Notes on emergence

Why this is important

On one side of the gate, the world is organized into hierarchies. In any part of the hierarchy, things are ordered well enough that we can describe them and make accurate diagrams. We can rely on the fact that they will continue to behave the way we expect them to behave. And if there is some kind of trouble in this organized hierarchy of parts, we can work to identify the problems and create solutions. We’re good at that.

On the other side of the gate, the world is a garden of complexity. Each thing in the garden stands in relationship to its neighbors, and as they converse with one another, each is in a process of unfolding from what it has been to what it is becoming. Look closer, and you can see that everything in the garden is itself teeming with smaller components, all in relationship, all unfolding. Stand far enough back and you see that the garden is a thing with a life of its own. Its character and personality somehow emerges from all of the smaller things it is made of and the myriad of conversations they are all having.

Once you step through the gate, you will never again see the world in the same way.

Introduction: what is this?

These are my notes. They are a bit of a mess, waiting to be turned into a proper narrative. I wouldn’t say everything here is fully vetted. Here’s the rough outline of what’s in this document so far:

Why this is important
Definition of emergence
Related concepts
- complex adaptive system
- nonlinearity
- social autopoiesis
What it means for change leaders
Teaching the concept of emergence
Resources: readings and viewings


Emergence: the way in which new structures and behaviors arise out of, but are not reducible to, the self-organizing dynamics of the parts of systems.

In less academic language, emergence is a name for the way in which complex systems taken as a whole have characteristics and behaviors that can’t be found in any of its parts. They emerge through the way the parts interact with each other.

A ballroom dance, a rugby game, an Apple store: these are all remarkable “things” that emerge from the way in which individuals and small groups interact.

Ants are not very complex creatures, but because of the way ants give off and respond to chemical signals, an ant colony can feed and defend itself, survive the winter, reproduce, and generally do all sorts of things that we associate with creatures much more sophisticated than an ant. All of those behaviors are emergent. You could not predict them by studying individual ants.

Related concepts

Complex adaptive system: Many systems are complex in that they are best understood as networks of interaction between the things they contain. They are not aggregations of individuals, they are not assemblies of parts that connect and interact in predictable ways. And they are adaptive in that both individual and collective behaviors mutate and self-organize in reaction what happens either inside or outside the system, and in reaction to changing overall conditions. (That definition is based on the Wikipedia entry; I recommend the list of points in the “characteristics” section.)

Nonlinearity: In complicated systems, like say, a manufacturing line, changes in output are proportional to changes in input. You can draw a linear graph of that proportion: when we pour in this much more plastic and turn up the speed, we get that much more result out the other end. But in complex adaptive systems, small interventions can have disproportionately and unpredictably large consequences. This is important because people who rely on predictability and understanding of cause and effect for their planning are utterly torpedoed by complex adaptive systems (that is, pretty much everything made of people).

Autopoiesis: Roughly, “self-creating” or “self-reproducing.” Biologists studying living systems needed a name for the fact that you and I are still you and I, despite the fact that neither of us are made up of the same cells we were made of seven years ago. Autopoietic systems have what they need to maintain and reproduce themselves. I don’t know how long individual ants live, but ant colonies certainly live much longer.

This idea is important outside of biology because it (almost for sure) extends to the social realm. The idea of social autopoiesis refers to the fact that Southside Elementary is still Southside Elementary, even though it has none of the same students and few of the teachers it had 25 years ago. Its patterns of behavior and its identifying characteristics are emergent, and it contains processes that maintain and reproduce those behaviors and characteristics as individual members come and go.

Hello students. This is as far as you are required to read. But I hope you’ll take time to skim the rest, and maybe watch some of the videos. They’re FUN!
(Note: by the end of these notes, you’re basically skipping way into the end of the course.)

