Readings on Emergence

Readings on Emergence
“Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.”  adrienne maree brown
“My ideas have undergone a process of emergence by emergency. When they are needed badly enough, they are accepted.” R. Buckminster Fuller

The beauty of nature insists on taking its time. Everything is prepared. Nothing is rushed. The rhythm of emergence is a gradual, slow beat; always inching its way forward, change remains faithful to itself until the new unfolds in the full confidence of true arrival. Because nothing is abrupt, the beginning of spring nearly always catches us unawares. It is there before we see it; and then we can look nowhere without seeing it.
John O’Donohue


Universe, our solar system, and planet Earth in themselves and in their evolutionary emergence constitute for the human community the primary revelation of Ultimate Mystery whence all things emerge into being.
The emergent process of Universe is irreversible and non-repeatable. The movement from non-life to life on planet Earth is a one-time event, so too the movement from life to the human form of consciousness.
Earth, within the solar system, is a self-emergent, self-nourishing, self-governing, self-healing, self-educating community. All particular life systems in their being, their nourishment, their governing, their healing, and their education, must integrate their functioning within this larger complex of mutually dependent Earth systems.
Earth is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.
Thomas Berry

This spontaneous emergence of order at critical points of instability, which is often referred to simply as “emergence,” is one of the hallmarks of life. It has been recognized as the dynamic origin of development, learning, and evolution. In other words, creativity—the generation of new forms—is a key property of all living systems…
Fritjof Capra

Very little about the emerging nature of life supports who we have tried to be. Life invites us to play along, discovering as we go. Life wants to work with us in surprising ways. We could make our lives so much more interesting, and develop so many new capacities, if we sought to work with the unknowns of emergence, rather than try and plan surprise out of our lives.
What do we do with surprise? What do we do with a world which cannot be known until it is in the process of discovering itself? It requires constant awareness, being present, being vigilant for the newly visible. We need to notice things we weren’t looking for, things we didn’t know would be important, influence we hadn’t thought of, behaviors we couldn’t predict.
An emergent world invites us to use our most human of all capacites, our consciousness. It asks us to be alert in the moment for what is unfolding. What is happening at this moment? What can we do because of what we just learned?
An emergent world welcomes us in as conscious participants and surprises us with discovery. “To recognize that everything is surprising is the first step toward recognizing that everything is a gift,” says Brother David Steindl-Rast.
Our plans are nothing compared to what the world so willingly gives us.
Margaret Wheatley

Emergence—Occasional upheaval results when principles that keep a system orderly break down. Chaos sparks experiments. Current assumptions are clarified, and new possibilities surface. Ultimately, something dies, and a new coherence arises that contains aspects of the old and the new but isn’t either. For example: a revolution leads to a new form of governance.
Peggy Holman

In all living systems (which includes us humans), change always happens through emergence.  Large-scale changes that have great impact do not originate in plans or strategies from on high.  Instead, they begin as small, local actions.  While they remain separate and apart, they have no influence beyond their locale.  However, if they become connected, exchanging information and learning, their separate efforts can suddenly emerge as very powerful changes, able to influence a large system.  This sudden appearance, known as an emergent phenomenon, always brings new levels of capacity.  Three things are guaranteed with emergent phenomena. Their power and influence will far exceed any sum of the separate efforts. They will exhibit skills and capacities that were not present in the local efforts.  And their appearance always surprises us.
A simple way to understand emergence is to look at the phenomenon of the “Perfect Storm.”  Meteorologists can never predict the sudden appearance of these super-powerful storms.  Their power is a result of a number of discrete and often invisible factors converging in perfect synchrony.  If any one of the elements were not present at that very moment, the storm could not emerge.  It is the “perfection” of their convergence that creates such overwhelming power.  This power cannot be predicted by assessing the strength of  individual forces or by summing their combined power.  It is the simultaneity of their convergence, that they all come together in the moment, that creates their power.
Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Freize

Human organisations always contain both designed and emergent structures. The two types of structures are very different but every organisation needs both kinds. Designed structures provide the rules and routines that are necessary for the effective functioning of the organisation… Designed structures provide stability. Emergent structures, on the other hand provide novelty, creativity and flexibility. They are adaptive, capable of changing and evolving. In today’s complex environment purely designed structures do not have the necessary responsiveness and learning capability. They are deficient in learning and changing and therefore likely to be left behind. There is always tension between the organisations designed structure which embody the relationships of power and the emergent, structures which represent the organisations aliveness. The central function of future leadership is to create harmony between the two.
Fritjof Capra

“Emergent strategy is how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.” adrienne maree brown

“Divinity and the universe seem deeply biased in favor of the future. Both celebrate emergence. Call it: Resurrection. Call it: New Life or New Creation. Call it: Evolution or Creativity. I believe in the future and the possibilities for hope and new leadership.” Matthew Fox  

Longer Texts

The introductory chapter of Engaging Emergence by Peggy Holman explains the concept of emergence in social systems.

Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze apply the concept of emergence to social systems and social innovations.

Professor John Holland explains emergence in this Q & A interview with NOVA.

This essay by Duane Elgin considers Thomas Berry’s work on an emergent universe and its relationship to evolutionary theory.


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