Maturana’s Autopoietic Organism - and the Allopoietic Organisation

Copyright 2016 Graham Berrisford. One of more than 100 papers on the System Theory page at Last updated 03/05/2019 11:28


It is common to draw an analogy between biology and sociology; but the analogy is often questionable or misleading.

This is one of a pair papers looking at the notion of autopoiesis in biology and sociology.

Maturana’s Autopoietic Organism suggests organisations are not well described as either autopoietic or operationally closed.

Luhmann’s Autopoietic Social System shows Luhmann gives radically different meanings to “autopoietic”, “social” and “system” from other sources.


Maturana’s concept of autopoesis. 1

The autopoietic organism.. 1

The operationally closed organism.. 2

The allopoietic organisation. 2

The operationally open organisation. 2


Maturana’s concept of autopoesis

“The theory of autopoiesis was developed by the two Chilean cognitive biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in the sixties and early seventies.

They were trying to answer the question: What is life? Or: What distinguishes the living from the non-living?

Their answer was: A living system reproduces itself. This self-reproduction they referred to as autopoiesis.

They defined the autopoietic system as a system that recursively reproduces its elements through its own elements.” Seidl


General system theory and cybernetic concepts include system-environment boundary, input, output, process, state, and information.

Maturana defined autopoiesis as the distinguishing feature of biological systems.

It means self-sustaining, and in a particular circular way.

It refers to a system in which the processes sustain or reproduce the components that perform the processes, which sustain….

So the term is a special (not general) system theory concept.


Three essential features of an autopoietic organism are:

·         System components continually perform processes that sustain themselves

·         Self-sustaining processes occur within the same space occupied by the components that perform the processes.

·         The system’s components manufacture and sustain themselves from elementary inputs (proteins, lipids etc.)


This table maps Maturana’s self-sustaining organism to the more general system concepts of cybernetics.


A system in cybernetics

Maturana’s autopoietic organism


Interrelated parts

Interacting components are transformed and destroyed


interact in processes to meet goals by

by a network of processes that form


maintaining system state and

a biological machine, a concrete unity

I/O boundary

sending/receiving information



to/from each other and external actors

in space


The boundary of an organism (animal or plant) is physical – meaning it encloses a three-dimensional space.

The boundary of a human organisation is logical; its components are distributed in space, connected by information flows.


The inputs and outputs of interest to Maturana’s organism are matter and energy flows.

The input/output flows of interest to organisation architects are usually information flows.


An organism consumes and produces simple chemicals (oxygen, water, proteins, lipids, and waste products).

It breaks down any complex materials it consumes into primitive chemicals before using them.

An organisation consumes and produces complex information flows: logical data structures, messages and contracts.

Some organisations also consume and produce complex material flows: manufactured products, machines.


Some sociologists have re-interpreted autopoesis as meaning something different in social system thinking discussion.


Autopoietic according to



Other sociologists


Self-sustaining organism



Self-sustaining theme of communication

Self-organising social group


The autopoietic organism (machine)

"Autopoiesis" refers to a system in which the processes sustain or reproduce the components that perform the processes, which sustain….

Maturana defined an organism (e.g. a cell) as an autopoietic machine.

His original definition (in Autopoiesis and Cognition: the Realization of the Living - 1st edition 1973, 2nd 1980) is slightly simplified below.

An autopoietic machine is:


This definition can be seen as extending the basic concepts of general system theory.

First, it views an organism as a bounded system of components cooperating in processes.

Then, it adds that a living system is special because its processes and components are recursively self-sustaining.

In a circular way, living components perform processes that sustain the components that perform processes that.... and so on.


Today, Wikipedia says:

“Autopoiesis was originally presented as a system description that was said to define and explain the nature of living systems.

A canonical example of an autopoietic system is the biological cell.

The eukaryotic cell, for example, is made of various biochemical components such as nucleic acids and proteins, and is organized into bounded structures such as the cell nucleus, various organelles, a cell membrane and cytoskeleton. These structures, based on an external flow of molecules and energy, produce the components which, in turn, continue to maintain the organized bounded structure that gives rise to these components.”