Examples and resources that might help

The source of my first “ah-ha” — Conway’s Game of Life

Here is a segment from Stephen Hawking’s The Meaning of Life

3 minutes, 30 seconds

Learning more about Conway’s Life

The Wikipedia page is one place to start if you want to read more. There are many free implementations for you to play with either through your browser (here’s a pretty good one) or on almost any kind of computer.

NOVA on emergence in nature

12 minutes

RadioLab on Emergence

RadioLab episode: Emergence (Audio, 1 hour)

Other examples from nature

Starling murmurations: watch

2 minutes

Starling murmurations: what’s going on?

Wired: The startling science of a starling murmuration

Ant colonies, the poster children of emergence

Deborah Gordon, the emergent genius of ant colonies (20 minutes)

From Wikipedia on emergence: The queen does not give direct orders and does not tell the ants what to do. Instead, each ant reacts to stimuli in the form of chemical scent from larvae, other ants, intruders, food and buildup of waste, and leaves behind a chemical trail, which, in turn, provides a stimulus to other ants. Here each ant is an autonomous unit that reacts depending only on its local environment and the genetically encoded rules for its variety of ant. Despite the lack of centralized decision making, ant colonies exhibit complex behavior and have even been able to demonstrate the ability to solve geometric problems. For example, colonies routinely find the maximum distance from all colony entrances to dispose of dead bodies.

Slime molds


More from this nice-seeming gent. His attempts to “simplify complexity” — by studying what’s going on and revealing what seem to be a small set of rules that govern interaction between agents — are either a) helpful or b) really over-simplifying (compare his stories with the ant biologist above). I’m happy for the good stories, but don’t let them mislead you into thinking that we could engage with social complexity solely through clearly-defined rules of interaction between people.


Big context: this is a very important idea, connected to a global shift in the way we all see the world and ourselves

The RSA: Manuel Lima, The Power of Networks (11 minutes)

VIDEO: Manuel Lima, The Power of Networks (11 minutes)

An academic view: emergence and complex systems are key to the future of design education and practice

Tsungjuang Wang, A new paradigm for design studio education (pdf)

When I assign this to students, I let them skip the first part and start reading on page 178 (page 6 of the PDF). There is good language there about the ways that complexity (and therefore emergence) is affecting — must affect — both design practice and education.

A nice exercise for experiencing emergence

We have been looking for (and inventing) ways for people to experience emergence in the classroom and in workshops. Here is one that we have found to be quite effective.

Joanna Macy’s Systems Game (pdf: facilitation guide by LeAnne Grillo of Reos Partners)

Here is how Joanna Macy herself described it:

a lively, engrossing process [which] provides a direct experience of the dynamic nature of open systems… we have found it very useful in dramatizing the new paradigm view of reality, especially these two features of it: 
1) that life is composed not of separate entities so much as of the relations between them, and 
2) that these relations are continually self-organising…
People stand in a large open space, either indoors or out. The guide may introduce the game in terms of one or both of the above purposes… The guide then gives two instructions. The first is: “Mentally select two other people in the group, without indicating whom you have chosen.” The second is: “Move so as to keep at all times an equal distance between you and each of these two people.” This, as the guide makes clear, does not mean just staying at the midpoint between the two others. To pursue this objective, people immediately begin to circulate, each movement triggering many others in an active, interdependent fashion. Participants find they are, by necessity, maintaining wide-angle vision and constant alacrity of response. The process is purposeful, suspenseful, laced with laughter. It speeds up for a while, then may abate, accelerate, and again slow down toward equilibrium, but it rarely comes to stasis… 
- Macy and Brown, Coming Back to Life

We recently tried a variation that seemed to really strike people with the interdependence at play in this simple system. I gave a new instruction: “As we move, I will quietly touch someone’s elbow. If I do that to you, keep moving for a few seconds, then sit down. You are ‘dead.’ If someone that you are following sits down, do the same: keep moving for a few seconds, then sit down.”

Within about 30 seconds of touching one person’s elbow, the whole system had collapsed. Everyone was sitting down. Reflecting on this experience, many were struck that they had previously been conscious only of they people they were following. Now they realized, people were also following me!

