Executive Director, InSites
Autopoiesis is one of my favorite systems concepts because of its importance in helping us understand a crucial difference between mechanistic systems and living systems. The term was coined by Humberto Maturana, a Chilean biologist. It means “self-making” or “self-producing” (the combination of auto meaning “self” and poiesis meaning “making”). In the 1970s, Maturana and his colleague, Francisco Varela, built their theory about what is life from observing how biological cells function. Maturana and Varela viewed the main characteristic of life as self-maintenance through the “internal networking of a chemical system that continuously reproduces itself within a boundary of its own making”.
There are many transformations continually going on in a biological cell while at the same time “there is cellular self-maintenance—the fact that the cell maintains its individuality”. A person, a tree, a bear, and a flower all differ from a chair, a computer, a television, and a glass cup in that the items in the first group engage in self-maintenance via a mechanism of self-regeneration from within whereas this doesn’t happen in the second group.
It might seem that an autopoietic system is a closed system but, no. There’s an important distinction between the organization and the structure of a system. “The former refers to the relationships between components which are necessary to define that system as part of a particular class of systems; the latter to the particular physical form which those components take.”
An autopoietic system (e.g., a cell) can retain its organization while the environment around it is changing; it is organizationally closed. At the same time, it can be structurally open, allowing energy and matter to flow in and out of it. An autopoietic system, i.e., a living system, must retain its basic organization to stay alive. Marturana and Varela developed other related concepts (e.g., structural coupling) which address important matters of how an autopoietic system changes in relation to its environment. They also did important work together around the biology of cognition. Debates continue about the applicability of autopoiesis at the level of social systems.
Capra, F., & Luigi Luisi, P. (2014). The systems view of life: A unifying vision. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ramage, M. & Shipp, K. (2009). System Thinkers. London: Springer.
Scharmer, O. (2019). Social systems as if people mattered: Response to the Kuhl Critique of Theory U. accepted for publication at J. Change Management. https://www.presencing.org/critiques/social-systems-as-if-people-mattered