Welcome to The Emergent Era

by Beth Comstock

As our information moves faster, we move faster. And as more of humanity comes online (2.3 billion more people in 2016–2017 alone), it’s causing a fundamental and spontaneous restructuring of our collective behavior. The overlay of our evolving planet wide digital nervous system has taken the perennial drivers of change — human needs, politics, geography, culture — and woven new patterns from them. All of us, especially those who are guiding businesses, need a new framework to understand and adapt.

An essential part of that framework is emergence, the principle of self organization that explains how complexity can arise from simplicity, and order can sometimes emerge from chaos.

Emergence explains complex phenomena in diverse fields like thermodynamics, biology, and digital technology. It’s been used to explain how cities evolve, and what makes some institutions succeed in the long term while others fail. It is an underlying principle behind the complex collective behavior of natural systems, and it is part of why computers can achieve such useful complexity, even though they are built on a foundation of just a few simple processes.

We are living in what I’ve come to call The Emergent Era.

It’s a time defined by the rapid waning of our legacy institutions, even though their replacements haven’t scaled up yet. We’re in that messy, sometimes anxious, and ambiguous space between the old and the new.

Based on our ability to manage this period successfully, we could find ourselves at the historical equivalent of that moment in a creative process where disorder gives way to order, and a new pattern, decision, or structure suddenly becomes visible.

If we choose to embrace and encourage emergent systems in business, politics, and technology, we may end up unlocking more human potential and wealth than ever before in history.

I don’t claim these ideas as entirely my own. I’ve synthesized them from common themes and patterns in the work of others in a diversity of fields and industries, into which I’ve incorporated my own insights. Indeed, that ability to synthesize disparate perspectives, data sets and insights is one of the capabilities it’s important to cultivate in this new era. As a force in my own understanding, The Emergent Era emerged as unexpectedly as the phenomena I believe it explains.

The Two Aspects of Emergence

Emergent, as I use it here, has two key aspects.

The first is that we’re currently awash in emerging systems and technologies. There is not a single area of human activity that isn’t currently subject to many branching futures, each represented by a new discovery, business model, or invention.

The other aspect of emergence is both stranger and more descriptive of our historical moment. An emergent system, as stated above, is one where order can emerge from chaos. It’s also one in which power and structure are created by the network, not decreed by hierarchy. Relatively simple rules govern all the individual components of any emergent system, but when they interact en masse they can evolve into complex, adaptive structures.

The countless individual neurons that join together in a brain, the multitude of birds in a flock, the individual ants in a colony, and the ranks of circuits that comprise a computer are all examples of simple agents working together to become more than the sum of their parts.

In the world of business, emergence explains why some tech start-ups can have sudden explosions in their valuation and rapid expansions in their function. It’s not the app or the website that creates the value, but the collective behavior of all the people plugged into it.

As of late 2016, Facebook has grown so populous that it is no longer considered just a social network. Through changes in the atomic content contributions of its 2 billion plus users, the company has become a de facto political organizer, a major (though highly problematic) news source, a global video distribution platform, and a marketplace for goods and even jobs.

The key to Facebook’s many functions is its size. Once any system that can manifest emergent behavior passes a certain population, the operating rules that govern it start producing fundamentally different, and sometimes useful, results.

Ants are the classic example from nature. As renowned biologist E.O. Wilson has pointed out, ants manifest the most complex social structures after human beings. Yet these structures emerge from simple behavior. In a colony, when ants retrace and redraw the hormone trails left behind by other ants in the course of their wanderings, the result is anthills, the efficient exploitation of all nearby food supplies, the ability to defend their homes and territory, migrate, and survive catastrophe. A few ants are directionless, but past a certain population point, their collective intelligence and capacity become orders of magnitude greater. For ants, more is smarter. Emergent intelligence has allowed them to survive relatively unchanged for the last 90 million years.

But here’s the strange part. We only understand emergent systems in nature because we first spotted them in the principles that make computers smart. As Steven Johnson relates in Emergence, it was the meeting between Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, and Ilya Prigogine, the pioneering chemist, that sparked the discovery of emergent properties. Digital systems, by virtue of their structures, are also emergent systems.

