Self-organization, also called spontaneous order in the social sciences, is a process where some form of overall order arises from local interactions between parts of an initially disordered system. The process can be spontaneous when sufficient energy is available, not needing control by any external agent. It is often triggered by seemingly random fluctuations, amplified by positive feedback. The resulting organization is wholly decentralized, distributed over all the components of the system. As such, the organization is typically robust and able to survive or self-repair substantial perturbation. Chaos theory discusses self-organization in terms of islands of predictability in a sea of chaotic unpredictability.

Self-organization occurs in many physical, chemical, biological, robotic, and cognitive systems. Examples of self-organization include crystallization, thermal convection of fluids, chemical oscillation, animal swarming, neural circuits, and black markets.


Self-organization is realized in the physics of non-equilibrium processes, and in chemical reactions, where it is often characterized as self-assembly. The concept has proven useful in biology, from the molecular to the ecosystem level. Cited examples of self-organizing behaviour also appear in the literature of many other disciplines, both in the natural sciences and in the social sciences (such as economics or anthropology). Self-organization has also been observed in mathematical systems such as cellular automata. Self-organization is an example of the related concept of emergence.

Self-organization relies on four basic ingredients:

  1. strong dynamical non-linearity, often (though not necessarily) involving positive and negative feedback
  2. balance of exploitation and exploration
  3. multiple interactions among components
  4. availability of energy (to overcome the natural tendency toward entropy, or loss of free energy)