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I have been pondering the concept of self-organisation and feel the need to pull the threads together.

I have mentioned the term in posts before but never felt I have a real grip on it.  Then the other day, I was at a workshop to do with community empowerment which not-surprisingly discussed the notion of the “Big Society”.  One of my voluntary and community sector colleagues spoke and referred to a handout he had written on “Kauffman’s essential preconditions for self-organisation”.  He had my attention immediately…

Okay, let’s pull all the threads into one place first of all:

Firstly two useful bits from Ray Ison:

Self organisation: “…creating the circumstances for emergence and novelty.. through self-organisation and removing barriers to others being responsible (i.e. creating response-able circumstances)” (Ison, 2010,187)

and also

“Self-organisation is the phenomenom associated with a system distinguished by an observer, which is able to construct and change its own behaviour or internal organisation” (Ison, 2010, 198/9)

then also from Woodhill:

One of the principles of organisational learning is establishing a culture in which individuals, or units within an organisation, are self-organising in that they understand and contribute to the overall goals of the organisation in a relatively autonomous fashion.  In terms of institutional and organisational structure of society, there is still an enormous amount to learn about the idea of self-organisation and self-organising systems (Woodhill, 2002, 67)

and I am also going to re-type pretty much all the handout I got last week (because it is currently cluttering my desk up and once in here I can put it in the bin!):

Kauffman’s Essential Preconditions for self-organisation are:

1) A relatively safe nutrient environment

2) high levels of diversity and complexity in terms of the elements to be self-organised

3) living at the edge of chaos, in a word nothing will happen if everything is sitting like a lump (uncertainty, opportunities for change and innovation, a churning mess)

4) an inner drive towards improvement, hence if you are an atom it would be useful to get together with another atom to become a molecule (driven to improve a search for a better way to fit in with the surrounding world.  Those who fit better, survive better)

5) sparsity of connections.  If everything is hardwired in advance how could it self-organise? (should not already be organised)

When these essential preconditions are manifest, order happens.  Nobody needs to do a thing, plan a thing, manage a thing – organisation just happens.  When it all works, the net result is what Kauffman and his colleagues at the Sante Fe Institute call a Complex Adaptive System.  It is complex in the sense that it is composed of multiple elements linked in a variety of ways.  It is adaptive in the sense that the process of self-organisation is ongoing as the entity searches for new and better ways to be in the world.  This search may also be understood as learning, which would seem to have something to do with the process of knowledge generation.  And it is a system in the sense that it all works together.

The handout itself does not cite any references.  But the academic in me tried to seek the source of this explanation by asking my fellow TU812 students on the forum.  A similiar explanation is provided in this useful web article on Learning for Free (Harrison Owen, 1998, accessed 20 Feb 2011).  He cites the reference source as Kauffman, Stuart, At Home in the Universe, Oxford, 1995.

Ramage and Shipp (2009) include a chapter on Kauffman as one of the founders of complexity theory.  This is the source of work on complex adaptive systems, edge of chaos and self-organisations – all concepts that are familiar to me but up to now had no knowledge of their lineage.

Complex adaptive systems are systems which are made up of many interconnected parts that are constantly self-organising and adapting in response to their environment (Ramage and Shipp, 2009, 241)

Concept of ‘edge of chaos’ […] this concept observes that in many systems, there is a narrow zone between total order (which is stagnant and lifeless) and total disorder (which is chaotic and uncontrollable).  It is within this zone – the edge of chaos – that life and creativity can exist (Ramage and Shipp, 2009, 241)

In flicking through Ramage and Shipp, I now understand that the term “self-organisation” was first coined by Ashby in 1947 (Ramage and Shipp, 2009, 48).  Subsequently, Kauffman developed it within complexity theory.

So – how do I pull all of that together to inform my understanding of self-organisation?

Here is my short summary:

In an ever-changing world, ‘complex adaptive systems’ are a good thing – because they learn, new things emerge from them, they help with novelty, creativity, innovation and so on, they don’t need a command/control management system (aka bureaucracy and top-down).

A complex adaptive system comes about when the elements in that system self-organise – they collectively construct and change their own behaviour and organisation.

There are key preconditions that need to be in place for self-organisation to occur – a safe nutrient environment; high diversity; high complexity; operating at the ‘edge of chaos’, inner drive to improvement; sparsity of connections.

In organisational management or institutional design, creating these preconditions are a key part of individually and collectively juggling the M-ball – creating the conditions for self-organisation to occur.

At the moment, policy drivers such as Localism and Big Society seem to be advocating the notion of self-organisation for example through the reduction of central reporting systems.  I guess the question is – are there attempts to create the preconditions for self-organisation?  One to ponder and look out for I think.


Ison, R. (2010) Systems Practice: How to act in a climate-change world, Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes/London

Woodhill, J. (2002) Sustainability, Social learning and the democratic imperative: lessons from the Australian Landcare Movement in Blackmore, C (Ed, 2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, The Open University/Springer Publications, Milton Keynes/London

Ramage, M. and Shipp, K. Systems thinkers, Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes/London

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