Here’s a blog post with a short video that shows us playing The Systems Game in our “Social Design Foundations” course at Carnegie Mellon.

Here’s a nice four minutes from biologist Brian Goodwin….


Working with emergence

How do these ideas change how we work?

If we can’t depend on 
- cause and effect, 
- projection from good research, 
- practices from past experience and parallel cases, 
- or even on iteration of concepts for solutions, 
how will we work?

For the past few years, I’ve been collecting approaches to working with systemic challenges. My criteria for adding something to the collection goes something like this….

  1. It has been applied in more than one domain, so we can learn something about it as a general way of working rather than a special case for one kind of situation or community.
  2. It helps us work in a way that is, all at once (borrowing from Adam Kahane), is:
  • Systemic: engaged with the whole system and its root dynamics, rather than an artificial piece, and rather than attending only to its surface characteristics and symptoms
  • Social or participatory: the new situation will be made of the same people who live the current situation, so they must participate in its creation. This changes our stance from expert or designer to partner-facilitator, concerned with the conditions in which new dynamics can emerge, rather than “solutions” to “problems.”
  • Emergent or exploratory: provides alternatives to planning or strategizing outcomes, exploring systemically for ways in which old patterns of relationship, conversation and behavior can be set aside for something new, which is so attractive that they become rhizomes for the spread of new patterns.

Some approaches that fit the criteria

There is no room here to introduce all of the approaches we have discovered over the past few years. At the end of this article I will provide links that give an introduction or overview.

For now, here is an overview.

The common movements

Across the top of that diagram you can see the names of “movements” that are common across the different ways that people have been doing systemic, participatory, emergent work. Different people use different terms, and not everyone is explicit about each movement. But reading their literature and stories, we see this rough commonality.

I’m not going to go through all of those in these notes, because our topic is emergence, not systemic approaches. There’s much more to be written about this diagram. It covers a great deal of territory. But I would like to point out a few ways in which these movements are different than design and strategy work in industry.

Key difference #1: Immerse. Listen. Convene.

An essential quality of this work is that it is not done by a small group of experts, but by the community itself. We can help by providing structures for the community to step back from its old repeating patterns to listen, reflect, and create together in new ways. We can help by offering ways of working that level the terrain of power and voice, and help people de-abstract and re-humanize one another. And we can help through approaches to work that expend the horizon to include the larger story, the process, structure, history and future that is larger than any one involved, and made of everyone involved.

So the work begins with listening. Seeing and listening through many points of view, because no single point of view provides an adequate picture of the whole system. It is a tenet of complex systems that the data can support more than one legitimate, “true” interpretation of what’s going on.

We see and listen deeply and broadly, with openness, suspending our judgment and interpretation. This can be unstructured, somewhat casual, and it may also include gatherings, dialogs, and methods familiar from strategic design research.

And this leads to convening. Making an invitation — sometimes to the whole community, more often to a representative microcosm of the system — that gathers people around an intention that matters, to begin an effort that has a legitimate chance of shifting the patterns.

A rule of thumb we sometimes use, whose source I forget (was it Adam Kahane?): convene diversity and power.

Key difference #2: systemic co-creation

An essential quality of this work is that it is not done by a small group of experts, but by the community itself. Of course different situations have different constraints and complications. It is rare to engage a whole community, but the involvement of the people who will live the new situation is a theme that repeats across all of the approaches we’ve found.

When the system is large or widely distributed, it is necessary to have a core group of people who manage the effort and hold responsibility for its conduct. But this doesn’t make them the source of the outcomes and decisions. They are the guardians of the process, the conversation, and the space for acts of creation.

The trio of movements after convening — see together, reflect and make sense together, and probe / experiment — echo the deep creative process I describe in Culture Work: Organizational Becoming Made Practical. What it actually looks like to go through these movements as a group, in a systemic, participatory way — that is a frontier for us all. Each approach has something to say about that, and the great thing about comparing different approaches is that we start to see how the work of social creativity can be applied to a wide range of situations.

