Peggy Holman: Emergence and the Future of Society

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.

The Interview

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.

Clustering as like finds like. Diverse agents interact, feeding back to each other. Some individual agents bond around a shared characteristic. This forms more complex systems, such as networks, over time.

These aspects of emergence helped me make sense of behavior I saw in organizations I worked with. They help us work with emergence in human systems. I was trying to understand the essential principles behind emergent processes like , , , the and others. I figured if more of us understood how to engage with people different than ourselves, we’d all be better off and get better results. As our current assumptions of how things work break down, I think we can break through to a higher-order of human functioning. This depends on an understanding of how to work with emergence.

This is a great answer. I think it draws attention not just to what emergence is, but to how flexible its definition is. Basically, what you are saying is that emergence occurs when the interactions between simple parts and their environment creates something adaptive. This adaptation comes from feedback between the parts, the environment, and the system as a whole.

Of course, complex systems don’t always result in emergent behavior. Emergence isn’t a mystical force that takes over any complex system. Most complex systems are just nonlinear and highly unpredictable. The perfect example is the weather. By now most people have heard of the butterfly effect, where a tiny change in starting conditions results in dramatic changes down the road. What separates a chaotic system from an adaptive one? Both are complex, and to a certain degree they are both unpredictable. The key difference is that one is stable and constructive while the other is not. Why?

Challenging question! Since my focus has been on what the science of emergence can teach us about working with social systems, I’m going to respond to your question from that perspective.

I’d say what distinguishes a chaotic social system from an adaptive one is intention and cohesion. In other words, both a “doing” and a “being” aspect assist human systems in adapting.

Groups generally form around a shared purpose. This offers direction without necessarily explaining how to meet the intention. Think of any new work team you’ve been part of. You know why you’re there but may not know much else. If the interactions are adaptive, the purpose gets clearer and the relationships evolve.

So what contributes to productive interactions?

Good intentions alone won’t necessarily lead to adaptation. That’s where cohesion comes in. What sort of relationships can the group cultivate? I am not asking about the initial relationships. I believe adaptation requires the diverse group to discover interconnections that weave them into a larger whole, but it doesn’t need to start this way.

As you’ve already mentioned, initial conditions matter…This is why being welcoming is so essential.