Back to Basics — Emergent Behavior


At the front entrance to the Prater, the large amusement park in Vienna, Austria.  2008.

Last week, I realized that I toss around the term, ’emergent’, without explaining it very well.  And as unbelievable as it may seem, there is no real Wikipedia page explaining it — so I’m (and you’re) left to my own devices.

One of the key elements in understanding evolutionary behavior, in social systems or otherwise, is the idea of emergence and emergent behavior.  The idea is this — you rearrange a structure, or apply a certain set of boundary conditions to a structure, and then all of a sudden, a new type of behavior or restructuring occurs.  The best example of this in management systems that immediately comes to mind is W. Edwards Deming’s transformation of Japanese manufacturing through Statistical Quality Control.  The story of Deming is well-known (thank you, Wikipedia!)  In this piece, a short, but concise and meaningful description of the man and his philosophies are presented.  It is very clear that Deming got the Performance-based Communitarian v-Meme profoundly.  His Seven Deadly Sins that he enumerated are below, with a mapping that I added showing what bad side of the various v-Memes he was attacking:

  1. Lack of constancy of purpose (misused Authority)
  2. Emphasis on short-term profits (lack of an understanding of appropriate timescale, which was often external to the process — think Quarterly Reporting)
  3. Evaluation by performance, merit rating, or annual review of performance (misused Authority and inappropriate application of Legalistic rules for evaluating performance)
  4. Mobility of management (misused Authority)
  5. Running a company on visible figures alone (All the non-empathetic lower v-Memes)
  6. Excessive medical costs (misused Authority, as well as misplaced Legalism and lack of ability to understand consequence)
  7. Excessive costs of warranty, fueled by lawyers who work for contingency fees (misplaced Legalism)

But if there was one master stroke that Deming did, it was placing the ability to stop the production line on the production worker.  By doing this, and giving that individual the ability to show appropriate responsibility, he inverted the entire Japanese social structure.  And by doing that, through appropriate scaffolding (control charts and such, a data driven culture, and so on) quality became emergent out of the various manufacturing systems.  Now, instead of running machinery to meet quotas of stuff (steel, machinery, etc.) — a very knowledge-fragment/Authoritarian concept — a worker could stop the assembly line  until the problem was fixed.  And coupled with other tools, like Ishikawa diagrams and Root Cause Analysis, overall quality and production rates could be increased.  It is important to understand that the various methods of determining metrics were fundamentally grounding these complex systems in the outside world.  And that’s important, too.  But the emergent dynamics propagated forced duplex empathetic communication channels between bottom and top — so that a whole new manufacturing system was formed.

The concept of emergent dynamics comes from nonlinear systems theory.  The idea behind it is relatively simple.  You have an equation, composed of different problem variables, and mixed up with a set of parameters.  parameter is one of those words (like heuristic!) that everyone uses, but most people have no idea what it actually means.  In lay terms, a parameter is a variable you get to change.  For example, let’s say you’re trying to boil water on your stovetop.  The system is the pot with the water in it.  The boundary conditions are what’s surrounding the pot — whether the pot has a lid on it, or the size of the burner.  The main parameter you’re concerned with is the temperature control on the burner.  You turn up the gas to the burner, more gas burns, and your water finally boils.  The fact that the system is nonlinear means that as you turn up the gas, and the water gets hotter, it finally transitions from just hot water to boiling water — meaning now that some of the water that used to be liquid is now vapor.

The fact that the water itself goes through what is called a phase transformation — meaning, in this case, it goes from liquid to gas — is indicative of a nonlinear system.  Contrast that to a linear system — as you turn up the temperature control, the water would just get hotter and hotter. We know that doesn’t happen — water gets to the point where it boils off.

So here’s where emergence comes in.  Water boiling is an emergent phenomenon, naturally occurring, when you heat water long enough. It is a result of another mathematical phenomena — a bifurcation — or a fork in the road, where as a result of tweaking the governing parameter (in this case, the temperature knob) you get a radically different set of behaviors (water vapor, instead of water.)

