The concept of stigmergy has been used to analyze self-organizing activities in an ever-widening range of domains, from social insects via robotics and social media to human society. Yet, it is still poorly understood, and as such its full power remains underappreciated. The present paper clarifies the issue by defining stigmergy as a mechanism of indirect coordination in which the trace left by an action in a medium stimulates a subsequent action. It then analyses the fundamental components of the definition: action, agent, medium, trace and coordination. Stigmergy enables complex, coordinated activity without any need for planning, control, communication, simultaneous presence, or even mutual awareness. This makes the concept applicable to a very broad variety of cases, from chemical reactions to individual cognition and Internet-supported collaboration in Wikipedia. The paper classifies different varieties of stigmergy according to general aspects (number of agents, scope, persistence, sematectonic vs. marker-based, and quantitative vs. qualitative), while emphasizing the fundamental continuity between these cases. This continuity can be understood from a non-linear, self-organizing dynamic that lets more complex forms of coordination evolve out of simpler ones. The paper concludes with two specifically human applications in cognition and cooperation, suggesting that without stigmergy these phenomena may never have evolved.
Heylighen, F. (2015). Stigmergy as a Universal Coordination Mechanism: components, varieties and applications. To appear in T. Lewis & L. Marsh (Eds.), Human Stigmergy: Theoretical Developments and New Applications, Studies in Applied Philosophy, Epistemology and Rational Ethics. Springer.