Part I. The Nature of Emergence

The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.

—Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Emergence is nature’s way of changing. We see it all the time in its cousin, emergencies. What happens?

A disturbance interrupts ordinary life. In spite of natural responses, such as grief or fear or anger, people differentiate—take on different tasks. For example, in an earthquake, while many are immobilized, some care for the injured. Others look for food or water. A few care for the animals. Someone creates a “find your loved ones” site on the Internet. A handful blaze the trails and others follow. They see what’s needed and bring their unique gifts to the situation. A new order begins to arise.

The pattern of change described in the introduction presented these aspects of emergent change:

  • Disruption breaks apart the status quo.
  • The system differentiates, surfacing innovations and distinctions among its parts.
  • As different parts interact, a new, more complex coherence arises.

Illustration by Steven Wright

People often speak of a magical quality to emergence, in part because we can’t predetermine specific outcomes. Emergence can’t be manufactured. It often arises from individual and collective intuition—instinctive and unconscious knowing or sensing without depending on the rational mind. It is often fueled by strong emotions—excitement, longing, anger, fear, grief. And it rarely follows a logical, orderly path. It feels much more like a leap of faith.

Emergence is always happening. If we don’t work with it, it will work us over. In human systems, it will likely show itself when strong emotions are ignored or suppressed for too long. Although emergence is natural, it isn’t always positive, and it has a dark side. Erupting volcanoes, crashing meteorites, and wars have brought emergent change. For example, new species or cultures fill the void left by those made extinct. Even wars can leave exciting offspring of novel, higher-order systems. The League of Nations and United Nations were unprecedented social innovations from their respective world wars.

Emergence seems disorderly because we can’t discern meaningful patterns, just unpredictable interactions that make no sense. But order is accessible when diverse people facing intractable challenges uncover and implement ideas that none could have predicted or accomplished on their own. Emergence can’t be forced—but it can be fostered.

The chapters in part 1 speak to what emergence is, how it works, and some catches to be aware of when engaging it. Making sense of a situation is tough when you’re in the midst of the storm. Through understanding the nature of emergence, we can more effectively handle whatever changes and challenges come our way.

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On to Chapter 1 – What is Emergence?