Emergent Systems


Our lives are full of complexity – full of dynamic, impossible-to-explain, crazy complexity. Like our brains… our whole bodies… poverty… our cultures… climate change… the earth as a whole… our marriages…

We often try to explain complexity using reductive reasoning. To comprehend, we think, we must reduce the system down into its various parts. We divide up the whole and then specialize and become experts in the details of each part.

Although this way of thinking is the most linear and logical way to think, it gets us into trouble when we try to solve complex problems. We think because we understand to minutiae, we must also understand how it all fits together into an “emergent” system.

Emergent systems exist when different elements come together to produce something that is greater than the sum of their parts. Or, to put it differently, the pieces of a system interact, and out of their interaction something entirely new emerges. 

Emergent systems make it very difficult to boil problems down to a root cause. But just as it can be quite uncomfortable to realize we don’t understand something like we thought we did, I think it’s also quite beautiful. If you look at it another way, you realize that the power of emergent systems can also be used for our benefit.

The positive side is that if you have negative cascades producing bad outcomes, it is also possible to have positive cascades producing good ones. Once you have a positive set of cultural cues, you get a happy avalanche as productive influences feed on and reinforce one another. 


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