Emergence, The Universal Property That Shapes Us and our World!
Two concepts work hand in hand: chaos, the scientific theory whereby unpredictability is the only predictable reality, and complexity, the process through which adaptation leads to evolution.
Specifically, whereby chaos is about the unpredictable outcomes that develop when a butterfly flaps its wings in a remote area and seemingly unrelated events happen in far away places, I could say that complexity is the process through which systems adapt to the events caused by chaos.
As systems evolve, what was once unthinkable often becomes the norm, the temporary becomes structural or permanent. An emergence has occurred.
In another article, I show that according to chaos theory and because there have never been so many humans and we have never been so connected, we may be on the eve of an amazing civilization collapse… or an amazing civilization breakthrough aka emergence.
Our present civilization could collapse and/or a new more complex civilization could “emerge”.
What does complexity means? I would very loosely define “more complex” by a with “little extra”. The thing that makes molecules not only a bunch of atoms but “a bunch of atoms with a little extra”.
Same for living cells: living cells are made of molecules plus a “little extra”. This little extra is complexity.
A new emerging civilization, according to chaos theory would be more complex i.e., would have a “little extra”.
This little extra in complexity is what we also call emergence.
So the big question is: how can we find this little extra, this jump in complexity? Can we even create it?
Emergence comes from the study of complex adaptive systems (ant colonies, networks of neurons, the immune system, the Internet, the global economy). It describes systems whose complex behavior is more than the sum of its simple parts.
Think of a seed — somehow it contains specifications for unlimited variations of structures thousands of times its size.
Many of the most important and least-understood phenomena in the world exhibit emergent properties, from consciousness to intelligence to ethics to life itself.
Emergence is the spontaneous and unexpected interactions between parts of very large and complex systems that lead to changes in the entire system.
Are the cells that make up your brain smart on their own accord? What about the proteins that make up those cells? Or the molecules that form those proteins? At what point does a group of neurons start to become “smart”?
This pattern of complexity arising from simplicity can be found in every corner of the universe, from the tiniest atom to the grandeur of space.
This video may also help you to get the concept of emergence.
Simply put, emergence, or evolution, means that something comes into existence that has not existed in this form before.
These new forms are not just the sum of their parts. They exhibit entirely new properties that are completely different from their constituent elements and cannot be reduced to them.
This generating of novelties is called emergence.
For example, water molecules (H2O) have totally different properties than their constituent parts; they are a co-creation emerging from two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.
Emergence not only surrounds us in the non-living world; it is also the key dynamic of living organisms, for example when gene expressions co-create molecules or cells co-create organs.
Similarly, a very different meaning (and symbol) emerges from the combination of the letters f, l, o, w, e, and r, spelling the word flower, which signifies a certain plant.
More Comes From Less
In other words, emergence means that more comes from less.
Perhaps the most familiar phrase for stating this understanding is to say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
A New Emerging World or New Civilization?
Can we create our own emergence?
How do we design for positive emergence in a complex dynamic system like our life our humankind?
On the one hand, I believe it is vital to accept uncertainty, not knowing, and unpredictability fully to the point of deep humility. On the other hand, I also believe that we need to choose to act from the conviction that we can design for positive emergence in complex systems even if it is not an exact science and we cannot know with certainty how our efforts will turn out to affect transformative change.
When the emergence of molecules happened, I believe that no atom wrote a book about the possibility of collapse or emergence. Same for other emergences such as cells, living organisms, etc.
Until recently, chaos or complexity sciences were studying systems of rather a low level of awareness like bacteria, ants, termites, or simple computer simulation (“automata”).
Emergence or collapse were therefore studied with so-called “agents” of rather a low level of consciousness.
I believe that most laws discovered then do apply to many systems, including “human” systems. Still, I would assume that your level of consciousness, your level of awareness, your ability to make choices is much higher than those of a bacteria or a termite 🙂
And this is changing everything!
A termite mound
Unlike bacteria or termites, we can design our own strange attractor, our dreams. We can also design and decide to change our routines. We can test, decide, invent new routines to create new breakthroughs, new emergence.
