Industrial symbiosis examines cooperative management of resource flows through networks of businesses known in the literature as industrial ecosystems. These industrial ecosystems have previously been portrayed as having characteristics of complex adaptive systems, but with insufficient attention to the internal and external phenomena describing their genesis. Drawing on biological, ecological, organizational, and systems theory, a discontinuous three-stage model of industrial symbiosis is presented. The model proceeds from a random formative stage involving numerous actors engaging in material and energy exchanges, to conscious recognition and intentional pursuit of network benefits, to institutionalization of beliefs and norms enabling successful collaborative behavior. While there is much variation, with no single path to this outcome, the recognition of benefits is seen as an emergent property characteristic of these self-organized systems that move beyond the initial stage.