Meditations on Emergence Theory

Long ago, when I was adventurous and idealistic twenty-seven-year-old in search of existential truth, I went to study Buddhism in Japan in a traditional Soto Zen lineage. After a long practice period, one of the resident Zen monks asked me how I was feeling. "I am feeling angry," I told him. I am not sure what I was angry about, but I think it was because my knees were killing me from sitting meditation six hours a day and sleeping on a wooden floor. "Put your anger in this tea-cup," he replied. 

I was puzzled. How was I going to put my anger in a tea-cup?

"Of course, you cannot!" he told me. "You cannot reduce a thing that is made of many parts into one solid thing. Anger is many things and has its roots and causes in mind, which itself is a complex system." I recalled this conversation recently when a colleague asked me to explain the topic I intended to talk about at The Global Summit to be held in a few weeks. Namely, the emergent relationship between Love, Money and Meaning; three more complex systems that cannot be reduced to something simple.

What the monk was trying to explain is that you cannot overcome anger any more than you can reduce a cloud to one single explanation because both are dynamic systems. Just like a Zen monk studies his mind for the root causes of anger and its networked effects, a cloud can only be considered as a whole as related to meteorology and its constituents—condensation, the wind, chemistry and overall bio-atmospheric conditions. You can only understand a cloud by understanding all of the other things that comprise a cloud, (or, as we might say in Zen, "cloudness"), and how the parts interrelate. Further, other conditions and more complex states arise from that one cloud: storms, patterns, tornados and hurricanes, and massive tempests at sea all emerge from that simple system, creating complex and sometimes unexpected network results.

What is emergence ?

In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is conceived as a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties. In philosophy, almost all accounts of emergence include a form of irreducibility (either epistemic or ontological) to the lower levels.[1] Also, emergence is central in theories of integrative levels and of complex systems. * Wikipedia

Emergence theorists concern themselves with macro-systemic change and paradigm shifts. Emergent theory addresses everything from organizational change management, emergent economic systems and currency, and "resilient" self-governing systems to emergent corporate strategy, community systems and even hive technology. Here are some major areas of conflict and trends that I believe emergent thinkers can tackle better than traditional solution providers and strategists. Each one corresponds not only to an area of societal concern but the entire reframing of the question and answer, that is truly emergent.

 What is Knowledge? 

Management and the globalization of technology. 
Thinkers can begin to forecast and visualize technology as a generalized force and catalyst for massive societal change and how we can leverage its growth with human needs and demand.

What is Economy? Striking a balance in new economic paradigms and countering the corresponding centralization of wealth with a vested interest and an increase of polity and people power.

What is Value? Managing new currencies and financial networks as value transitions from tangible to intangible, and as culture gets digitized, and capital is redistributed.

What is Communication? Measuring human communication, namely the acceleration of information and messaging itself, and an exponential expansion of networking in social media and social enterprise.

What is Truly Human? Encouraging corporate humanism. Teaching corporations how to begin to transition out of a resource-wasting mindset into an entirely sustainable one.

For this article and acquainting the reader with this new way of thinking about problems, I will limit the discussion to three primary macro-systemic concerns. The issues below need our attention most. Structural violence and social unrest—war, famine, and religious violence against women and children kills well over 18 million people a year, generating a vast range of systemic detriments such as behavioral, emotional and physical disorders, and pose a serious threat to our survival as a species.

1.     Resource Availability: Given that the market economy requires consumption to maintain demand for human employment and further economic growth, is there a structural incentive to reduce resource use, biodiversity loss, the global pollution footprint, thereby assisting the ever-increasing need for improved ecological sustainability in the world today?

2.     Human Obsolescence: In an economic system where companies seek to limit their production costs (“cost efficiency”) in order to maximize profits and remain competitive against other producers, what structural incentive exists to keep human beings employed in the wake of an emerging technological condition where the majority of jobs can now be done more cheaply and effectively by machine automation?

3.     Wage Inequity: We now live in an economic system that inherently generates class stratification and overall inequity, creating enormous potential for social unrest. How can individuals and corporations be incentivized to see the value of wage equality in the workplace?

Part Two 

How Can Emergent Thinking Affect Change?

The most powerful obstacle to understanding emergent thinking is the dichotomy of detrimental self-interest versus atavistic community-interest. Indeed, emergent thinkers are simply more interested in others; they are "other" directed, and compel themselves and their communities towards atavistic and supportive ends.

I am referring to both the internal, closed and myopic state of only understanding things in a singular, uniform way, instead of as being comprised of different parts and interconnections that make it whole and dynamic, whose network effects distribute the problem to many individuals. This kind of interest also functions at the bio-dynamic and psychological level, whereby an individual only sees the world as it relates to him—how he gains—and not as he refers to the multi-faceted world in which we live.

Some theorists, (and I am one of them), believe this to be the failure of the capitalist system to address the whole human. Austrian School economist Carl Menger wrote in his work, Principles of Economics, "As each economizing individual becomes increasingly more aware of his economic interest, he is led by this interest...." Add to this the dismal fact that most people in western society have only limited knowledge of media, political system, and wealth apparatus. People to this very day still doubt climate catastrophe, massive wage inequality, and corporate corruption, when in reality these are proven facts.

A person without knowledge is without power; this shift from pure self-interest to a greater collective interest in the system and all of its constituents cannot be understated. It is necessary to evolve the system, requiring more networked knowledge, hence the need to keep the internet free.

Despite what you might think about JFK, Gandhi, or Mother Theresa, the world does not change because of one person, or even one person at a time. It changes when networks of relationships form among people who share a common cause and vision of what's possible. Apply this to any trend, movement or religion and you can easily see that successful growth of an idea is more about the group that arises from those ideas, and not the individual himself. We tend to believe otherwise, but if we take a minute to think about it, creating a positive future for the planet does not require critical mass—it requires significant connections.

Here's a surprise: We do not need to convince large numbers of people to change; instead, we need to connect with people that think like us and who will act with us. Individuals who share our ideas and are willing to activate them through their individual agency. Individuals who can override self-interest, and, through these relationships develop the new frameworks and strategies to ensure that we do not just continue to exist, but that we thrive in such a way that serve the entire system.

You can learn more about emergent thinking from these individuals:

Holonomics: Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes (Simon wrote the introduction to my book "What is Social?

Organizational change management: Harold Jarche
Economic systems: Bernard Lietaer
Resilient systems: Jennifer Sertl, Helene Finidiori
Community systems and hive tech: Kai Pata
Cryptocurrencies and New Economics: Gunther Sonnenfeld