Updated: Dec 3, 2020

The term autopoiesis derives from the word auto- meaning “self” and poiesis, meaning “creation or production”. The term is used to describe a system’s capacity to regenerate or recreate itself. A system may be considered autopoietic if the parts to the organization interact with each other in such a manner that they are continuously producing and maintaining the pattern and elementary parts that constitute the system.1 An autopoietic system is one that is organized to continuously reproduce its own parts and structure. The term autopoiesis was introduced to systems theory by Citing Maturana and Varela, who defined an autopoietic system as “a closed topological space that ‘continuously generates and specifies its own organization through its operation as a system of production of its components, and does this in an endless turnover of components.” Classical examples of autopoietic systems are biological organisms. The human body, for example, is believed to replenish every cell within itself over the course of a seven to ten year period. Likewise, the entire set of macromolecular elements within a given cell is regenerated approximately 100,000 times during its lifetime. During this extraordinary turnover of matter, the cell maintains its overall structure, coherence, and relative autonomy.2

Pattern Regeneration

Of central interest within autopoiesis is the idea of how the parts create the pattern of organization but then this pattern of organization feeds back to recreate the parts, this is even though the parts are creating the pattern of organization. The pattern appears to exist independently from any of the parts and can replace them without itself changing. The cell maintains its identity and characteristics even though it incorporates at least a billion different constitutive elements during its lifecycle. This maintenance of integrity while the components themselves are being continuously or periodically decomposed and recomposed – created and destroyed, produced and consumed – forms part of the essence of autopoiesis.3 On a grander scale, the global biosphere is another example of an autopoietic system. Persistent macro-level patterns, such as whole biomes or glaciers are continuously regenerating themselves to create a stable macro level pattern. This is captured in the Gaia hypothesis that states that the global ecosystem manages to maintain itself within the right parameters for confining life. The investigation of the Gaia hypothesis looks at how the global biosphere and the development of its constituent biotic and abiotic elements contribute to the stability of the global gas mix in the atmosphere, temperature, ocean salinity and acidity, and other factors to enable a homeostatic condition conducive to the perpetuation of life.4

Social Autopoiesis

Many examples of this autopoietic process whereby macro level patterns recreate themselves can be seen in socio-cultural systems. Social institutions are enduring patterns of organization within a society that are built out of the coordinated choices of the individual members. Institutions like corporations, governments or democracy are recreated and perpetuated in the choices people make every day, to go to work, to believe in the value of a monetary currency, to vote, etc. Through society educating its children it recreates and continues the pattern of knowledge and culture of that society; as generations of people come and go the basic cultural pattern can remain somewhat invariant. Parents, and society as a whole exhibit a strong drive to recreate their own inherited culture within their children, this appears a universe feature to human societies. More than this, people actively work to spread cultural patterns. For example, the Abrahamic religions, from their inception have shown a strong drive to “spread the word,” to continue and expand the cultural pattern. This socio-cultural process of autopoiesis is mediated through communication. As the sociologist, Niklas Luhmann noted: “Social systems use communications as their particular mode of autopoietic reproduction. Their elements are communication which are recursively produced and reproduced by a network of communications and which cannot exist outside such a network.”5 In another writing Luhmann points out: “Elements are elements only for the system that employs them as units and they are such only through this system. This is formulated in the concept of autopoiesis.”


Autopoiesis may be contrasted with allopoiesis which refers to a system creating some other external entity. Citing Maturana and Varela created a distinction between Autopoietic and allopoietic systems when they wrote: “Autopoietic systems are thus distinguished from allopoietic systems, which are Cartesian and which have as the product of their functioning something different from themselves.” The process whereby one system imposes a pattern on another external to itself may be called allopoiesis. For example, almost all engineered systems are produced through a human being imposing a preconceived pattern on a set of elements to create something other than themselves. A tractor factory would be a good example of this, the system is designed to produce tractors that are then externalized from the system. In contrary, some new 3D printers are specifically designed to be able to reproduce the parts needed to build another printer, a form of autopoiesis.

Systems Innovation

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