What you’re after with your employees is very similar.  You want to do something to the system (change the structure, or change the boundary conditions) so that the behavior you desire (more productivity, profits, etc.) becomes naturally emergent.  Why is that so cool?  Because if you figure out how to do that, then you don’t have to sit around screaming at everyone to do what you want.  It just naturally happens as a function of the system physics.  And understanding those system physics is what the main point of this blog is all about!

If we look at the emergent dynamics of social systems, it’s helpful to refer back to Don Beck’s card on Spiral Dynamics.  See below.


Beck’s emergent forces are the personal pathways between the various colors on the Spiral — not the organizational.  Each individual’s Spiral v-Meme is driven by those drivers of emergence that he lists.  I like these a lot — they’re the most appealing part of Beck’s work.  But there are likely others.  I find myself wondering if I like them because I’m a white dude/systems theorist like Beck, and they just appeal.  But I think there’s some universality in them.

Since the Spiral is based on the principle of self-similarity, we could also posit societal drivers that would create new, emergent social structures.  Going from Survival to Tribal, it might be enough resources in an area that allowed long-term stability of a population of humans that would allow the persistence of information enough to allow for the establishment of a tribe of humans.  Add enough people, and there might be enough striving between individuals to have one emerge as a chief, with enough people who followed that individual to insist that others follow that person’s will.

Grow population enough, and now a system of laws becomes necessary to administer the group of people.  Keep going with the concept of fairness, and now it becomes important to increase production, which, if the population was constrained, might mean increasing productivity of each individual — the productivity would be an emergent behavior that would accompany identifying unique talents.  Keep going, and now every person becomes valued uniquely, though sharing the larger goals of an aggregate society.  Kindness and compassion would be naturally emergent behaviors.

Such a society might question itself, and want to understand how to relate to other societies that were different.  Engaged in such analysis and debate, a society might structure itself to become more connected with its neighbors, for optimization of quality of life.  Interdependence would be naturally emergent.  And if that spread among nations, one could see very easily where new governmental organs would have to be generated based on cooperation, collaboration and negotiation — all multiple solution modalities that would become naturally emergent.  The European Union has such features.

Which brings us back to the premise of this blog — if there is one factor, calibrated by a parameter, that most clearly characterizes the potential for emergence and evolution in social structures, it is the increasing information coherence between people, and within societies generated by empathy.  As has been discussed, empathy itself is a multi-phase phenomena, and so it’s not as simple as dumping more salt in the water to get it to boil more quickly. But the higher levels of coordination and information coherence that more complex societies require are driven by connection between the independent agents.  Regardless of the more complex, superficial reasons, symptoms, and behaviors that become emergent as empathy is developed, it all comes back to that.

There’s one last thought I’ll leave you with for a meditation.  I can’t find the cite, but I remember reading that a daisy had about the same number of active DNA pairs as a human.  What that says to me is that there is a limit to complexity available through genetic coding — more complex, and you can’t successfully propagate information using chemicals.  It’s just a limit of the medium.  So, in response to the ever-continuing drive in the universe toward complexity, a force that is poorly understood at best, the first stab at increasing it was the phenomenon of biological interdependence.  Then we as a species showed up, and started the process of embodying and producing information through our social/relational organization.  It was naturally emergent from the physics limiting coherence through other means of information transmission.

Where all this is headed is anyone’s guess.  Will this new form of information organization be profound enough to deliver yet another emergent form of information organization?  Or will be nuke/bake/destroy the planet before we get there?  Stay tuned — the answer will magically, or rather, emergently appear.

Further reading:  The book, 1491, by Charles Mann, is a great read that documents civilization as emergent phenomena in the Americas.  The idea that Native Americans learned about complex civilizations by visiting Chinese sailors, or other such icks, is one of the most offensive racist ideas I can think of.  


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