That means that as we flow our information, money, goods, and services through digital systems, those systems have a high likelihood of manifesting useful emergence.

To the residents of Europe and North America, it can seem like this collective reorganization around the digital information flow has already happened. But that’s a misperception caused by the high visibility of the industries that were the first to digitize: music, finance, and journalism.

The reality is that the digital transformation is just getting started. According to McKinsey, a full 82% of the U.S. economy has not yet realized the full potential of digital technology. And some of our most massive industries — like manufacturing and healthcare — are actually among the least digitized. The potential for digital-driven growth in the developing world is even larger.

The sheer amount of digital transformation yet to come is staggering. It’s predicted that in the next year and a half alone, the number of people online will jump from the current 3.6 billion to 5.8 billion, with most of that happening via mobile. That’s 1/3 of the global population going online for the first time in the span of 18–24 months. Add to that an estimated 50 billion machines that will be continuously exchanging information with one another over the same network by 2020.

For business, the environment created by this massive shift means that the most valuable companies for some time to come will continue to be those which preside over the reorganization of existing assets and experiences around the digital information flow.

Two of Silicon Valley’s most celebrated start-ups, Uber (worth $62 billion as of this writing) and AirBnB (worth $25 billion), are precisely the types of companies I mean. Neither actually make the asset they trade in, but both provided a new stream of information that equipped individual agents (people with smartphones) to respond in new ways to the real time location of those assets. The interaction of users en masse lead to the emergence of new behaviors and new markets built on them.

It’s like giving ants a new set of pheromone commands, or brain cells a different way of relaying signals. Emergent systems are highly sensitive to variations in their initial operating conditions. By tweaking them, whole new structures will self assemble.

If you know what those structures are going to look like, or, better yet, create and shape the disruptive forces that build them, the resulting strategic advantage is priceless.

For widely owned and more easily understood assets like cars and housing, the advantage goes to startups. But for heavy and specialized industries, it’s crucial to be in possession not only of substantial, specialized, physical assets but also deep expertise about their manufacture and operation.

Acceleration & (Re)Distribution

According to the World Economic Forum, the progress of the last few decades has lifted half the world’s population out of extreme poverty.

This kind of highly accelerated change, especially when perceived in real time by all of us experiencing it, brings benefits and a distressing level of volatility. As increased movements of people and capital lift populations out of poverty, they also produce unpredictable and hard-to-understand events like Brexit and the US election. The mixture of motives epitomize the positive and negative impulses of life in The Emergent Era.

On the one hand, there is the desire to escape the bureaucracy of governments, which is largely incapable of moving at the pace of change. And on the other hand is the reactionary desire to detach from an accelerating global economy, which can sometimes seem to be detaching us from familiar values and institutions faster than anybody wants or understands.

We’ve undergone similar periods of information-driven instability before, though not at the same scale and speed of the last two to three decades. The flood of information loosed from European monasteries by the relatively sudden rediscovery and translation of classical literature sparked the Renaissance. In the 19th century, the global economy spontaneously reorganized around the new information flows generated by mass print literacy, and the ability of information to travel as fast as steamships, railroads, and the telegraph. The result was a century-long shift from monarchy to democracy, an increase in the recognition of the rights of women and minorities, an end to the global slave trade, and an explosion of technological innovation.

The Internet of Things (the industrial internet, as GE calls it) is the printing press of our moment. It’s interweaving the digital information flow with the physical world, and it promises to equip the physical world with the kind of adaptive emergent capabilities we see in ants, neurons, and digital systems.

There are those who see in the growing sophistication of our connected machines the seeds of some future threat. I choose to see the unmistakable signs of learning. Our extended global nervous system is growing up, and we are developing a new relationship with it.

As with all new relationships, we have a choice. We can continue to evolve, or we can put a halt to the process. The better choice — the one that holds the most potential to free us from drudgery and poverty — is to grow, to move forward, to innovate in collaboration with our digital systems and explore unknown territory. It’s a scary prospect, but also one charged with immense potential.


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