In what way can creativity be considered to be an open-ended, self-organizing system?

In the previous post I talked about what motivates human creativity, in this post we will explore how creativity can be considered to be an open-ended, self-organizing system.

“While directing research on a U.S. Air Force survival training program in the 1950s, he has observed fliers coming up with creative ways to survive extreme cold or heat, lack of food, water, or shelter, and capture by the enemy. Torrance (1957) concluded that creativity surfaces in the absence of a “learned or practiced solution to a problem. It “cannot be taught… [It] must be self-discovered and self-disciplined” (Torrance, 1988, p.57). Yet creativity builds on previous learning; it is the imaginative recombining of known pieces of information to resolve tension created by an immediate need.” (Papalia, Sterns, Feldman, and Camp, 2002, p.211)

In the aforementioned illustration, it is important to note that there were no set rules, guidelines, or constraints for survival of the fliers. In an environment of sheer randomness with a high degree of complexity, the fliers sought to arbitrary information from their memory to create a web of connectivity that would somehow find a solution to their perceived problem. For instance, the creative fliers started out with a desire of staying alive in a desperate environment, then drew on all the possibilities of the idea becoming a reality, engaged in thought processes that involved rearrangement of these possibilities in a systematic manner that would eventually lead them to a creative solution which would either fulfill their desire to live or end otherwise. Thus, creativity can be considered an open-ended, self-organizing system because of its fluidity and its self-evolving nature. This paper will explore the concepts of open-ended and self-organizing systems as aspects to creativity.

Open-ended System

“Rule-based and etiological approaches in modeling and analyzing the design process would be successful if design problems were well-defined. Then, all that the design system would have to do would be to gather the necessary information in one universal information set, construct the initial and the goal states and the algorithms that will connect them… Again, this is rarely the case (Goldschmidt, 1997), except for well-structured sub problems of a larger problem space such as those sometimes found within engineering design, and where human activity plays a minor or non-existent role.” (Arnellos, Spyrou, and Darzentas, 2001, 41)

The above discussion delineates that human activity does not occur in a vacuum; where humans exist, interaction is inevitable. Thus, an open-ended system may be defined as a system in which there exist no restraints, constraints or limitations but one that facilitates the flow of communication, information, ideas, and feedback leading to several solutions. Also, open-ended systems may be cyclic, meaning solutions can lead to new problems/questions and the interaction my spark further exploration resulting in a totally unexpected and novel product.

Self-organizing System

If organization involves forming something by putting together in a systematic way, then self-organization is the formation of something new by means of coordination intrinsically.

“Self-organising systems can be seen all around us, once we begin to look for them. We see them in the flocking of birds, the schooling of fish and the changing global ecosystem. All these things produce a form of organisation in which the control is not centralised, but rather is distributed throughout the entire system. The system is dynamic, and changes arise spontaneously and frequently produce something new. Seen within this context, the human brain is the ultimate self-organising system, and creativity is one of its most important emergent properties.” (Andreasen, 2011, 46)

Granic and Lamey suggest that the Internet is a “self-organizing” system. A self-organizing system “refers to the auto-organization or emergent order in complex, adaptive systems (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984). Self-organizing systems in nature are open systems far from equilibrium that maintain themselves through the constant importing and dissipating of energy. Adapting to this energy flow through, elements of a system become coordinated forming stable patterns” (Granic & Lamey, 2000, p. 96). The Internet then, is a vast network of computers linked together that is not dependent on any one of those computers. New ones come online and others are unplugged all the time.

The emergence of netiquette and other Internet codes of ethics are predictable as users strive for civilized behavior and appear to be gradually colonizing the turbulent “space” of the Internet. As Granic and Lamey see it, “The code of ethics is enforced by members of the Internet community who may go to great lengths to shame a person who has clearly been inappropriately impolite or antisocial—there is almost instantaneous feedback from fellow users if rules are violated. Thus, netiquette and its enforcement strategies emerged and stabilized through similar day-to-day feedback cycles among constituents of the Net. Although self-organizing systems move towards coherence and stabilization, these systems also have the potential to exhibit abrupt changes due to non-linear relations among their many components” (Granic & Lamey, 2000, p. 99).

