What is an emergent property? (and why care?)

Venus emerging from the sea. Sandro Botticelli

Venus emerging from the sea. Sandro Botticelli

“What is an emergent property?” a friend asked me after my post the other day. She said, “I bet that really means something to you and your little peer group, but to me it doesn’t mean anything.”

Oops. Own goal. What is the point of writing about something if only your small group of people (who probably more or less share your viewpoint anyway) can appreciate what you are banging on about?

So, let me explain.

Let me start by saying what it isn’t. It isn’t like Venus emerging from the sea as in the famous Botticelli painting. It isn’t like her because she comes fully formed and all you have to do is let the water drip off and there she is, complete and beautiful. And final.

For me the best description of an emergent property is the elegant one by Stafford Beer, a famous cyberneticist*, who describes a happy little wave he observes in the sea:

[The wave] consists of flows of water, which are its parts, and the relations between those flows, which are governed by the natural laws of systems of water that are investigated by the science of hydrodynamics. The appearance of the wave, its shape and the happy white crest, are actually outputs of this system. That is what they are because the systems is organized in the way that it is, and this organization produces an inescapable kind of behaviour.”

His argument, in a nutshell, is that phenomena that we generally think of as an entity, like waves, are not entities but the outward expression of lots of things interacting behind the scenes.

You can extend this analogy to think about social problems too. In fact, Stafford Beer lists the woes of contemporary society (1974, but nothing has changed much) — hunger, environmental degradation, violence, poverty — and explains:

… if society is a dynamic system, all these phenomena are not simply blemishes — they are its outputs. These unpleasing threats to all we hold most dear are products of a system so organized to produce them — to produce them, and not their contraries. **

And that is what emergent properties are about. It is about seeing things that happen as a product of the interactions behind the scenes.

What that means when you talk about change is that you don’t focus on the outward product — the wave or hunger — but on the interactions that have led to that particular result having that particular form and not its contrary. It means reflecting on what elements are interacting and how, and also on what changes can be made behind the scenes that may have a disproportionate effect on the end result. Thinking about societal problems as emergent properties gives you a way to try to tweak those interacting behind the scenes so that their interactions produce their contraries and not them.


* Cybernetics is “based on the concepts of feedback and information, and the parallels between human and machine behaviour”. (Ramage and Shipp, 2009, p6 **).

** Beer, S. (1974/1995), Designing Freedom. Chichester: John Wiley. Reproduced in Ramage, M. and Shipp, K. (2009), Systems Thinkers. London: Springer. pp189-198

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