By the way

If you have a mechanical heart valve, it is neither made nor sustained by your body chemistry.

If it wears out, it has to be maintained or replaced by an external agent.

So your body (bounded by your skin, including the valve) can no longer be said to be fully autopoietic.

However, all system boundaries are a matter of choice, determined by system observers and describers.

So you can still say your biological system (excluding the heart valve) is autopoietic.

The operationally closed organism

Some authors devote many pages to explaining this concept, which suggests it is difficult to grasp.

Or else, that operational closure can be interpreted in various ways.

A simple interpretation is that system actors have no knowledge or understanding of what lies in the environment outside the system

This table is a generalisation of several explanations I have read.


In an “operationally closed” organism


cannot cross the system boundary

Complex resources from the environment

are not imported into the system

Actors in the wider environment

cannot determine operations performed in the system

Actors in the system

are not aware of actors or events outside the system


The allopoietic organisation

The opposite of an autopoietic system is an allopoietic system.

“An allopoietic system uses raw materials to generate a car (an organized structure) which is something other than itself (the car factory).”


The following are allopoietic systems or processes.

·         Manufacturing a car – this production process that does not sustain the substance of the car manufacturing system itself.

·         Using one tool (say, a lathe) to make a second tool (say, another lathe) – this does not sustain the substance of the first tool or its operator.

·         One business actor recruit a second business actor - this does not sustain the substance of the first business actor.

·         An organisation can hire or make business resources - this does not sustain the substance of the business actor.

·         Having a child is a kind of self-reproduction - this does not sustain the material substance of the parents.


Assertion: no organisation sustains its own components and processes entirely through the actions of its own components and processes.


Core business processes, as may be defined by operational researchers or organisation architects.

·         are not designed to manufacture/sustain business actors

·         are distinct from the processes of any meta system (operational research or EA).

·         do not start from elementary molecules and energy


Some businesses manufacture some of their own resources, but very rarely from molecules and energy

And no business makes all its own resources.

Rather, it happily imports complex components from its environment.

The procurement department buys photocopiers, telephones and other complex but ready-to-go components.

The human resources department hires educated/skilled people (the most complex system components you can imagine).

Even a nuclear submarine, which may appear self-sustaining for a long time, must rest every so often for the import of replacement parts and submariners.


An organisation may be considered a self-organising entity in so far as it define and changes its own business roles and processes.

But self-organising does not mean operationally closed in the sense Maturana meant.

And the business may import not only resources but also process types from its environment.

The operationally open organisation

This table extends the one above with a contrasting definition of an operationally open system.



In an “operationally closed” organism

In an “operationally open” organisation


cannot cross the system boundary

can cross the system boundary

Complex resources from the environment

are not imported into the system

are imported into the system

Actors in the wider environment

cannot determine operations performed in the system

can determine operations performed in the system

Actors in the system

are not aware of actors or events outside the system

are aware of actors or events outside the system



Actors inside an organisation are aware of external processes. E.g. they help customers to place orders

Actors outside an organisation are aware of internal processes. E.g. they know that goods must be made or found and delivered by the business.


Think of an example organisation and answer the following questions.

If you find yourself saying yes, then your organisation system is operationally open.


Can processes cross the system boundary?

Can a process start outside, continue within the organisation, and proceed outside again?

E.g. the process runs from order through invoice to delivery and payment?


Can complex resources enter or leave the system?

Are computers and other machines bought? Are people recruited?

Are complex parts assembled into larger products?


Can processes be imported into the system?

Does your organisation ever copy a role or process from the wider world (another organisation, a book or a consultant)?

Does legislation dictate any process in your organisation, say, an accounting or redundancy process?

Does a legal contract with a customer or supplier oblige your organisation to follow a pre-defined rule or process?


Can actors in environment determine operations within the system?

Can an external entity knowingly trigger a specific process performed within the system?

Can an external entity define or change a process type in the system description?


Are actors inside the system aware of actors or events outside the system?

Does any process within your organisation depend on a process in the environment of the organisation?

Does your organisation outsource any "support function” or delegate any process to another organisation?

Must your organisation know the rules (inputs and outputs, pre-conditions and post conditions) of an outsourced process?