Rettig’s Notes
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Rettig’s Notes

Notes on emergence

Why this is important

Introduction: what is this?


Related concepts

Examples and resources that might help

A visualization of emergence (as well as many other key concepts)

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.)

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

3 minutes, 30 seconds

Here is an amazing set of notes on autopoiesis

Animated description

7 minutes 30 seconds

RadioLab on Emergence

Other examples from nature

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


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)

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

A nice exercise for experiencing emergence


Working with emergence

How do these ideas change how we work?

  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

The common movements

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

Just for fun (but contains some clues)

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

Learn more about the approaches

  • 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



Cognitive Edge

Social Labs

Transformative Scenario Planning



Learn more about the skills of dialogue facilitation

Theater methods

Thomas Lammee



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Marc Rettig

Fit Associates, SVA Design for Social Innovation, Carnegie Mellon School of Design