Adaptable or adapted? Whether it is a question of physical, biological, or even economic systems, this problem arises when all these systems are the location of matter and energy conversion. To this interdisciplinary question, we propose a theoretical framework based on the two principles of thermodynamics. Considering a finite time linear thermodynamic approach, we show that non-equilibrium systems operating in a quasi-static regime are quite deterministic as long as boundary conditions are correctly defined. The Novikov–Curzon–Ahlborn derivation applied to non-endoreversible systems then makes it possible to precisely determine the conditions for obtaining characteristic operating points. As a result, power maximization principle (MPP), entropy minimization principle (mEP), efficiency maximization, or waste minimization states are only specific modalities of system operation. We show that boundary conditions play a major role in defining operating points because they define the intensity of the feedback that ultimately characterizes the operation. Armed with these thermodynamic foundations, we show that the intrinsically most efficient systems are also the most constrained in terms of controlling the entropy and dissipation production. In particular, we show that the best figure of merit necessarily leads to a vanishing production of power. On the other hand, a class of systems emerges, which, although they do not offer extreme efficiency or power, have a wide range of use and therefore marked robustness. It therefore appears that the number of degrees of freedom of the system leads to an optimization of the allocation of entropy production.
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