The Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana passed away on the 6th of May 2021. I heard his name for the first time on the 8th in a talk by Peter Senge on facilitating system change, where he talked about autopoietic systems, a term created by Maturana and his colleague Francisco Varela.
An autopoietic system is something that can maintain and recreate itself. It originally related to the idea of living things, like a cell, but it’s not really used as a definition for life these days. Instead, it’s more akin to a self-sustaining system, one that is capable of ensuring it’s continued existence.
The opposite of an autopoietic system is an allopoietic one. This is a system that creates something else, like a factory that creates cars. The purpose of the factory is to produce its output, not to maintain itself.
Of course, these concepts have blurred over time. Autopoiesis has been applied to more things than living systems. It’s arguably the kind of idea that underpins concepts of a circular economy, where across a wider system of interacting parts we collect and reuse material and maintain the integrity of the whole system.
We talk about sustainable businesses, but perhaps what we should be aiming for is autopoietic ones – business ecosystems that are self-sustaining. Ones that enable their own continued existence.
This is not what happens at the moment. There is arguably huge waste and destruction of capacity and potential. Few businesses last five years, and of those fewer make it to thirty. And there are very few that are more than a century old. If we could do a better job at creating organisations and institutions that are autopoietic, we might be able to move faster towards a more sustainable future.