Beth Dempster sympoietics (notes)


Beth Dempster

School of Planning, University of Waterloo,
Waterloo, ON, Canada N2L 3G1 E-mail:

Sympoiesis vs. Autopoiesis

To gain an understanding of the two poietic system heuristics and the significance of their differences, some specific definitions applied by Maturana and Varela (1980, Varela et al. 1974, Maturana 1980) are important for the discussion.

Code /grammar/sympoietic code for molecular media

The pattern of organization of a system is the relations among components that define a system as a specific type of system. The pattern of organization of a tree, for example, is the relationship between the leaves, trunk, roots, and other components. Different types of system, have different patterns of organization, such as an herb (with no trunk) or an elephant (with no leaves). Maturana and Varela use only the term organization, however, this can be confusing, when extending the discussion into social systems where organization carries a different meaning. I therefore follow Capra (1996) and use the phrase pattern of organization.

Message /utterance/sentence/performance/ solidarity world generator common wealth circulator

The structure of a system is the actual relations and components that constitute a particular system in a particular domain. A tree, for example, exists in the physical domain, so its structure will be the actual physical arrangement of the components that make it a particular tree. A spruce has a different structure than a maple. Note that this specific definition of the term structure does not match the definition applied in some disciplines. For example, in some cases structure more closely represents what is here being termed pattern of organization. As used here, structure more closely represents vernacular usage, which typically refers to a physical entity – something present and ‘real.’ To some extent, pattern of organization correlates to a blueprint, and structure to manifestation of that blueprint in some domain. Any pattern of organization can be manifest in many different structures.

Distinguishing between these two aspects of a system allows definition of the following concepts:

Organizational closure refers to the degree of self-containment a system has with respect to its pattern of organization. A system can be organizationally closed, open or ajar. A system that organizes the relations among its components in such a manner as to ensure the continuation of its own pattern of organization is organizationally closed. Consider a tree, which has a specific pattern of organization that governs the receipt of energy and nutrients to perpetuate its structure and subsequently its pattern of organization as a tree. Although the system receives external inputs, it maintains a pattern appropriate for its own development and continuation.

A system which relies completely on external sources for determining its pattern of organization, such as a human made artifact, is organizationally open. A system that relies on external sources, yet limits these inputs in a self-determined manner, is organizationally ajar. For example, an ecosystem, which allows, but limits, the introduction of new species fits the latter description. Maturana and Varela discuss the notions of organizationally open and closed systems. I add organizationally ajar systems in order to describe the characteristics of ecosystems and, subsequently, of sympoietic systems.

Structural coupling refers to the recognition that a system’s structural relationship with its environment will determine its responses to disturbances or triggers. Continued system survival depends on having a structure, which can respond suitably to the system’s environment. For example, a house plant moved to a different location will not survive if it no longer receives the structural inputs (energy and material) that it requires even though its pattern of organization has not changed. Allergic reactions also illustrate the concept. All people have the same pattern of organization, yet each individual has a specific structure. An individual’s response to peanuts, for example, will vary according to their specific structure.

Poem of Common-being
Poiesis refers to the ability of a system to continually and recursively produce its own set of relations. A particular pattern of organization will produce a particular structure. To be sustaining, this structure must in turn produce a pattern of organization that will ensure continued production of a continually suitable structure. This recurring cyclic production does not mean that the structure and organization cannot change, but simply that each must produce the other and the structure must couple with its environment. Maturana and Varela use the term self-producing for this process, but since the ‘self’ of sympoietic systems is less apparent, I have taken to using the term poiesis.

The difference between auto and sympoiesis:
Note that system theory generally defines system in relation to a boundary: but a sympoietic system does is ajar: the boundary is a membrane not a wall

The distinguishing differences between autopoietic and sympoietic systems are the presence and lack of boundaries and the difference regarding their degree of organizational closure. Autopoietic systems are organizationally closed, sympoietic, organizationally ajar.

