Emergence, or why change surprises us

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You think that because you understand “one” you must, therefore, understand “two” because one and one make two. But you forget that you must also understand “and”. — Sufi teaching story

Emergence is a strange concept after decades of analytical, reductionist, linear thinking. By strange I do not mean weird, I mean unknown.

Emergence is the process whereby — when things are connected or interact in a specific way — something new and different is created. Differently from what our analytical, linearly-educated brain may think, one and one is not necessarily two, and the reason for that — the and — are synergies. New things, qualitatively different, bigger, or smaller than the sum of its parts emerge when synergies take place.

Synergies are non-linear interactions. They exist when — due to the specific way parts are combined — the relations between the parts add or subtract value to the whole. For example, when the combination of two drugs increases or decreases the effect that each drug would have had if taken separately.

With an analytical worldview, relations are thought to be linear and not to add value to the whole. As a result, we think that we can understand how a system works by breaking it down into small pieces and putting the parts back together. Except that in complex systems; outcomes are emergent phenomena of the way the system is organized as a whole, rather than of the properties of its parts.

Emergence is how change occurs in complex systems, and to understand it, a holistic approach is needed. Rather than focusing on individual parts, a holistic approach focuses on interactions and recognizes emergence as a fundamental and irreducible part of our universe. In the same way that a screwdriver is more adept than a hammer if what you need is to drive a screw into a wall, a holistic approach is more adept than an analytical approach to understand — and thus intervene in — complex systems.

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Author: Mariana Mirabile

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