Light Leadership Blog

Complex Adaptive Systems – Self-Organization


In this video we will be talking about the process of self-organization within complex adaptive systems and the dynamic interplay between order and entropy that is thought to be required to enable it, we will firstly discuss different theories for the emergence of organization in so doing we will look at the first and second laws of thermodynamics, we will then talk about the rise of self- organization theory during the past century and lay down the basic framework through which this process is understood to take place.

The real question is why or how do we get things to work together, how do we get global level coordination within a system? And there are two fundamentally different approaches to trying to answer this question; firstly, this coordination may be imposed by some external entity or secondly it may be self-generated internally. For thousands of years many different societies came to the former conclusion that this organization we see in the world derives from some external divine entity, religions and spirituality often depict the world in terms of a interplay between super natural forces of order and chaos, but of cause modern science has always rejected any form of divine intervention, as core to its foundation is the law to the conservation of energy and matter. The first law of thermodynamics is an expression of this fundamental conservation, which states that the total energy of an isolated system remains constant or conserved. Energy and matter can be neither created nor be destroyed, but simply transformed from one form to another. The conservation of energy is a fundamental assumption and keystone of the scientific enterprise, if you tell a physics that you have create a perpetual motion machine, that can essentially create energy out of nothing they will just laugh at you, because you are no longer playing the game of science, you have broken its most fundamental rule.
The second law of thermodynamics states that the total entropy, which may be understood as disorder, will always increase over time in an isolated system.
To understand where this comes from we might think about how if we have some object heated that heat will always try to spread out to become evenly distributed within its environment, but the revers never happens, heat will not spontaneously reverse this process to become concentrated again, likewise whenever rooms are cleaned they become messy again in the future, people get older as time passes and not younger all of these are expressions of the second law of thermodynamics meaning that a system cannot spontaneously increase its
order without external intervention that decreases order elsewhere in another system. For many years, the second law of thermodynamics – that systems tend toward disorder – has generally been accepted. Unfortunately none of this helps us in answering Shakespeare’s question as to why our universe has in fact developed to produce at least some systems with extra ordinary high levels of organization, in fact the second law of thermodynamics would predict quite the opposite.
The term “self-organizing” was introduced to contemporary science in 1947 by the psychiatrist and engineer W. Ross Ashby. Self-organization as a word and concept was used by those associated with general systems theory in the 1960s, but did not become commonplace in the scientific literature until its adoption
by physicists and researchers in the field of complex systems in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1977 the work of Nobel Laureate chemist Ilya Prigogine on dissipative structures, was one of the first to show that the second law of thermodynamics may not be true for all systems. Prigogine was studying chemical and physical systems far-from-equilibrium and looking at how small fluctuations could be amplified through feedback loops to create new patterns. For example when water is heated evenly from below, while cooling down evenly at its surface, since warm liquid is lighter than cold liquid, the heated liquid tries to move upwards towards the surface. However, the cool liquid at the surface similarly tries to sink to the bottom. These two opposite movements cannot take place at the same time without some kind of coordination between the two flows of liquid. The liquid tends to self-organize into a pattern of hexagonal cells call convection cells, with an upward flow on one side of the cell and a downward flow on the other side.

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