This is the first time that in human life, actually in the story of life itself, that we can have this conversation about our civilization collapsing or a new civilization emerging. That makes a big difference as we can decide to design our future by creating a context more likely to help this new civilization to emerge.
Human beings are capable of being intentional. Unlike termites or ants. We are capable of having an intention, a dream, a strange attractor. The termite and most living things have no intentions, no dreams (I admit that this can be challenged). But like termites, for sure we can bring out incredible achievement by repeating very simple tasks, results of selective and or cooperative evolution.
The human being has the capacity to have an intention, a strange attractor AND to repeat the very simple operations to create emergences in accordance with his/her dream, his/her intention, his/her strange attractor.
How can we create an emergence?
Right now, we are still like unorganized termites. Maybe smarter but much more individualistic and therefore without a global common goal 🙁
Could We Be Smart Termites?
How could do we design our lives for positive emergence? For ourselves, our communities, and for humankind?
The most relevant point is that such emergence can be produced by the repeated application of a very simple rule. What I call routines or habits.
It is hard to see how even the wealth of DNA contained in the single-cell that develops to become a human being, or a pine tree, or whatever, can contain a literal blueprint for all the complex structures involved in the final adult form. But it is much easier to see how that DNA might contain a few simple instructions along the lines of ‘double in size for n steps, then divide in two, and repeat in each branch’.
In the chaos game, instructions only slightly more complicated than this make complex structures like ferns by iteration. If there is an attractor for the fern shape, based on that kind of simple rule, it is no surprise that some plants grow into ferns, even though they need not be programmed to have that shape.
It is randomness plus a simple iterative rule (or rules), what I call habits or routines, that makes the complexity of the world!
Emergence, as the theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman says, is “order for free”. It is the unexpected leap to higher forms of complexity and order from the edge of chaos.
Can we, as human beings together, learn how to be agents of emergence?
What simple rules do we need to emerge as individuals and collectively?
The secret: it’s not a big strategic change, a new reorganization which will improve the situation. It’s only small changes, new operating rules that seem harmless, new little routines that will ensure success in this increasingly uncertain world.
Note that these new rules and routines may give rise to a new strategy or reorganization in your life or your organization, but these come later. These will then be the emergences that will naturally take place by themselves in a fractal manner in the organization.
Emergence is somewhat the opposite of a top-down decision. This is not the decision that comes from the boss (or your own “mental boss”). It’s bottom-up! It is the repetition of small habits, routines that create the emergences in your life, your community, your business, the world
Routines for emergence
So, individually, I would invite you, after having created or clarified your strange attractor, your dream (see how you can do that in this article), to set up a set of small routines.
By routines, I mean small habits that you repeat (that’s the important word) every day.
Here are some of my favorite individual and collective routines:
- Visualization (of your dream)
- Spend 15 minutes every day learning something new
- Watch or read the news only once a day
- Never spend more than 15 minutes per day on social networks
- Replace “Yes but” by “yes and”
Standing meetings (instead of seating)
Again, the idea is to change small things in our life, repeat them in order to create the context for a new emergence.
Maybe you would like to pick one and try for 2 or 3 weeks and see the results in your life?
Be a leader in your life and in your community
And if you are a leader in an organization or in your community, or wish to become one, beware, the role of the leader is no longer to make all the decisions, the big decisions, for his company, his community.
Your role is to create the right context, a context favorable to emergence:
- a shared dream, a utopia, which you share and repeat day after day. Not everyone needs to have the same dream. Just check that the dreams are compatible between all those who “get on the ship”
- a shared culture: a set of routines, rituals to create the emergences. “On our ship, we do it like that”, “In our tribe we do like that”, “In my team, we do like that”…
For me now, an understanding of emergence gives me a lens with which to look at those complexities and not see randomness or chaos beyond my realm of understanding, but instead the beauty in the individual layers that make the world around us so rich.
I hope that now you too will like to have a strange attractor, a dream, and a couple of routines to try to make amazing things emerge in your life… and in the world!