Creativity as an open-ended and self-organizing System

“The system is that there is no system. That doesn’t mean we don’t have process. Apple is a very disciplined company, and we have great processes. But that’s not what it’s about. Process makes you more efficient. But innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem. It’s ad-hoc meetings of six people called by someone who thinks he has figured out the coolest new thing ever and who wants to know what other people think of his idea. And it comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important. — Steve Jobs” (Thomke & Feinberg, 2002, 6).

The quote by Steve Jobs proves yet again that creativity can be considered an open-ended and self-organizing system. Steve Jobs highlights that Apple as a company encourages the fluidity of ideas and does not simply follow a protocol. There is flexibility and an open-interaction with others. Moreover, the thinking is not linear but divergent;

“Divergent thinking is defined as the ability to come up with a large number of responses to an open-ended probe; it is contrasted with convergent thinking, which tends to apply a sequential series of steps to answer a question that has only one possible solution” (Andreasen, 2011, 42).

The individual engages in continuous thought processes where there are moments of serendipity; the genesis of a new idea and the realization that it can be a precursor of something profound or advanced can be attributed to the self-evolving nature of creativity. A spontaneous and intrinsic thought that desires the acceptance of others establishes creativity as a self-organizing system.

Creativity as an open-ended and self-organizing system is supported by Amabile’s Componential Model of Creativity in 1983 and Csikszentmihalyi’s Systems Model of Creativity in 1999, where creativity has been portrayed in social contexts. Amabile was the first scholar to develop a model within a social context… The model can be regarded as the first one to comprehensively take into account cognitive, personality, motivation, and social influence on the creative process and it is also the first which investigates how these factors influence the different steps in the creative process… namely,

1. Problem or task identification

2. Preparation

3. Response generation

4. Response validation

5. Outcome evaluation

Further, the process interacts with task motivation, domain-relevant skills and creativity relevant skills (Kuo, 2011, 67).

Similarly, “Csikszentmihalyi, investigates the relationship between creativity and cultural evolution. Inspired by the process of species evolution, Csikszentmihalyi develops the… Systems Model of Creativity in 1999; according to the model creativity can be best understood as a “confluence” of three subsystems. The domain includes a set of rules and practices. Any culture composed of thousands of independent domains, and most human behaviours or activities are affected by rules of some domains. An individual is the most important one from a psychological perspective. An individual makes a novel variation in the contents of the domain and the variation will be evaluated by the third part of the system, which is the field. The fields are held by various gatekeepers, such as experts and scholars, who have the rights to choose which variations can be reserved in the domains. Csikzentmihalyi (1999) takes the position that creativity means “the ability to add something new to the “culture”. The creation by an individual must be “sanctioned by some group entitled to make decisions as to what should or should not be included in the domain” (Kuo, 2011, 68).


Creativity does not occur in a vacuum. Apart from the cognitive and psychological domains, creativity has a social context that drives innovation. This social aspect of creativity enables interaction and feedback from the environment fostering an open-ended and self-organizing system. Such a system is autonomous, dynamic, fluid and self-evolving. Here, problem-solving is not the only focus, it involves problem finding given the wide array of variables available. This system is also chaotic and non-linear. In view of Amabile’s Componential Model of Creativity and Csikszentmihalyi’s Systems Model of Creativity, where creativity has been portrayed in social contexts creativity be considered to be an open-ended, self-organizing system.


Andreasen, N. C. (2011). A journey into chaos: Creativity and the unconscious. Mens Sana Monographs, 9(1), 42–53. doi:  10.4103/0973-1229.77424

Arnellos, A., Spyrou, T., & Darzentas, J. (2005). Exploring creativity in the design process: A systems-semiotic perspective. Cybernectics and human knowing, 14(1), 37-64.

Granic, I., and Lamey, A. (2000). The self-organization of the Internet and changing modes of thought. New Ideas in Psychology, 18, pp. 93–107.

Kuo, H. (2011). Toward a synthesis framework for the study of creativity in education: An initial attempt. Educate, 11(1), 65-75.

Papalia, D.E., Sterns, H. L., Feldman, R. D., & Camp, C. J. (2002). Adult development and aging. 2nd Edition. New York: Mc-Graw-Hill.

Prigogine, I., & Stengers, I. (1984). Order out of chaos. New York: Bantam

Thomke, S., & Feinberg, B. (2012). Design thinking and innovation at Apple. Harvard School of Business.

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