What is emergence and how can we make it happen?


We’ve all seen a flock of birds wheeling and swooping as if it were a single, giant organism.

The same thing happens with shoals of fish, or even people trying to leave a train station at rush hour.

Why and how does this happen, and what does it mean for us?

The term emergence is used to describe complex phenomena or behaviour that emerges from the interaction of simpler elements – often in a way that can’t be predicted from the features of the simpler element.

We can simulate flocking behaviour by setting up a system that follows three rules:

  1. Don’t crowd neighbours
  2. Move in the average direction of where neighbours are moving
  3. Move in the average direction of where neighbours are

These three rules result in a swarm – see here for example.

In organisations, emergence can happen in two ways.

In a hierarchy, the rules are set by those in charge.

People are given jobs, roles and responsibilities. In most organisations now, they have latitude and discretion in how they do their roles but have rules to follow.

Take the flocking rules, for example, and recast them for a job role. This might say:

  1. Avoid doing the same work as someone else – create your own niche.
  2. Try and make sure what you do is aligned with the vision and mission of the organisation.
  3. Do work that feeds into and works with what others in the organisation are doing.

If company had a number of people who organised their work in line with these rules it’s very likely that they will do some very interesting things.

It’s that balance between individuals and the collective that creates the conditions for innovation and creativity to emerge.

It’s also why micromanagement doesn’t work.

We need freedom and control – too much of either results in very simple or chaotic behaviour, neither of which are useful.

The second way in which emergence happens is through markets

Take Ebay, for example.

By creating a platform where people can exchange things, they created a thriving ecosystem of buyers and sellers.

Products from bicycles to floor mats flow through the system, in bursts of transactions that spill out into the real world – triggering a flow of packages in white vans that then creates emergent behaviour in the flow of traffic.

On a macro-level, the most successful economies are those that let markets form – allowing people to freely exchange goods and services.

We are surrounded by emergence – and what it reminds us is that we cannot control everything.

The best stuff happens when find the space between simplicity and chaos.

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