The best books about self-organization

Many authors have picked their favorite books about self-organization and why they recommend each book.

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The School in the Cloud

By Sugata Mitra,

Book cover of The School in the Cloud: The Emerging Future of Learning

You may know of Sugata’s work, even if the name does not ring a bell. He is the Indian professor who decided to cement an online computer into a wall in a slum in Delhi, set up a hidden camera, and waited to see how the local children would react. This was before everyone had a laptop or a mobile phone. The kids quickly gathered round and quickly figured out how to do all kinds of interesting things, without any teaching. Indeed, he found that when teachers tried to ‘help’, the children stopped being resourceful, stopped collaborating as independent learners, and expected to be taught. The School in the Cloud documents the growth of Sugata’s work and global influence since that first experiment, and reminds us forcibly of just how much all children can learn under their own steam – if we will just get out of the way. 


Who am I?

I’m a cognitive scientist, and I love reading, thinking, and researching about the nature of the human – and especially the young – mind, and what it is capable of. Even while I was still doing my PhD in experimental psychology at Oxford in the early 1970s, I was gripped by the new possibilities for thinking about education that were being opened up by science. In particular, the assumption of a close association between intelligence and intellect was being profoundly challenged, and I could see that there was so much more that education could be, and increasing needed to be, than filling kids’ heads with pockets of dusty knowledge and the ability to knock out small essays and routine calculations. In particular, we now know that learning itself is not a simple reflection of IQ, but is a complex craft that draws on a number of acquired habits that are capable of being systematically cultivated in school – if we have a mind to do it.


I wrote...

What's the Point of School?: Rediscovering the Heart of Education

By Guy Claxton,

Book cover of What's the Point of School?: Rediscovering the Heart of Education

What is my book about?

Education has become more and more soulless. With their emphasis on regurgitated knowledge and stressful examinations, today’s schools often do more harm than good. Of course, knowledge is useful – but what knowledge do young people actually need? And are there other things than knowledge – forms of expertise and even aspects of character – that schools should be paying attention to? In this book, I argue that cultivating characteristics such as perseverance, skepticism, and imagination is as important as reading, writing, math, and a bit of history – and that the two sets of aims actually support each other rather than conflict.

The Agility Factor

By Christopher G. Worley, Edward E. Lawler, Thomas D. Williams

Book cover of The Agility Factor: Building Adaptable Organizations for Superior Performance

Ed Lawler has a lifetime of melding academic theory and organization practice. In this research based book, he and his colleagues not only recognize that agility matters, but they do research to validate processes that create organization agility. Agility is one of the emerging capabilities for a successful organization in today’s changing world. Anything El Lawler works is well thought out, researched, and usable.


Who am I?

Dave Ulrich is the Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business and a partner at the RBL Group, a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value. He has published over 200 articles and book chapters and over 30 books. The organizations where we live, work, play, and worship affect every part of our lives. Organizations turn individual competencies into collective capabilities, isolated events into sustained patterns, and personal values into collective values. In short, organizations matter in our lives. By adapting their answer to “what is an organization,” leaders, employees, customers, and investors will be better able to improve their organization's experiences.


I co-authored...

Reinventing the Organization: How Companies Can Deliver Radically Greater Value in Fast-Changing Markets

By Dave Ulrich, Arthur Yeung,

Book cover of Reinventing the Organization: How Companies Can Deliver Radically Greater Value in Fast-Changing Markets

What is my book about?

In today’s changing world, your company needs to manage information, be agile, focus on customers, and discover innovation.  The new organization form (Market Oriented Ecosystem … MOE) draws on numerous models: agile, networked, holacracy, and remarkable cases including Tencent, Alibaba, Google, Facebook to distill 6 principles for creating an organization that delivers employee, strategy, customer, and financial results.  This work is a roadmap for the new organization journey.

The Origins of Order

By Stuart A. Kauffman,

Book cover of The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution

This book comes at biology from an unusual angle, ignoring fine details and instead of going for the deepest underlying principles of life as seen by a dyed-in-the-wool theoretician. When I read it, I felt I was like being given 'X-ray specs' - an ability to see beyond the surfaces at which we mostly work to hidden mechanisms of order, control, and evolution. I have never seen biology the same way since, and this book changed my research and teaching immediately and lastingly. The writing is superb but still demands concentration and commitment because the concepts may be alien at first, but any reader willing to give the book time and a bit of effort will be richly rewarded.


Who am I?

I have long been fascinated by how very complicated things can arise from comparatively simple ones, because it seems counterintuitive that this is even possible. This led me to lead a life in science, researching how a whole human body can come from a simple egg, and trying to apply what we learn to make new body parts for those who need them. Though much of my professional reading consists of detailed research papers, I have always relied on books to make me think and to show me the big picture. I write books myself, to share with others some of the amazing things that science lets us discover. 


I wrote...

Life Unfolding: How the Human Body Creates Itself

By Jamie A. Davies,

Book cover of Life Unfolding: How the Human Body Creates Itself

What is my book about?

Where did I come from? Why do I have two arms but just one head? How is my left leg the same size as my right one? Why are the fingerprints of identical twins not identical? How did my brain learn to learn? Why must I die? Questions like these remain biology's deepest and most ancient challenges. A convergence of ideas from embryology, genetics, physics, networks, and control theory has begun to provide real answers.

Life Unfolding tells the story of human development from egg to adult showing how our whole understanding of how we come to be has been transformed in recent years. Highlighting how embryological knowledge is being used to understand why bodies age and fail, Jamie A. Davies explores the profound and fascinating impacts of our newfound knowledge.