The evolution of complex outcomes from simple circumstances or rules. For instance, chess is defined by fewer than two dozen rules, but new possibilities in the game are still being discovered without limit. Ants build complex structures without having an idea of it in their minds. Richard Dawkins’ computer programme designed to simulate the evolution of species is able to produce virtual organisms of limitless variety from the expression of just nine genes. But note the corollary—if the number of rules or “genes” is reduced a little, the number of possible outcomes or types of outcome is reduced a lot. So a complex system could be drastically simplified or dumbed down if just one or two of the rules are lost or abandoned.E91

This phenomenon of emergence is important for many reasons. Here are four:

1. The many properties of a system may originally have been the product of chance—that is, of events and circumstances which just happened to come together to make it in a particular way. But the system that results cannot be described simply as the sum of these initial properties, for they will then interact in complex ways. The system is more than just a mixture; it is the unique product of a particular story so far—it has its own integrity and identity.

Its character will govern its behaviour, taking it along a path which gives it particular experiences and presents it with particular options. And the system’s character is itself “path dependent”—its behaviour in the future will be profoundly influenced by the path it has followed thus far. This process of feedback and emergence will continue to shape it as it responds to the further experiences coming its way, and all this happens without any need for the idea of intention.E92

2. But intention may indeed be central. There are, for instance, rich possibilities for creative expression at the borderline where intention meets random events and makes sense of them:

Intention has an aim, and recognises that some of the random events that come its way may help to achieve it.
Trial and error shapes its initial responses to them, with mixed results.
Intention recognises which of these responses promote its aim, and identifies them as rules.
Rules allow for the replication of those helpful responses, whenever the opportunity arises to integrate them into behaviour.
Intention revises its rules and behaviour in the light of experience.

Rules in this way become the grammar of emergence: conditions for its existence and meaning.

3. Lean thinking—and its expressions, such as TEQs (Tradable Energy Quotas) and the Lean Economy itself—can be understood in part as a set of rules, opening the way to a new space for creative expression and emergence, almost all of which is still waiting to be explored. Once the essential principles of the Lean Economy have been developed, its complex reality and variety can emerge.

4. Finally, there are the emergent properties of groups. If the incentives, the freedom and the scale of the task are right, groups and teams can develop a level of performance beyond what would have been predicted from the individual membership. There is common capability.E93


Related entries:

Connectedness, Butterfly Effect, Ecology: Farmers and Hunters, Reductionism.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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