Emergence and Design
“The beauty of living things stems from the fact that they are embodied solutions of individual-existence-in-connection.” — Andreas Weber (2013: 38)
One of the key insights of complexity theory is the profound shift in perspective that results from acknowledging the fundamentally unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of complex dynamic systems. Without going into the mathematical foundations in any detail, we could say that any system with more than three interacting variables that change in non-linear ways over repeating cycles (iterations) could be regarded as a complex dynamic system.
Most of the world around us is governed by such dynamics! Whether you want to apply this theory to a business, an organization, a community, a city or an ecosystem, all of them are complex dynamic systems, and therefore unpredictable and uncontrollable beyond a very limited and tightly defined temporal and spatial scale.
The concept of emergence,which has become popular in management and design theory, describes how complex systems have characteristic emergent properties that cannot be predicted and therefore are impossible to control. They are novel characteristics of the system that emerge out of interactions and relationships which are governed by non-linear, iterative processes that drive the behaviour of complex systems.
Jeffrey Goldstein (1999: 49) defined emergence as referring to “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems”. Emergence takes place at a higher explanatory level and the novel forms, behaviours and properties of the whole system “are neither predictable from, deducible from, nor reducible to the parts alone” (p.50).
Brian Goodwin explains: “Emergent properties are unexpected types of order that arise from interactions between components whose separate behaviour is understood. Something new emerges from the collective — another source of unpredictability in nature.” He continues: “The complex systems on which our lives depend — ecological systems, communities, economic systems, our bodies — all have emergent properties, a primary one being health and well-being” (Goodwin et al., 2001: 27).
This insight has important implications for any exploration of how transformative innovation might facilitate the co-creation of a regenerative culture. It suggests that in working towards the health, wellbeing and resilience of our communities, economies and ecosystems we will always have to be prepared for the unexpected and new arising from the complex dynamics that characterize these systems.
Q How do we facilitate the emergence of positive, salutogenic (health- supporting) systems properties and discourage the emergence of auto- destructive and pathological system properties?
Some properties like health, resilience and wellbeing might be regarded as desirable emergent properties, others might be regarded as undesirable: for example, fragility, sudden collapse of vital functions, and negative impacts on all or some system components.
Q If the systems upon which our future depends are fundamentally unpredictable, how do we learn to participate in them appropriately?
Q Can we actually design for human, community, ecosystem and planetary health, if these are in effect emergent properties of interdependent complex dynamic systems at different scales?
Q Can we influence the emergence of positive systemic properties in our economies, societies and communities?
Since we cannot but participate in these systems and therefore cannot but affect them in one way or another, we simply have to try. If we do so with precaution, foresight and in constant awareness and anticipation of unpredictable change, I believe we can attempt to design for positive emergence by designing for whole-systems health.
It is best to regard emergence and design as two sides of the same coin. As participants in these systems we are all co-responsible for what properties will emerge. Both the quality of our being and what we do or don’t do affects the overall health and wellbeing of the complex dynamic systems we participate in.
Brian Goodwin taught me that the most important lesson of complexity science is a shift of intention away from prediction and control to appropriate participation. The mental, emotional and psychological state of an intervener affects the outcome of any systems intervention. If we stop wanting to control change and shift to a responsive dance with change, we will become more effective change agents capable of facilitating positive emergence. In doing so we become transition designers.
I believe that to design for appropriate participation is ultimately to design for human and planetary health. By paying attention to the underlying dynamics of the complex systems we participate in, we can learn how to increase their overall resilience, health and wellbeing.
Resilience thinking and whole-systems thinking are crucial skills for transition design. So how do we design for positive emergence? One way is to support the ability of a complex dynamic system to keep adapting, learning and responding to internal and external changes. We can start by asking these questions:
Q Are we weaving the appropriate synergies by valuing the degree and quality of interconnections between the different components or agents in the system?
Q Are we paying enough attention to the diversity and quality of interacting systems components and their interdependence?
Q Are we designing for the renewable use of vital resources (like energy and materials) on which these systems depend?
Q Are we paying attention to the quality and speed of information that flows through these systems to enable the different components to learn from systemic feedback loops?
By paying attention to these questions we can effectively embrace the seeming paradox of unpredictable emergence and intentional design for systemic health and a regenerative culture.
[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]