Self Organizing Systems: What Do They Teach Us

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Thinking in Systems" by Donella H. Meadows. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What are self organizing systems? How do they work, and are they an efficient type of system?

Self organizing systems are able to evolve to make themselves more complex. Self organizing systems can often be found in science and nature.

Keep reading to learn more about self organizing systems and the self organization meaning.

Self Organizing systems

What is the self organization meaning? Self organization means that the system is able to make itself more complex. This is useful because the system can diversify, adapt, and improve itself.

Our world’s biology is a self organizing system. Billions of years ago, a soup of chemicals in water formed a cellular organism, which then formed multicellular organisms, and eventually into thinking, talking humans.

What Creates Self-Organization?

Now that you know the self organization meaning, you’re probably wondering how self organizing happens. While self organization can lead to very complex behaviors, its cause doesn’t need to be complex. In fact, a few simple rules can give rise to very complex behavior in self organizing systems.

(Shortform examples: The biological development described above occurred through the combination of a few simple rules:

  • Life is encoded in DNA, which gives rise to the proteins and biochemical systems that allow an organism to function.
  • Mutations in DNA create variations that change the organism’s ability to survive; the organism passes these mutations to its offspring.
  • Through natural selection, the organisms that can reproduce more successfully do so, thus driving evolution of the population.

From these rules, a unicellular organism can ultimately lead to humans.

Similarly, the economy, a complex system, largely works with a few simple rules, such as:

  • Use money as a medium of exchange
  • Allow people to benefit their own self-interest by producing things of value to other people

Simple rules like these can allow an apple farmer to trade with a furniture maker, and ultimately give rise to a complex economy, consisting of a vast web of relationships that functions productively without any global supervisor.)

Problems from Ignoring Self Organization

Self organizing systems produce unexpected variations. It requires experimentation, and tolerance of whole new ways of doing things.

Some organizations quash self-organization, possibly because they optimize toward performance and seek homogeneity, or because they’re afraid of threats to stability. This can explain why some companies reduce their workforces to machines that follow basic instructions and suppress disagreement.

Suppressing self-organization can weaken the resilience of a system and prevent it from adapting to new situations. 


In a hierarchy, subsystems are grouped under a larger system.

There are many nested layers in the hierarchy of our world. Let’s take you as an example:

  • The individual cells that make up your body are highly complex systems in their own right.
  • Together, the cells work together as organs, forming the larger system of the human organism. 
  • You work as part of a larger system of multiple people, such as a family, a company, and your local community.
  • These systems of people form larger systems such as cities, states, and nations. And, altogether, these form a worldwide human system.

As systems self-organize and increase their complexity, they tend to generate hierarchies naturally. For example:

  • A single business founder has too much work, so she hires support staff and oversees them.
  • A single cell developed into multicellular organisms, with each cell having specialized roles within the organism.

Why Hierarchy?

In an efficient hierarchy, the subsystems work well more or less independently, while serving the needs of the larger system. The larger system’s role is to coordinate between the subsystems and help the subsystems perform better.

The arrangement of a complex system into a hierarchy improves efficiency. Each subsystem can take care of itself internally, without needing heavy coordination with other subsystems or the larger system.

This arrangement reduces the information that the subsystem needs to operate, preventing information overload. It also reduces delays and minimizes the need for coordination.

For example:

  • Your pancreas senses blood glucose and secretes insulin, without needing to ask your legs or your brain whether it’s ok. 
  • (Shortform note: In a market economy, people can sell and produce goods on the marketplace, largely without needing to coordinate with other subsystems or authorities. Imagine if, before selling your goods in a yard sale, you needed to contact the central government for permission, contact another bureaucracy for pricing, then contact other households who were also planning yard sales.)

Problems from Ignoring Hierarchy

In a hierarchy, both the subsystems and the larger system have their role. If either deviates from the role, the system’s performance suffers. In self organizing systems, it’s important to consider the hierarchy.

The subsystems work to support the needs of the larger system. If the subsystem optimizes for itself and neglects the larger system, the whole system can fail. For example:

  • Individual football players are subsystems within the larger system of the overall team. If a single football player cares more about individual glory and not the victory of the team, he may run plays in a way that causes the team to lose.
  • A single cell in a body can turn cancerous, optimizing for its own growth at the expense of the larger human system.

On the other side, the larger system’s role is to help the subsystems work better, and to coordinate work between them. In other words, the larger system is a supporter and an air traffic controller. It should not exercise more control than this, but it often does:

  • A company’s workforce may see its management as oppressive and getting in the way of the real work being done.
  • A nation with too autocratic a ruler may direct exactly how subsystems should behave and limit self-organization.

A good hierarchy has balance. There is enough central control to coordinate the subsystems to a larger goal, but not so much control that it suppresses the subsystem’s performance or self-organization.

Self Organizing Systems: What Do They Teach Us

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Donella H. Meadows's "Thinking in Systems" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Thinking in Systems summary :

  • How the world, from bathtub faucets to fish populations, can be seen as simple systems
  • The key system traps that hold back progress, such as escalating arms races and policy addiction
  • Why seeing the world as systems can give you superpowers in work and life

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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