‘Autopoiesis’ literally means «auto (self)-creation» (from the Greek: »auto – αυτό» for self- and »poiesis – ποίησις» for creation or production) and expresses a fundamental dialect between structure and function. The term was originally introduced by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in 1973:
: »»An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network.» (Maturana, Varela, 1980, p. 78)»
: »»[…] the space defined by an autopoietic system is self-contained and cannot be described by using dimensions that define another space. When we refer to our interactions with a concrete autopoietic system, however, we project this system on the space of our manipulations and make a description of this projection.» (Maturana, Varela, 1980, p. 89)»
The term ‘autopoiesis’ was originally conceived as an attempt to characterize the nature of living systems. A canonical example of an autopoietic system is the biological cell. The eukaryotic cell, for example, is made of various biochemical components such as nucleic acids and proteins, and is organized into bounded structures such as the cell nucleus, various organelles, a cell membrane and cytoskeleton. These structures, based on an external flow of molecules and energy, »produce» the components which, in turn, continue to maintain the organized bounded structure that gives rise to these components. An autopoietic system is to be contrasted with an allopoietic system, such as a car factory, which uses raw materials (components) to generate a car (an organized structure) which is something »other» than itself (a factory).
More generally, the term »autopoiesis» refers to the dynamics of a non-equilibrium system; that is, organized states (sometimes also called dissipative structures) that remain stable for long periods of time despite matter and energy continually flowing through them. Actually, this flow is what maintains the organization of the open system.
From a very general point of view, the notion of autopoiesis is often associated with that of self-organization.
An application of the concept to sociology can be found in Luhmann’s Systems Theory.
It has been suggested that some institutions emerge from arcane conversations to become autonomous, self-creating from their internal interactions, self-organising and self-defining of their own boundaries and thus autopoietic, acquiring a ‘life of their own’ and having as their main «purpose» their own self-perpetuation (Robb 1991).
Autopoiesis has been considered widely by Integral Theorist Ken Wilber.
Autopoietic principles are now being used in industrial manufacturing by IBM in its «Airgap» method of computer microchip production.