The theory of self-organization and adaptivity has grown out of a variety of disciplines, including thermodynamics, cybernetics and computer modelling. The present article reviews its most important concepts and principles. It starts with an intuitive overview, illustrated by the examples of magnetization and Bénard convection, and concludes with the basics of mathematical modelling. Self-organization can be defined as the spontaneous creation of a globally coherent pattern out of local interactions. Because of its distributed character, this organization tends to be robust, resisting perturbations. The dynamics of a self-organizing system is typically non-linear, because of circular or feedback relations between the components. Positive feedback leads to an explosive growth, which ends when all components have been absorbed into the new configuration, leaving the system in a stable, negative feedback state. Non-linear systems have in general several stable states, and this number tends to increase (bifurcate) as an increasing input of energy pushes the system farther from its thermodynamic equilibrium. To adapt to a changing environment, the system needs a variety of stable states that is large enough to react to all perturbations but not so large as to make its evolution uncontrollably chaotic. The most adequate states are selected according to their fitness, either directly by the environment, or by subsystems that have adapted to the environment at an earlier stage. Formally, the basic mechanism underlying self-organization is the (often noise-driven) variation which explores different regions in the system’s state space until it enters an attractor. This precludes further variation outside the attractor, and thus restricts the freedom of the system’s components to behave independently. This is equivalent to the increase of coherence, or decrease of statistical entropy, that defines self-organization.