sociology: this may be called anarchy or a participatory democracy (which is a vision, many social systems thinkers endorse).

In software: this corresponds to the “choreography” design pattern rather than the “orchestration” pattern.


The latter is found in very simple software systems; does not imply “self-organisation”.


Self-organisation = business reorganisation?

All the processes above are very different from the “self-organisation” of a social or business organisation.

The morphogenesis of a business organisation is a process that leads to outcomes that are not inexorable or pre-determined.

Organisation changes are stimulated by a variety of internal and external forces - that might either complexify or simplify the organisation

Ultimately, external forces (political, economic, social, legislative and environmental) dominate the internal ones.


A business, though it relies on countless systems, is not is well described as a system - as a whole.

Inside all business organisations, the actors behave in a mix of ad hoc and regular ways.

Sometimes actors act in business systems, where they behave regular ways; often they act outside of any describable system.

Challenges to self-organisation

Ashby and Maturana said the concept of a self-organising system makes no sense.

They rejected the idea that a system can change itself by creating new variables or rules.

They said a system can only be re-organised from outside the system, by a higher process or meta system.


Maturana’s view

“By organization” Maturana refers to the relations between components that give a system its identity, that make it a member of a particular type.

Thus, if the organization of a system changes, so does its identity.”

(John Minger in Self-Producing Systems: Implications and Applications of Autopoiesis. Contemporary Systems Thinking. New York: Plenum P, 1995)


Maturana stated he would "never use the notion of self-organization, because it cannot be the case... it is impossible.

That is, if the organization of a thing changes, the thing changes”.

(Maturana, H. (1987). Everything is said by an observer. In Gaia, a Way of Knowing, edited by W. Thompson, Lindisfarne Press, Great Barrington, MA, pp. 65-82, p. 71.)


Forrester’s and Meadows’ view

In Forrester’s System Dynamics, if you change the stocks or flows, you change the identity of the system.

You create a new system, or system generation N+1.

"Change the rules from those of football to those of basketball, and you’ve got, as they say, a whole new ball game.” Meadows


Ashby’s view

“One of Ashby’s goals was to repudiate that interpretation of self-organization, commonly held, that a machine or organism can change its own organization.”

Instead he postulated “A new higher level of the machine was activated to reset the lower level's internal connections or organisation.”

(Goldstein’s introduction to Ashby’s 1962 treatise on self-organisation.)


Ashby’s higher and lower level machines can be seen as “coupled” in a wider or aggregate machine.

But the aggregate machine is only ever partially self-organising, since one part of the aggregate machine always drives the change to the other part.

Conclusions and remarks

Some of the ideas expressed by second order cyberneticians are axiomatic.

They underpin not only general cybernetics but all modern science.


What might be called self-organisation appears in many different forms.

There are self-regulating, self-sustaining, self-stabilising systems.


However, Ashby and Maturana rejected the idea the notion of a “self-organising system”.

Since it undermines the very idea of a system in general cybernetics and more general system theory.


"If the system is to be self-organising, the self must be enlarged to include… some outside agent." (Ashby 1962)

The roles and rules of a lower level system cannot be set or changed from inside the system.

But they can be set or changed by a higher level process or meta system.


For sure, the actors who play roles in a system may also observe it, and agree to change its variables, roles or rules.

But whenever actors discuss and agree such a change, they are (for that time) acting in a higher level or meta system.

And once the change is made, the actors (still members of the same social network) now act in new roles in a new system (or system generation).


One actor can act as system definer who changes the roles and rules of a social system they (separately) play a role in.

However, one action is in one or the other system – not in both.


The need for re-organisation to be incremental

Some social systems thinkers treat the idea of self-organisation as a political agenda or mission,

They promote the idea of a “participatory democracy”.

The term implies actors must understand and agree to any change before it can be rolled out

Such inter-generational evolution is different from chaotic ad hoc change.

If actors continually change the properties and functions of the organisation they work in, then the concept of a system is lost.

So, note that continuous mutation is impossible here, since it is contrary to the notion of a system.


Distinguishing social networks from social systems

Ashby urged us to distinguish a system (a set of variables) from the real machine or animal that realises it.

He said one machine or animal can realise infinite different systems.

We need to distinguish:

·       a social system - a set of roles and rules that actors may comply with 

·       a social network - a group of inter-communicating actors who can realise any number of systems.


The second order cybernetics idea of a self-organising social system confuses the two concepts.

If the roles in system S include actions that change the roles in system S, that makes a nonsense of the system concept. 

Imagine several actors, who currently play the same role, each changing that role – as they see fit - while the system is running.

The result is the opposite of a system; it leads to chaos - to disorderly, irregular and likely uncoordinated behaviour.


Distinguishing a higher or meta system from a lower system

Ashby would surely agree that a human actor playing a role in system S can observe that system and envisage changes to it.

