What the heck are SOHOs?

Systems thinking is an important part of our studies in the master’s degree in Creative Sustainability at Aalto University. During a recent course on systems thinking, I ran into an absolutely wonderful and intriguing concept called a SOHO system (1). A SOHO system is a system that is:

  1. Self-Organizing. Self-organizing systems may exhibit spontaneous coherent behavior and organization. This basically means that when an open system, such as a lake or a financial system, is pushed away from its equilibrium state by an influx of energy and material, the system responds with a spontaneous emergence of new, qualitatively different organized behavior and structure. An example of self-organization is the growth of a tree, or the development of an embryo in a mother’s womb.
  2. Holarchic. A holarchic system is formed up of holons. Holons are entities that are simultaenously a whole and a part. A holarchy is therefore a hierarchical system of interconnected part-wholes. These holons are connected with reciprocal relationships and mutual causality – meaning that the interactions between the holons are not linear cause-effect, but non-linear feedback relationships. What all this means is that, instead of having a one-way top-down power relationships as in a traditional view of a hierarchy, holons in each level are affecting other holons in both above and below levels. For example, a forest is a holon, which is consisted of smaller forest areas, lakes, and other ecosystems that are themselves holons. A lake (another holon) then consists of smaller pockets of ecosystems and organisms, that themselves consists of smaller holons… and so on. All the holons and their interactions over time form a holarchy, which extends over time and over different scales.
  3. Open system. Most systems out there are open, including you and me. An open system transmits and receives energy and material to and from its environment. Open systems do have boundaries, but they are not closed or isolated from their context. The opposite of an open system is a closed system. A classic example of a closed system would be the clockwork in a watch.

Self-organizing Holarchic Open systems are all around us. Lakes, forests, societies, social networks, and cities – just to name a few. All of these systems exhibit self-organizing behavior that cascades throughout their hierarchical levels.


A SOHO system in action.

But what really makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end is the following idea regarding the energetics of open systems, originally developed by Kay and Schneider (2) , expressed below by Kay et al (1):

“When the input of high quality energy and material pushes the system beyond a critical distance form equilibrium, the open system responds with a spontaneous emergence of new, reconfigured organized behavior that uses the high quality energy to build, organize and maintain its new structure… As more high quality energy is pumped into a system, more organization emerges, in a step-wise way, to dissipate the exergy. Furthermore, these systems tend to get better and better at grabbing resources and utilizing them to build more structure, thus enhancing their dissipating capability.”

If I understand this correctly, this would mean that when a SOHO system receives energy from its environment, it starts to develop new structures and processes that make it more effective at receiving energy from its environment. This creates a positive feedback loop where increasing energy input into the SOHO system increases its capability to receive energy.

A Self-organizing Holarchic Open system. From Kay et al. (1999).

A self-organizing system that uses energy to increase its ability to take energy. From Kay et al. (1999).

For example, when our early ancestors invented tools or developed the ability to cook their food, the community’s ability to grab resources from their environment improved. The increased influx of energy (e.g. cooked food or a surplus of wheat) enabled the community to spend more time improving their tools and techniques, which in turn increased the influx of energy into the community, which again gave the community more time to create new tools and techniques… and so on.

But what does this really mean from practical decision-making point of view? So what if we’re dealing with SOHO systems?

Well, in my view it makes all the difference in the world whether we’re facing systems whose behavior and responses are easy to predict or systems that might have highly unpredictable, or even chaotic behaviors. And we don’t have to look too far to see the consequences of using linear decision-making techniques to non-linear, holarchic and unpredictable systems. Just take a look at the giant garbage patch that’s floating in the Pacific Ocean:

(1) Kay, J., Regier, H., Boyle, M., Francis, G. (1999). An ecosystem approach for sustainability: addressing the challenge of complexity. Futures. Vol. 31. Pages 721-742.

(2) Schneider, ED. & Kay, JJ. (1994). Complexity and thermodynamics: towards a new ecology. Futures. Vol. 19. Pages 25-48.

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