When we look at change, we can easily distinguish between planned and unplanned change. In simple terms, planned change is change that we seek. Conversely, unplanned change is the type of change we are forced to accept and integrate. This latter type of change may have been planned by others and we are just the unsuspecting recipients of it; or the unplanned change may be totally unexpected by everyone as in the visit of a tornado and its resulting devastation.
There is a third type of change which is emergent change. This type of change is not in anyone’s agenda or weather radar. It simply manifests in our biological and social systems when the underlying components have achieved a new order that give way to new behaviors. If we look back to how social media, like Facebook and Twitter, emerged as a global means of communication, we can see that no one forced us to use them. There was no email or memo that mandated compliance. We simply discovered a new way to meet with old friends, make new ones, and share any information we want from any of our devices and at any time.
Facebook and Twitter are modern examples of emergent change; however, the history of emergence started with the creation of our universe. Looking at the four-and-a-half billion years of evolution in our planet, emergent change has been responsible for moving us from hydrogen atoms to iPhones. Emergence is the phenomenon of a system achieving new order in a totally self-organized manner giving course to new forms and dynamics. Molecular combinations, DNA, the myriad of physical forms in the history of Earth, our manifestation as human beings, and the evolution of our societies are all part of a succession of emergent changes.
We do not typically pay attention to emergent change because it is long term. It may take years and even millennia to manifest. We are currently engaged in a debate of whether global warming is real or not. Scientists who advocate for the effects of global warming forecast a change of large proportions that would dramatically impact life on the planet. Assuming this is true, we do not know the effects of “real” emergent change from global warming. We have individuals on the “doom and gloom” part of the spectrum who predict that our way of life would collapse not only because of global warming, but because of our unsustainable use of natural resources. On the other side of the spectrum, there are those who believe that emergent change will align all humans on a common purpose and that great advances will ensue to accommodate new forms of living along a sustainable path.
Let’s take a brief look at how emergent change takes place summarizing concepts from the article An Information-Theoretic Primer on Complexity, Self-Organization and Emergence by Mikhail Prokopenko, Fabio Boschetti, and Alex Ryan as well as the book Engaging Emergence by Peggy Holman.
- Emergent change takes place in an “open” complex system. In this context, “open” means that the system receives a regular supply of energy, information, or matter from its environment. The system is complex because of its number of components and their non-trivial and purposeful interaction, which results in a coordinated behavior.
- The non-trivial interaction in this system is challenged by internal constraints leading to the breakdown of current behavior between the individual components. This creates a disruption in the system.
- The system then goes through a process of differentiation in which innovation and distinction among its parts takes place. Higher complexity can be achieved through this differentiation.
- When the system achieves a new state of coherence, it is more organized than before. This new order is achieved without a director or any explicit mandates. The parts in the system are self-organized.
- The changed system then expresses new patterns of interaction, which emerge as new behaviors. The changed system also exhibits radical novelty (such as new properties or coherence); stable system interactions; dynamic wholeness that is always changing; and downward causation as the system shapes the behavior of its parts.
- Once coherence is reached at the higher level of complexity, adaptation is set into motion. When adaptation occurs across generations in the system, the system evolves. The evolution of the entire system gives rise to large-scale effects. Once evolution is achieved, the change is irreversible.
To follow the Facebook and Twitter example, our communication systems evolved from Gutenberg’s printing press to electronic communication, personal computers, and mobile devices. The effects of those changes brought the computerization of our communications and the resulting social transformation of having part of our presence in electronic form. Once we became ever-present via email and used the Web to conduct part of our daily lives, social media was a natural extension. Each stage in our communication transformation underwent the dynamics of emergent change: from cave paintings to the first printed bible circa 1455, the first telegram, the first phone call, the first email by Ray Tomlinson in 1971, the first Facebook posting, and the first Twitter message ever sent.
It is important to differentiate the planned change of designing a product with emergent change. Products such as the iPod and iTunes were designed to transform how we buy and listen to music. Their manifestation was planned change by Apple. The advent resulted in unplanned change for Tower Records and other providers of physical media. Their market gradually disappeared. The emergent change is how accessible our music and other forms of media are to us. We can summon the perfect song at any time from any of our devices. Apple did not make this happen. We did. We could have resisted the planned change from Apple and killed the iPod in 2003, but we did not. Again, there was no memo, no mandate; we simply coordinated with each other to evolve on how we listen to music. We achieved a new coherence.
From the above, we can ascertain that any state of complexity is temporary. Apple and other designers are busy at work to entice us to create another emergent change. However, no company can create emergent change, only us—the members of the social system. This is a profound message as we look at our future as a species. We have the power to create the right interactions as we differentiate in an emergent change cycle. Disruptions of our current coherence will always take place. We have no choice in that matter. Our choice lies in how we differentiate. The new state of coherence is based entirely on how we interact with each other and our environments. Our future—our new coherence—rest in our hands. This has been true since the Big Bang and has not changed. As satirist Steve Bhaerman through his alter ego Swami Beyondananda said, “The bad news: there is no key to the universe. The good news: it was never locked.”