Key difference #3: probes, not prototypes

Designers and engineers rely on prototypes when they need to evaluate a concept’s feasibility or desirability, and when they need to iterate toward a winning form or expression of an idea. But working in social complexity is different than working toward product or service outcomes. We’re not trying to evaluate our idea, we are looking for attractive new social dynamics.

A “probe” or “experiment” is an activity that involves people in a short-term version of what could become a new way of interacting, relating to one another, or carrying out some aspect of life. For example:

  • Putting on a video at a children’s party to see if it attracts a desirable dynamic — everybody has fun and participates, no damage is done to the house. Here is Dave Snowden’s well-known use of that example:
3:00 minutes
  • Changing a city block with plants, bike lanes, outdoor seating and pop-up stores for a weekend, so both residents and city government can experience what it could be like if local codes were changed. Here is Jason Roberts of Better Block talking about his (informal but very effective) use of experiments in his neighborhood:
18:00 minutes

An extended discussion of this point of view

If you have an hour, listen to Dave Snowden’s talk, Combining Complexity Theory with Narrative Research, embedded below. He talks explicitly about the use of safe-to-fail probes, and what it is like to marry them with a way of listening to the system through story collection, supported by the Sensemaker software produced by his company, Cognitive Edge.

1 hour 5 minutes, including highly recommended Q&A session

Just for fun (but contains some clues)

Tapping into the sense of tonality we all seem to gather along the way, either because of biology or socialization — Bobby McFerrin “plays” the audience.

Bobby McFerrin at the World Science Festival (3:05)

Learn more about the approaches

Here are links for those who want to explore these approaches on their own. I will be writing more about them in the future:

  • more synthesis, combining lessons from these approaches
  • discussion of the skills required to apply these approaches
  • methods from outside the world of management and design that can make all the difference in working systemically

Positive Deviance

The one-stop, go-to source for learning about positive deviance is here:

For a first taste, here is a charming and informative TEDx talk from Positive Deviance’ co-inventor, Monique Sternin.



Probably the best way to get a handle on the Fliplabs approach is to first hear founder Cheryl Dahle talk about her experience with Future of Fish:


Cheryl and her team realized that the approach they took to the global fishing system could be applied to other large-scale systems as well. And so they started Fliplabs. The reports listed in the “discovery” section of their site give a view into the way they see and explore a system.

Cognitive Edge

Dave Snowden’s talk, embedded above, is probably the best short introduction I can recommend. I have aspirations of writing a good, solid, theory and practice introduction to his stuff. But that will have to wait. Many of his talks are available online, and short courses are available through his company.

I can certainly recommend Dave’s blog on the Cognitive Edge site.

Social Labs

The folks at Reos Partners have a long history of engaging with complex social situations.

Book site

Transformative Scenario Planning

One of the few things that might work when the situation is so fraught with conflict that no one will say “yes” to any other kind of gathering.

Book: Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future




I confess that I still haven’t absorbed this well enough to say a lot about it. On the one hand it seems to merit inclusion here. On the other hand, the notion of “scaling” right in its name makes me wonder whether it is compatible with the notion of emergence. I much prefer words like “flow” or “activation” when it comes to complex adaptive systems. “Scale” has too many strings tied back to industrial models of systems.

Anyway, here’s the Wikipedia article on Seed-Scale.

Learn more about the skills of dialogue facilitation

Art of Hosting

Chris Corrigan’s resource list

Theater methods

Lots to say here. For now I’ll just point to…

Applied Improv Network

Theater of the Oppressed

You can find a more detailed (and somewhat more academic) discussion on the characteristics of social systems and what they imply for our work in two papers my colleague and I published on

Marc Rettig, How do we work? (pdf)

Hannah du Plessis, Mindset, posture, and transitions (pdf)