Futures are emergent

What connects water, ant colonies, climate change, and futures? They’re all emergent phenomena.

Dive Without Fear Jan 17, 2023

“There's no love in a carbon atom, no hurricane in a water molecule, no financial collapse in a dollar bill.” — Peter Dodd

Water, comprised of hydrogen and oxygen, is a liquid - neither gaseous nor flammable. Ants possess no measurable intelligence but create complex colonies marked by an extensive division of labour and incredible feats of coordination. Small changes to water temperatures around the poles generate fierce storms near the equator, snow in the desert, and searing heat in temperate climes.

As with water, ants, and climate, futures are emergent too. Multiple, overlapping networks of activity interweaving and fraying, drifting and cascading, tipping into one another to expand some options while pruning others. This ongoing process of becoming draws on existing “things” – forces, structures, flows, ways of being, organising, existing, doing, etc. – and bundles them into new configurations to produce new “things” - forces, structures, flows, ways of being, organising, existing, doing, etc. - that often look, feel, and operate in very different ways from the pasts they are built on.

Emergence is a process where collections of local interactions give rise to non-trivial global structures that differ from the elements from which they’re made.

In short, emergence is a way of explaining how “things” come from other “things” - yet look, act, and operate in very different ways.

This article explores emergence across three dimensions:

  1. What is it?
  2. How does it happen?
  3. Why is it a better approach to foresights development?

What is it?

Emergence has two parts. The first is process. Emergence is an ongoing process of becoming. It is not a “thing”, “substance”, or an “end state”. It is a flow of activity across time, taking shape in specific places that give way to new things.

The second is difference. Emergent phenomena are different from their component parts. They have characteristics, behaviours, and capabilities that the components from which they develop do not. As Nobel Laureate PW Andersen argued in the early 1970s: more is different.

The epigraph that opens this piece nicely illustrates the concept. By reducing them to their component parts, it is impossible to understand complex phenomena such as love, hurricanes, or financial collapse.

Similarly, we cannot hope to decode future markets by poring over consumer sentiment, tracking the actions of major players, projecting from past data points, or speculating from trends. We require an approach that explains how markets are generated; how they come into being through ongoing interactions, and operate in ways not reducible to the consumers, suppliers, competitors, supply chains, retail outlets, sales teams, promotional plans, products, services, etc. that compose them.

How does it happen?

Emergence is rooted in ecologies of interaction, defined by self-organisation and adaption.

Ecologies serve as a shorthand, providing a way of framing the interactions of a variety of different types of “agents” – consumers, companies, brands, suppliers, regulators, competitors, etc. – connected in all sorts of different relationships – collaboration, competition, supplier, receiver, etc. – often simultaneously. They’re open systems with porous and shifting boundaries.

The multitude of connections within and across ecologies often result in spontaneous order. This is self-organisation. No person or organisation is defining rules for how the ecology should operate. Instead the ongoing interactions of the “agents” in the ecology give way to stability of the operating environment.

Changes in connections either within or across ecologies often cascade, resulting in adaptations that may reshape the ecology. For example, removing apex predators like wolves in forest systems can lead to runaway herbivore growth, in turn leading to the decimation of plant life, transforming a forest into a savannah. Similar dynamics are at play in commercial environments.

Understanding possible tomorrow means looking past today’s elements onto tomorrow’s patterns. Looking past drops of water, carbon atoms, and dollar bills to discover the emergent phenomena that activate these components into all together new things.

Why is it a better approach to foresights development?

Emergence provides a superior approach to foresights development for three reasons.

It more accurately explains how futures develop by grounding possible tomorrows in the realities of today. All too often, futures are assumed to spring forth from nothing. Arising from the primordial ooze of the past and landing on us ceremoniously or otherwise; they are assumed to burst forth with an almost inevitable power. When in fact, futures emerge from the weaving and fraying of a variety of forces operating in a multitude of ecologies.

It provides mechanisms for understanding how potential futures may take shape. Decoding the rules of emergence allows us to simulate possible futures by developing and exploring how collections of forces and agents operate and how they may evolve over time. In place of extrapolations, we can start with today and generate thousands of possible tomorrows, evaluate them for self-organisation, and examine how they adapt to shifts in their environment.

It explains market invention. Emergence is a generative process of reconfiguration. Its focus on interaction, self-organisation, and adaptation, offers a way of understanding and modelling how novelty develops and embeds.

Bringing it all together

Emergence is a nearly universal phenomenon. It explains how difference over time develops, stabilises, and changes by decoding the mechanisms responsible for its generation without relying on just-so stories, unsubstantiated speculation, or extrapolation from trends. Put differently, it explains how the foundation of today’s recognisable transforms into tomorrow’s unrecognisable. Understanding futures as emergent allows us to take the world as it is, not as we would like it to be: complex and interactive with no overarching direction or path.