Structure and Organization

broken chair

I confused these two terms in my last post. Here's the right description. Both refer to properties of systems, especially living systems. The definitions I use come from the work of Humberto Maturana. Entities composed of multiple elements have both structure and organization. Organization refers to the particular way in which the parts are interconnected. Organization gives an object its name. A chair is recognized by its organization, which, for a chair, is a set of legs supporting a seat with a back rising from the rear of the seat. If the same elements are organized in a different arrangement, the entity loses its former functional characteristics and becomes something else.

Structure refers to the elements that comprise and constitute the organization. They may change without destroying the organization and its particular name and functions. A chair may have wooden or metal legs, a rigid or flexible seat, or a high or low back; all such combinations will still be a chair. Artists often take liberties with structure making the organization and name obscure. If the chair is cut in half, the two parts no longer constitute a chair. Maturana uses a table for this description in a wonderfully accessible book that runs through much of his work. I cannot say that his work is always accessible. The book, From Being to Doing, is set in interview format with Bernhard Poerksen asking the questions and Maturana responding.

Living systems get their aliveness by continually changing the structure in response to changes (perturbations) in the inner or outer context, but always maintaining the organization. The process by which the organization persists in the face of perturbations is called by Maturana and Varela, autopoiesis, a continuous process of self reproduction. If the perturbations cause the organization to change, the entity becomes a distinctively different object. For living organisms, some changes in structure, say the loss of the heart or brain, causes the whole body to lose the autopoietic capability and die. A dead organism may superficially resemble the living form that preceded it, but it is not the same. It lacks the functions that made the living form distinctive.

These distinctions are critical in Maturana’s way of describing life and cognition. They are important in describing the behaviors of all complex systems and in explaining the emergence phenomena associated with complexity. Life is an emergent quality of certain systems that are organized in such a way that autopoiesis provides a robust, resilient way to respond to change in the world in which the entity exists without losing its organization. Beauty emerges when the elements (structure) of a painting give it an organization (the object as a whole) that has power to affect human sensibilities.

Flourishing emerges from the organization, called world, when the necessary structural elements are present and are interconnected to 1) support life, and 2) to lend life other qualities such as well being, freedom, or authenticity that have been accepted as essential to flourishing. Flourishing, like beauty, will always have part of its existence determined by subjective parameters. Other important cultural ends, for example, security are emergent. Trying to “fix” parts of the system instead of getting the whole organization into working order will not produce the desired outcomes. Security through military domination may appear to solve problems, but because only part of the operative system are addressed, new problems are very likely to appear. Terrorism is an example of the failure of partial solutions to work satisfactorily in the security domain. Today’s reductionist framework, by which problems associated with emergence are identified, responsibilities for handling them are assigned, and solutions are formulated, will change the structure in isolated places but cannot produce the changes in the organization as a whole necessary to create the desired emergence. Sustainability is a condition when, with the right changes, the whole world organization lets flourishing come forth (emerge). This condition will always be a possibility because we are unlikely to have sufficient understanding to make all these changes in the right order, place, and time. We must, then, keep trying and learning.

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Antony Upward said:

John,

Thanks for sharing this... the topic of structure / organization (along with integration / differentiation, function / structure /process / context and evaluative / generative) is on my mind having just finished reading Allen, Tainter and Hoekstra's wonderful 2003 book "Supply Side Sustainability". There is a summary of their ideas in an earlier, shorter article: Allen, T. F. H., Tainter, J. A., & Hoekstra, T. W. (1999). Supply-side sustainability. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 16(5), 403.

This inter-interdisciplinary team (ecologist, biologist, sociologist/historian) have written a deep and thought provoking book - which I think might strongly contribute to framing and advancing the ideas in your book. (We corresponded briefly about my thoughts on your book back in early 2010).

What's impressive about their work is that it attempts to connect the laws of thermodynamics to bio-physical elaboration to social development / history to sustainability using the complexity/systems thinking frame works / theories as the guiding approach.

(As an analogy: Think of it as the theoretically grounded version of Jarrod Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse - with much better examples!)

One very interesting result is they define sustainability as a series of paradoxes - which I'm finding very helpful in my own thinking.

Currently, as I am completing my masters thesis where, as a proposition in design science I am extending an existing ontology (in the Information Systems disciplinary tradition) to include Strongly Sustainable (in the ecological economics sense) Business Model design. This is PhD thesis which I am extending: http://www.hec.unil.ch/aosterwa/PhD/ - this work has subsequently been turned into a very popular book - http://www.businessmodelgeneration.com.

If you've not heard of Allen, Tainter and Hoekstra's work before I strongly recommend it - I feel it could open up new possibilities for you as you continue to think about design and sustainability. Perhaps it might even start to provide the missing theoretical background for a science of sustainable design!

Warm regards
Antony

Antony Upward said:

Hi John,

Just wanted to let you know I've now placed a presentation summarizing Allen, Tainter and Hoekstra's work here:

http://www.slideshare.net/AntonyUpward/supply-side-sustainability-summaryupward-av102

I'd be delighted to hear your thoughts on this and if you see it being applicable to your design / sustainability work.

Cheers
Antony