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Emergence: a key component of all living systems

‘The spontaneous emergence of order at critical points of instability is one of the most important concepts of the new understanding of life — referred to simply as emergence. It has been recognised as the dynamic origin of development, learning and evolution. In other words, creativity — the generation of new forms — is a key property of all living systems.’

- P. 12 Fritjof Capra, Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living

All aspects of natural life depend on creativity or the generation of new forms — from our well-being, technological advances and discoveries, as well as to fulfil social and individual goals. Now more than ever the 21st Century continues to present new complex environmental, humanitarian, medical and legal issues. Our education systems need to produce thinkers, actors, and carers for our environments who can approach arising issues in search for creative solutions. If we are to anticipate changes and their consequences, mere adaptation to our environment is no longer sufficient.

School as an ecosystem

Schools exist as an ecosystem centred around the co-creation of knowledge through learning. Embedded in a complex system of human connectivity and development learning facilitates formation of ideas and connections through synthesis and interaction of the compositional parts (knowledge, individual, environment). This emergence of learning, requires what has been categorised as 21st century skills or dispositions– creativity, critical-thinking, collaboration, community-mindedness and curiosity. These skills are comprised of many sub-components, difficult to disaggregate as it is only through the interaction of these parts that these five over-arching dispositions are cultivated.

If learning is an emergent by-product of the environment’s we engage in; from schools, universities, vocational institutes, offices, homes, to places of worship. We begin to see that it is the interactions of the parts or individuals in these living systems of knowledge creation (depicted on the left), which influence the emergence of ideas and learning. With this in mind we can realise the importance in cultivating a creative and empathetic attitude amongst all axes of interaction; from learners to parents, parents to teachers, teachers to carers, carers to learners and all the permutation combinations.

Developing empathetic and creative attitudes to learning and our environments could contribute to developing a learning culture supportive of experimentation — celebrating failure, allowing multi-directional learning and for the much needed emergence of critical and creative solutions to growing environmental and social issues. Given we do not exist as siloed individuals but essential components within many systems, dependent on an open-minded spirit of community and collaboration, here to collectively contribute to the earth and each other meaningfully.

Innovation and Failure: Two sides of the same pea

Let’s look at the case of Gregor Mendel to first explore how the emergence of innovative ideas and failure, a commonality in scientific and creative inquiry can co-exist.

Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk in in ‘Experiments in Plant Hybridization’ documenting his process from 1856–1863, a 10-year period of trial and error to develop a mathematical model of the laws of inheritance, He bred over 10,000 pea plants observing visible traits such as plant height or colour, (labelled dominant traits) and the traits that were hidden, emerging over time (labelled recessive traits). Observing many generations of plants, Mendel used a mathematical approach to evidence that a dominant trait could hide a recessive, laying the foundations to conceptualise the role of genes in biological inheritance.

Image: Mariana Ruiz Villareal (public domain).

Mendel presented these findings to the Natural History Society in Brunn, but his work went largely unnoticed during his life by the scientific community around him. This may have been in part due to his blending of a mathematical model within a discipline that largely used descriptive evidence as well as challenging the prevailing understanding of blended inheritance of that time.

If we unpack how Mendel’s aptitude, process and environment resulted in producing an innovative and perceptive idea through trial and error, we can see how self-led curiosity functions as an aggregate component of applied creativity. What in Mendel’s environment facilitated his thinking to use numbers to evidence a pattern in nature ?

Especially given Mendel’s broader learning community or environment was not receptive to his thinking, perhaps we need to look at his more local monastic environment. Was it one conversation with a fellow monk that sparked this idea? Was it a series of dialogues? If we understand how our personal interactions with people, places, ideas or objects evolve our learning, perhaps we can better deconstruct the elusive nature of creativity— to fortify courage to explore the mysteries of the natural world around us from people to microbes.

Words| Aulina Chaudhuri




Flow India is an education and culture organization with a human-centered design focus. We develop learning experiences that empower students with 21st century skills by making local cultural capital accessible and relevant to them.

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Flow India

Flow India

Flow India is an education and culture organization with a human-centred design focus.

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