But to adhere to general cybernetics, that change must be made under change control.


Ashby’s concept of a higher level machine helps us reconcile general cybernetics with self-organisation.

To change a role in a system S, the actor must step outside the lower system to act (however briefly) in a higher level or meta system (M) to system S.



Consider how two tennis players can change the rules of a tennis match they are playing.

They stop the match (step outside it) agree a rule change, then restart the match.

Via successive changes, the two players may radically change the nature of a tennis match.

"Change the rules from those of football to those of basketball, and you’ve got, as they say, a whole new ball game.” Meadows



Consider how a society can avoid “the tragedy of the commons”.

The lower level system is a group of people who share access to limited resources.

Such as fishermen who share fishing grounds, or farmers who share an irrigation system.

How to avoid “the tragedy of the commons” by which competition exhausts the common resource?

The meta system is the cooperative in which the fishermen or farmers agree their rules.

Now and then, the fishermen must stop fishing, and farmers stop farming, to define the rules of their social system.

(Elinor Ostrom (1990, 2010) defined eight generic conditions for such a cooperative.)


This idea needs a name, and for the want of anything better it is here called 3rd order cybernetics.

3rd order cybernetics seems a better fit (than second order cybernetics) to most systems of interest to us, including social systems.

It is developed and further exemplified in the paper on 3rd order cybernetics the System Theory page at http://avancier.website.


The need for a circular sense-respond loop

Obviously, people, in everyday life and in business, must use their imagination and creativity.

They must communicate, learn from each other and respond in ad hoc ways to unforeseen inputs.

To verify any non-trivial logic requires social verification by peer review and/or empirical verification by observation of test results.

All system designers, enterprise architects and software developers know the importance of peer review and testing.

And all must respond to the experience of system implementation.

We don’t need second order cybernetics to tell us this circular sense-respond loop is vital.


Distinguishing the motivation of people in a social network from the behaviors of a system

Of course, managers may coordinate human actors in a social network by giving them a goal, or asking them to agree a goal.

Business managers may create an organisation in which people are given only goals (not rules).

And then encourage those people to act and cooperate however they see fit.

That is not a general system theory; it is a very special human-only system theory, and little or nothing to do with cybernetics.

It is better called “management science” or some such, than system theory.

On self-organisation beyond the scope of the discussion above


Bio-physical chemistry

Professor Manfred Eigen was a Nobel prize laureate in chemistry. https://lnkd.in/dsVBPYc

He and Peter Schuster researched and published on hypercycles, in the trans-disciplinary domain of bio-physical chemistry.

Hypercycles demonstrate natural phenomena of self-organisation.

They demonstrate functionally coupled self-replicative entities.

A hypercycle is a cyclic symmetry of autocatalytic reactions that are arranged in a circle so that each reaction's product catalyses the production of its clockwise neighbour.

What does "self-organising" mean here? It sounds more like self-sustaining (autopoeisis), self-perpetuating, or cyclical symbiosis.


Turing machines

Ashby modelled systems as machines that are predictable to some extent.

He wrote of determinate machines, which respond predictably to each combination of input and current state.

And wrote of Markovian machines, which respond less predictably, using probability rules.

Even if his machine could have well-nigh infinite states, it cannot have infinite functions/rules/probabilities.

And to add a new variable or function/rule/probability is to make a new machine/system/organisation.


Ashby did not mention Turing machines.

A reader has suggested a Turing machine (as opposed to a finite state machine) can be self-organising.

A Turing machine is "a mathematical model of a hypothetical computing machine which can use a predefined set of rules to determine a result from a set of input variables."

Can a Turing machine change its predefined set of rules? Can it invent new variables or new rules?

Suppose a Turing machine could organise itself, then we’d want know:

·       In what ways can it change its own state variable types or rules?

·       Are change options prescribed within the machine, or infinite?

·       What triggers the machine to change itself?

·       How does it choose between changes it might make to itself?


Moreover, note that in most systems of interest to us, many actors or machines can play the same role

When a state variable or rule is changed, how it is distributed to all actors in the system?


Pending answers, I favour an Ashby-like version of self-organisation, in which a higher or meta system changes the description of another.

It seems a better fit to the social and business systems of interest to us.


Human organisations

Of course, there is much to be said about human organisations that is outside general system theory.

·       John Kotter: Organizations won't change unless there's a "burning platform".

·       Thomas Kuhn: New models are accepted when the adherents of the old models retire.

·       James C. Scott: Organizations become optimized to make them easier to observe and control, which is at odds with making them better and more efficient.

·       Public Choice Economics: Organizations don't have goals. Individuals in organizations do.

·       Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: People at the top have to be good at accumulating power. Act as if that's their only goal.

·       Pournelle's Iron Law: "In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely."