Change is in the air, and most people can tell. The economy has undergone some serious disruptions. Marketers are starting to say that companies need to start speaking with, and actually listening to, their customers in order to survive. Protest movements, from Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, are popping up without central leadership. The open source movement questions the very idea of proprietary technology.
While some people think that these disruptions are temporary, others think they are signs of the future. is one of these thinkers, and I share her position. In , she talks about how the new science of complexity applies to these types of organizations.
Could organic networks replace a strict chain of command? As you’ll see, it’s a definite possibility. In some places, it’s already happening.
I’m happy to get the chance to talk to you, Peggy.
Thanks Carter. You’ve been gathering quite an interesting collection of interviews! Glad to be among them.
I’m glad you feel that way.
So your book is about embracing upheaval and finding a way to turn it into something constructive. You undoubtedly chose the title in reference to the relatively new science of complexity. Before we go into detail about your book, I’d like to hear what emergence means to you. Some of my readers have seen my post about complex adaptive systems, a closely related subject, but I’d like your perspective on it.
Emergence is an elusive, yet exacting idea. Elusive because we use the term in everyday parlance, as in “we’ll see what emerges.” For those who study complexity, emergence has some specific (but evolving) characteristics that define it. I’ll say more in a moment.
First, some of the definitions I use:
The simplest and least accurate: emergence is order arising out of chaos.
More precise: Higher-order complexity from the process of self-organization. Novel, coherent structures arising through interactions between diverse entities in a system.
My favorite metaphorical definition: emergence is the learning edge of evolution.
As I delved into the scientific literature, characteristics that showed up consistently were:
Radical novelty—At each level of complexity, entirely new properties appear—for example, from autocracy (rule by one person with unlimited power) to democracy (people as the ultimate source of political power).
Coherence—A stable system of interactions (for example, elephant, biosphere, agreement).
Wholeness—Not just the sum of its parts, but also different and irreducible from its parts (for example, humans are more than the composition of lots of cells).
Dynamic—Always changing, continuing to evolve (for example, changes in transportation: walking, horse and buggy, autos, trains, buses, airplanes, and so on).
Downward causation—The system shapes the behavior of the parts (for example, roads determine where we drive).
I thought the following aspects of emergence cited by scientists were most helpful in understanding how to work with social emergence:
Situational leadership arising in context. This is often characterized as no one being in charge. I just find that so misleading! It’s just as easily thought of as everyone being in charge. In fact, the energy of the situation and of the interacting people is in charge.
Simple rules engender complex behavior. Randomness becomes coherent as individuals, each following a few basic principles or assumptions, interact with their neighbors.
Feedback among neighboring agents. Interactions that reinforce and balance the system. Feedback loops encourage or discourage action in the same general direction. They are called vicious or virtuous cycles, depending on the direction they are headed. Balancing feedback loops are opposing forces responding, as needed, to counter each other. This creates a dynamic yet stable state.
As our current assumptions of how things work break down, I think we can break through to a higher-order of human functioning.