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Emergent Systems: Introduction

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. “Emergent properties” refer to those properties that emerge that might be entirely unexpected. As discussed in CAS, they arise from the collaborative functioning of a system. In other words, emergent properties are properties of a group of items, but it would be erroneous for us to reduce such systems into properties of atomic elements and use those properties as binding elements to understand emergence Some common examples of emergent properties include cities, bee hives, ant colonies and market systems. Out thinking attributes causal effects – namely, that behavior of elements would cause certain behaviors in other hierarchies and thus an entity emerges at a certain state. However, we observe that a process of emergence is the observation of an effect without an apparent cause. Yet it is important to step back and regard the relationships and draw lines of attribution such that one can concur that there is an impact of elements at the lowest level that surfaces, in some manner, at the highest level which is the subject of our observation.


Jochenn Fromm in his paper “Types and Forms of Emergence” has laid this out best. He says that emergent properties are “amazing and paradox: fundamental but familiar.” In other words, emergent properties are changeless and changing, constant and fluctuating, persistent and shifting, inevitable and unpredictable. The most important note that he makes is that the emergent property is part of the system and at the same time it might not always be a part of the system. There is an undercurrent of novelty or punctuated gaps that might arise that is inexplicable, and it is this fact that renders true emergence virtually irreducible. Thus, failure is embodied in all emergent systems – failure being that the system does not behave according to expectation. Despite all rules being followed and quality thresholds are established at every toll gate at the highest level, there is still a possibility of failure which suggests that there is some missing information in the links. It is also possible that the missing information is dynamic – you do not step in the same water twice – which makes the study to predict emergent systems to be a rather difficult exercise. Depending on the lens through which we look at, the system might appear or disappear.

emergent cas

There are two types of emergence: Descriptive and Explanatory emergence. Descriptive emergence means that properties of wholes cannot be necessarily defined through the properties of the pasts. Explanatory emergence means laws of complex systems cannot be deduced from the laws of interaction of simpler elements that constitute it. Thus the emergence is a result of the amount of variety embodied in the system, the amount of external influence that weights and shapes the overall property and direction of the system, the type of resources that the system consumes, the type of constraints that the system is operating under and the number of levels of sub-systems that work together to build out the final system. Thus, systems can be benign as in the system is relatively more predictable whereas a radical system is a material departure of a system from expectation. If the parts that constitute a system is independent of its workings from other parts and can be boxed within boundaries, emergent systems become more predictable. A watch is an example of a system that follows the different mechanical elements in a watch that are geared for reading the time as it ultimate purpose. It is a good example of a complex physical system. However, these systems are very brittle – a failure in one point can cascade into a failure of the entire system. Systems that are more resilient are those where the elements interact and learn from one another. In other words, the behavior of the elements excites other elements – all of which work together to create a dance toward a more stable state. They deploy what is often called the flocking trick and the pheromone trick. Flocking trick is largely the emulation of the particles that are close to each other – very similar to the cellular automata as introduced by Neumann and discussed in the earlier chapter. The Pheromone trick reflects how the elements leave marks that are acted upon as signals by other elements and thus they all work together around these signal trails to behave and thus act as a forcing function to create the systems.

emerg strategy

There are systems that have properties of extremely strong emergence. What does Consciousness, Life, and Culture have in common? How do we look at Climate? What about the organic development of cities? These are just some examples of system where determinism is nigh impossible. We might be able to tunnel through the various and diverse elements that embody the system, but it would be difficult to coherently and tangibly draw all set of relationships, signals, effectors and detectors, etc. to grapple with a complete understanding of the system. Wrestling a strong emergent system would be a task that might even be outside the purview of the highest level of computational power available. And yet, these systems exist, and they emerge and evolve. Yet we try to plan for these systems or plan to direct policies to influence the system, not fully knowing the impact. This is also where the unintended consequences of our action might take free rein.