A living system evolves, regenerates, and self-organizes to adapt to changing circumstances. Complex adaptive systems change constantly but the change is self-organized change, a process by which a structure and pattern emerges without that change being directed from outside .
Living systems learn and use that new information to alter present and future behavior. A living system is constantly balancing and rebalancing to maintain homeostasis. And in a living system there is no such thing as an absolute state of “health” – health is a relative term. You cannot feed a living system and then leave it alone - it must be fed and maintained all the time. Unpredictable things happen in complex adaptive systems – things that could not be predicted ahead of time because of the phenomenon known as emergence.
The simplest way of understanding emergence is that it occurs whenever the whole is greater than – or smarter than – the sum of the parts. It is about understanding how collective properties arise from the properties of parts and the relationship between them . As neuroscientist John Holland has written in his book on the topic, “we are everywhere confronted with emergence in complex adaptive systems – ant colonies, networks of neurons, the immune system, the Internet, and the global economy, to name a few – where the behavior of the whole is much more complex than the behavior of the part (p.2)” .
Emergence helps to explain how collective phenomenon can arise and be different than the components that comprise it – which, by the way, is what true teamwork is all about. Just as neurons interconnect in networks that create structured thoughts beyond the ken of any individual neuron and what emerges is consciousness, so people spontaneously organize themselves into groups to create emergent organizations that no individual may intend, comprehend, or even perceive .
Pioneers in philosophy, psychology and mental health treatment have been wrestling with this notion of emergence for a very long time without having the language or science available at the time to address it. Recent scientific discoveries about the brain are providing a substantial, empirically-based foundation for long-standing philosophical, sociological and psychological observations about people and about how human groups function. This is in contrast with the long-standing influence of individualism on our thinking and behavior.
1.Goldstein, J., The Unshackled Organization. 1994, Portland, OR: Productivity Press.
2.Johnson, S., Emergence. 2001, New York: Ballantine Books.
3.Holland, J.H., Emergence: From Chaos to Order. 1998, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
4.Goldstone, R.L., M.E. Roberts, and T.M. Gureckis, Emergent Processes in Group Behavior. Group Behavior, 2008. 17(10-15).