Systems Model Series: Autopoiesis

Autopoiesis, Systems Thinking

Adapted from the article originally written by Unur Sukhbaatar for the Cabrera's Cornell University

System Thinking in Public Affairs Course



Autopoiesis, a Greek term meaning self (auto) and creation of production (poiesis), is a system which reproduces and maintains itself. Maturana and Varela introduced this term originally in biological science, especially in cell reproduction in the early 1970s. Based on my analysis, the theory of autopoiesis lies in the first wave of systems thinking.

Maturana and Varela started to investigate the nature of the living organization, and organization of living systems with their unitary (both whole and part) character in Autopoiesis and Cognition: the Realization of the Living. They posit that the living system is autopoietic and produces parts or itself. The reverse is also true that any autopoietic physical system is considered a living system. On the other hand, allopoietic systems create something different than their parts. Hence, autopoiesis is the criteria of living or non-living (Mingers, 1997).

Below is a table from Maula who summarizes the core idea of the autopoietic system:

Autopoiseis (self-production): A system produces its own components and boundaries, and renews itself in a way that allows the continuous maintenance of its integrity


  • Being composed of components and their relationships
  • Being distinguishable from other unities (e.g. from other systems)

Components: Non-physical parts of the system that are continually produced

by the system

Boundaries: Non-physical parts of the system that connect the system to its

environment through reciprocal interaction. Here: Boundary elements (roles and functions)

Triggers: Signals that are treated as perturbations, not as an input to the system 

Structural coupling:

  • Reciprocal interaction (mutual relationship or
    correspondence) with the environment
  • History of recurrent interactions leading to the structural

Interactive openness: The system interacts with the environment and

compensates the perturbations by improving knowledge (distinctions) and changing its structure.

Systemic closure (Operational closure): 

  • Any change in the system is a structural change
  • The product of the transformation is the very system


  • Accumulated knowledge affects the structure and
  • operation of the system
  • The system affects the (creation of) new knowledge

Social coupling: Reciprocal interaction (communication) by using language

 Source: Based on Maturana and Varela (1980, 1987), Mingers (1995, 1997), von Krogh and Roos (1995), and von Krogh et al. (1996a).


Apart from biology, the autopoiesis theory has many applications, including but not limited to cognition, complexity, social interaction, behavior, language evolution, epistemology, and artificial intelligence.

Neil Theise explains in his video that the self-organized complex system is abundant from the largest, the observable universe (10^26 meters), to the smallest, the Planck length (10^(-35) meters). All those systems are autopoietic. For instance, ants create complex colonies without predetermined rules or instructions of leaders. Therefore, according to autopoesis each ant does their part and complex colonies are structured.



  • Very strong philosophical foundation
  • Applicable to many different disciplines


  • Self-referentiality without any external


  • Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1991). Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living (Vol. 42). Springer Science & Business Media.Asddasds
  • Maula, M. (Ed.). (2006). Organizations as learning systems:'living composition as an enabling infrastructure. Emerald Group Publishing.
  • Mingers, J. (1997). Systems typologies in the light of autopoiesis: a reconceptualization of Boulding's hierarchy, and a typology of self‐referential systems. Systems Research and Behavioral Science: The Official Journal of the International Federation for Systems Research, 14(5), 303-313.