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A special subset of emergent events consists of those occurring autono­mously, without external influence or guidance. Those are self-organizing systems.

In robotics, self-organization is demonstrated in model systems. For example, in a 2016 TED talk by Raffaello D'Andrea, small flying drones swarmed into various interesting patterns, like a flock of birds, then landed on command.

The drones had been pre-programmed with the ability to communicate and respond to each other. While assembling into forms, they were guided by rules inside each drone. That is what makes their collective behavior an example of self-organization.

Birds and schools of fish assemble into flocks by following three primary rules: fly at the same speed as neigh­bors, stay close to them, and avoid collisions (Reynolds, 1987). The rules allow "guidance from within" using sensory data, producing organized shapes that dazzle predators.

Computers can simulate flocks of birds using the same rules. The simulations form emergent shapes similar to flocks of birds and schools of fish.

In living systems, self-organization depends upon information put into the system by earlier evolution. An example is the tendency of proteins to fold into a particular shape.

When a protein is constructed in the body, the potential for a precise folding outcome is put into it through the sequence of amino acids that compose it. When fully formed, the protein enters a self-organizational phase and folds into a predictable shape, allowing it to function in the body.

A system is self-organizing if it is not guided from outside during the time when it organizes. In the booming field of nanotechnology (technology involving extremely small components such as atoms) self-assembly is important because the parts are often too small to be manipulated with tools.

A manufacturer can create an environment in which self-organization follows predictable patterns. An example is the assembly of two-dimensional sheets of molecules such as polymers.

The sheets will self-organize in properly prepared environments. Manufacturers can do this on a large scale, producing materials otherwise be impossible to assemble (Ballauf, 2016).

Self-organization need not involve fancy pre-specifications. A simple form of self-organization is the formation of dust balls in zero gravity.

Van der Waals forces (very weak electrical attractions between small particles) cause particles to organize into dust bunnies even in zero gravity (one of the unexpected revelations from the International Space Station, ISS). This rule of attraction is built into the electrochemical nature of matter.

In a similar way, gravity caused the formation of stars in the early universe. Exploding stars produced the dust clouds that self-organized into more stars and planetary systems.

Each step along the way from dust to stars and planetary systems to life depends upon components from the previous epoch self-organizing into more complex systems. Stuart Kauffman wrote a book titled Origins of Order (1993) in which he argued that life itself evolved from self-organizational interactions of molecules such as peptides, RNA, and DNA. From this point of view, the entire evolution of the universe is a self-organizing process.


Ballauff, M. (2016) Self-assembly creates 2D materials. Science, 352, 656-7.

Kauffman, S. A. (1993). The Origins of Order: Self Organization and Selection in Evolution. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Reynolds, C. W. (1987) Flocks, Herds, and Schools: A Distributed Behavioral Model. Computer Graphics, 21, 25-34.

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