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We are a multidisciplinary innovation studio working with diverse partners to understand sustainability challenges and identify holistic, resilient solutions, and we are committed to training the next generation of leaders.


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what does emergence even mean?

Lyndon Valicenti

For its 2017 Person of the Year, Time magazine just named “The Silence Breakers;” the brave people who have bared their pain from sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse by those at the highest levels of power and influence, and catalyzed the emergence of a truly transformative movement that is shifting our cultural tolerance. YES! 

While we have touched on the concept of emergence before in this series, this moment presents a compelling example and an opportunity to revisit it. So, let’s re-pose: what does emergence even mean?

The following definition comes from a group of system change practitioners who, in 2014, came together for a workshop at Oxford University with the goal of building a shared lexicon for the emerging field of systems practice. Their conversation resulted in the first volume of Keywords: Building a language of systems change. Without further ado, their shared definition of “emergence” as distilled by Ella Saltmarshe is as follows: 

Origin: late 14c., “rising from what surrounds it, coming into view,” from Latin emergentem (nominative emergens), present participle of emergere “to rise out or up” (emerge).

Emergence refers to the process by which two or more things interact to create something new that is greater than the sum of its parts. 

As systems changers we use the term in different ways. It is a helpful way of framing the unpredictability and unintended consequences of much of our work. 

  • “If I talk about something that’s emergent, it allows me to not know the outcome.”
  • “Change is scary. The language of emergence is a way to have a conversation that enables people to evolve and take risks.”

Studies of complex adaptive systems, from the global economy to biological ecosystems to the internet, have highlighted how new relationships, structures and properties emerge through processes of self-organization. These emergent properties aren’t a feature of any one component but of the system as a whole. With the principle of emergence, causation is iterative; effects become causes. 

Interconnectivity is key to emergence — without connections, interaction is impossible. Systems changers cross-pollinate, connecting diverse ideas, people and organizations. These new connections are essential to changing the emergent properties of a system.

When systems changers create exemplar projects, the principles of emergence mean that even if these projects don’t gain traction, their very existence changes the market for change initiatives. They become transitional objects that allow others to learn and build new iterations. 

Emergence is also relevant in the sense of “coming into view.” Here it refers to showing how events, structures or concepts are part of a system rather than disparate bits and pieces. 

On a micro-level, many systems changers use principles of emergence to design the processes they use with groups. This involves providing the minimal viable structure to allow people to self organize. 

Related words: generative / unpredictable / evolution / the adjacent possible