Table of Comparison


Defining Characteristics

self-produced boundaries organizationally closed external structural coupling

Characteristic Tendencies

autonomous units central control ‘packaged,’ same information reproduction by copy evolution between systems growth/development oriented homeostatic balance steady state finite temporal trajectories predictable


efficient constrained, codified information require certainty


lacking boundaries
organizationally ajar
internal and external structural coupling

complex, amorphous entities distributed control
distributed, different information amorphous reproduction evolution within system evolutionary orientation

balance by dynamic tension
potentially dramatic, surprising change potentially infinite temporal trajectories unpredictable

adaptable, flexible
open to new and different information ok with surprise

Table 1- Comparison of poietic system characteristics


What happens if we re-write this discussion of information, intermedia ecological after Innis?  That’s the question to consider.

I define information as that part of a message (process or structure) that has the potential to carry meaning for a recipient (Dempster 2000). Consequently, information is context and recipient dependent, but also – as indicated by Beer’s comment – observer dependent. The latter point is key. Information is irrelevant to the autopoietic systems themselves: in maintaining autopoiesis, they either have the appropriate structure or they do not. Information is an heuristic applied by observers to point to particular attributes of living systems. For example, I find the concept of information is especially useful for understanding a system’s degree of organizational closure. The latter can be interpreted as the degree to which a system is open to information that has the potential to alter its pattern of organization: Can a system receive information that carries organizationally relevant meaning? Due to their self-produced boundaries, autopoietic systems can control system inputs and outputs. The systems, therefore, can maintain organizational closure by restricting undesirable organizational information while keeping the information essential for their continued production. Considering information, then, makes it possible to follow system history and recognize the increased complexity of system structure and pattern of organization.

Internal structural coupling > bias of communication/balance?

Lacking self-defined boundaries, sympoietic systems consequently lack the same degree of control and are open to a continual flux of organizationally relevant information. I refer to the systems as organizationally ajar (Dempster 1998a 1998b), since they are not totally open. Sympoietic systems regulate the input of organizational information through internal structural coupling: information must be contained in a suitable structure in order to be integrated into the system even though such input is not regulated by a boundary. As an example, consider the incorporation of information into an ecosystem through the introduction of exotic species. Only those species with structures suited to the ecosystem will survive. For example, a species suited to a dry environment, such as a cactus, will not survive in a wet environment since it lacks the essential structural adaptations. Information carried by a cactus will not be incorporated, but an exotic that does have the appropriate structure will be incorporated and may subsequently alter the ecosystem’s pattern of organization.

These factors indicate one of the critical differences between autopoietic and sympoietic systems regarding how their pattern of organization is codified. As noted above, autopoietic systems tend to carry ‘packaged’ organizational information. In contrast, sympoietic systems carry different bits of information distributed among their components and subsequently have no centralized control. Their pattern of organization arises from the interaction among components and influences, rather than from a pre- defined ‘program.’ This factor realizes their distinctive character as amorphous, cooperative, self-organizing entities. An example illustrating the importance of information storage in an ecosystem is the influence of seeds stored in the substrate as a determining factor in the shifting mosaic of a mixed-wood forest (e.g. Mladenoff et al. 1993) and in the vegetation composition of fresh water marshes (Keddy and Reznicek 1985, Parks Canada 1991).

packaged organizational information? versus distributed information?: binarism versus allegorical narrative? Space-biased versus time-biased intermedia ecology?

This means sympoietic systems depend on the organizational information contained in their components, which are typically autopoietic systems. Yet there is also organizational information contained in the network of interactions among the autopoietic systems – the pattern of relations and processes that manifest the sympoietic system structure. This information is not held by any particular entity, but is distributed among the interconnected components and processes, hence leading also to distributed control. Sympoietic systems build their complexity by incorporating a variety of complex components. Although they may be restricted by their organizational information content, sympoietic systems have the advantage of also being open to new organizational information.

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