What Everybody Needs to Know About Emergence

What are emergent systems?  In his book, Emergence – the Collected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, Steven Johnson describes them as systems that –

…solve problems by drawing on masses of relatively stupid elements, rather than a single, intelligent “executive branch.” They are bottom-up systems, not top down…  In a more technical language, they are complex adaptive systems…  In these systems, agents residing on one scale start producing behaviour that lies one scale above them: ants create colonies; urbanites create neighbourhoods; simple pattern-recognition software learns how to recommend new books.  The movement from low-level rules to higher-level sophistication is what we call emergence. (1)

Emergence demonstrates how simple actions taken in synchrony as part of a unified whole can result in outcomes that far exceed both the size of the action and its originator. So, what everyone needs to know about emergence is, that it is a major agent of change and in all likelihood, it will be the small, individual acts of justice and equality and love that will transform the planet while we are all waiting for top-down solutions.


(1) Steven Johnson, Emergence – the Collected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software.  Scribner, 2002