Equilibrium, equifinality and entropy in closed versus open systems

Goedemiddag lezer(s),

A few concepts are key in general systems theory and have a different application when we compare open versus closed systems.

Een aantal concepten zijn belangrijk om rekening mee te houden in de algemene systeemtheorie en zouden weleens verschillende mogelijke toepassingen kunnen hebben. Er zijn daarmee grote verschillen te benoemen tussen ‘volledige open’ en ‘volledig gesloten systemen’. Geen enkel systeem is ofwel volledig gesloten ofwel volledig open. Waarom dit zo is zoals het is, is voor mij ook nog een raadsel.  Vanaf hier ga ik de Engelse tekst verder editen en zal ik steeds beetje bij beetje meer in het Nederlands schrijven als vertalen. Het zou ideaal zijn als ik deze website in verschillende talen kan gaan zetten op deze manier. Will see.

First off,

Let me try to shed some light on it, and see it in the context of human organizations.

Generally speaking we can assume that a system seeks equilibrium, a balanced and, ideally, stable state in which opposing forces are neutralized, resulting in some form of order or symmetry. Life seems to have a purpose of balancing out these forces into a stable bedrock as a matter of speaking, hence, the reason why we see so much symmetry in nature. Self-organization in nature can be seen as life’s ‘consciousness’ maybe, a governing force using natural selection to determine new pathways for evolution to occur.

In closed systems where there exists a ‘minimal’ interaction with the environment, the equilibrium is more static and rigid. The closer the system, the more closed its ‘boundaries’ are, the more structural integrity the system seems to have. In these systems there exists a linear and simple explanation how this state is achieved, because of low levels of diversity between the individual components and interaction among these. There exists just one or a few possible pathways to achieve a relatively stable form of equilibrium and when it does, entropy (the opposite state of order/symmetry) slowly increases until the equilibrium is lost. We can perhaps measure the amount of order in a system by determining/calculating the amount of entropy there exists. This is because energy starts concentrated and tends to dissipate over time based on the second law of thermodynamics.

Traditionally speaking, this is how human organisations have been modelled through the industrial management theory. Individuals are basically reduced to simple functions in a larger machine to achieve a certain static equilibrium. There are just a few ways to achieve this equilibrium and this is typically communicated through a hierarchy of command and control. A problem that occurs here is that a complex, adaptive and open system like a human being becomes reduced to a simple function in a larger cogwheel, unfortunately.

What makes a human being self-organizing?

This is why issues of alienation, lack of motivation and unhappiness at work exist from my view. The human being becomes reduced of its natural state and potential, resulting in many modern illnesses like unhappiness and depression. Therefore, to optimise well being around work related challenges, I think, it would be wise and healthy to help individuals in facilitating for the basic necessities so that self-realisation can occur without having to live as a homeless person or ditching modernity all together. This experiment has been done in Denmark where they simply put homeless people in empty homes to give them a sense of response ability, making sure to get them productive in showing they can take care of a home and off the streets. This makes sense rather then forcing a human to become something less then that it is, or potentially can be. Even when the structure of the organisation is perfectly set out, humans will always continue the dynamics of self organisation unconsciously, because this is simply hardwired in our DNA. So in many traditional industrial managed organisations you probably see phenomena of emergence regardless of how strict and closed the system is. This does not only happen internally, but also externally. The experience of wholeness can also be applied to the environment, the bigger systems and subsystems the organisation is apart of. Without taking these dynamics into the equation, the organisation becomes out of sync with its surroundings, and can even become irrelevant compared to how these other systems evolve and die off (entropy almost always increases in a system that is too closed from its environment). The only reason the industrial management paradigm worked and can work is the allowance of the people that work in it, and a static, abundant and predictable environment to work in, the lure of Gaia. Otherwise, it is doomed to fail based on evolutionary principles. A metaphor to illustrate this on a higher level is probably the relation between nature and economics. Since our economy is a subsystem of the ecology, the socioeconomically systems will cease to exist if they are out of alignment with the ‘higher’ systems they are apart of. So the ecology or any other system that is ‘higher’ in the evolutionary chain of development of consciousness holds more power in the sense that many other systems are probably dependent upon those systems that are a bit higher in the naturally occurring hierarchical chain of systems. Again, as have been mentioned so often, the Maslow ‘pyramid’ is an example of how hierarchy can be orchestrated in finding a fulfilling lifestyle as an example of how hierarchical systems could be of use in so far as one sees it as just a mental model, a way to interpret reality. I think, however, there are many other ways to go about it.

So purely from a survival point of view, it makes sense to nurture the systems the organisation is apart of, instead of just seeking for profit, causing negative externalizations. Our shortsightedness, and alienation from our environment is causing this behaviour, and ironically is killing the organisation on the longer term. An archetype for this is the tragedy of commons explained in this article;

Tragedy of the commons – system archetype – human flaws

So when we open up the organisation internally and externally by acknowledging and taking into account the agency and mutual value of other entities, we arrive at a point of complexity in which traditional management theory cannot cope with it anymore. Now the organisation determines it survival by seeking the best possible ‘fit’ with its environment by using the collective intelligence of all agents/employees, having a mental orgie about where to go next? There is no static equilibrium here, the organisation is achieving stability by virtually having none. There is less value in being centralised, big and firm, and more value in being decentralised, with small en flexible teams, constantly adapting based upon the information the agents receive. There exist equifinality now, there are multiple ways of achieving a ‘fit’ with the environment in achieving its purpose. By mentally playing out ideas and room to experiment in trial and error, the agents in the organisation can configure out multiple configurations to co-evolve with its environment. Entropy or disorder in the organisation is constantly used as ‘fuel’ to shortly come to equilibrium again, until again that configuration is outdated and collapses on itself, mixing the card deck.

Entropy is less damaging to an self-organising organisation then it is for a closed one, because it is transforming it into useful and new configurations or dissipating it into buffers in the environment, whereas a closed system is trapped with it and does not have a dissipative structure. The open system is using existing building blocks in new combinations to come up with novel ideas to continue its evolutionary trajectory. It doesn’t matter that one or two components or agents in the organisation are sick or broken, because the decentralised structure makes it possible for other agents to quickly fit in the gap. Also, the open nature of the organisation makes the input of energy, matter and more importantly information a continuum. It makes the organisation more dependent upon its environment, but the constant flow of inputs fuels the need for energy to try out different configurations.

Hope it was an interesting read,

Happy to hear your thoughts,


Author: Kees Berg

I'm a practitioner of holistic healing, a student of social-economical systems and like to move around throughout the day to write during the night. Currently living in the beautiful city Breda. Hit me up on the street or come by for a visit at my place if you dare or find some other way, or just telepathically, depends on the circumstances. It is pretty hectic these strays. Can enjoy adventurous travels or just some couch hanging obviously with a nice snack, refer to exchange list.

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