What’s the Value Proposition of Emergence?

With all of the talk about emergent strategy, including Phil Buchanan’s comments in a widely-read post on the CEP blog in 2014, we at Fourth Quadrant Partners (4QP) have been thinking a lot about emergence — the idea, simply put, that the most successful and adaptive responses to complex problems arise from diverse individuals in a system working around a shared goal, acting with their own agency (i.e., without being told how to do it), and interacting with each other as much as possible. A couple of us from 4QP just spent a week at the Santa Fe Institute — ground zero for research in the field of complexity science. We have been long-time fans of the work of John Holland, a highly regarded member of the SFI faculty who recently passed away. Holland’s work introduced the idea of Complex Adaptive Systems into the complexity vocabulary.

What we have always loved about Holland’s take on complexity is that he viewed systems from the point of view of “agents” — individuals just going about their business in a complex system and, in the process, creating patterns of responses (solutions) that are more sophisticated than any one of them could have produced on their own. Isn’t that the perspective we all share — seeing the world from the viewpoint of an agent — as we go about the work of social change? As hard as we may try, no one individual can ever have a clear and complete view of the whole. This makes Holland’s research much more immediately relevant than some more esoteric ideas of complexity.

Emergence predicts that solutions developed in this kind of environment where agents are allowed to experiment and share notes will be more sophisticated, more fit to their environment, and more adaptive than any solution that could be designed by any one entity in advance. In his popular book, Emergence, Steven Johnson describes emergent behavior as “growing smarter over time” and “responding to the specific and changing needs of their environment.”

Perhaps the best example of emergence is the iPhone and its sister devices, because it’s an example with which we are all familiar and, in fact, in which we all play a role. What makes this technology so powerful today is that it has become a platform on which many agents — app developers and users (including you!) — can experiment in a very rich environment with lots of interaction. Users play an important role in finding and sharing favorite apps with their friends and using them in innovative ways that further informs what gets created next. And what this platform will be able to do for us in five years is beyond what any one of us can predict today.

In a session I co-led with Patti Patrizi at the 2015 CEP Conference in San Francisco, Patti shared a great example of emergence from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s End of Life initiative. In 1994, a report declared that RWJF’s initial approach, which it had been funding since 1986, had “no effects.” Rather than downplay the report, RWJF’s president at the time, Steven Schroeder, decided to broadcast it widely to make the case that there was a need to fundamentally rethink the problem and to engage the field in discovering “ground-up” solutions. Staff built relationships with a diverse set of professionals, met with advocates, and funded grants that emphasized listening more to communities to develop solutions. The result, reported Patrizi, was work that was more “nuanced and effective.” Through these partnerships, RWJF is credited with building the field of palliative care — a very active field that continues to evolve, even after RWJF concluded its investment in it. (For more on this case, read Patti’s excellent report in RWJF’s Retrospective series.)

Wouldn’t we all like to see the result of our work be sophisticated solutions that emerge from everyone’s best thinking? That grow smarter over time? That spread naturally and always respond to the changing needs of their environment? Could solutions like this be more efficient than the idea of scaling a solution through standardization and replication?

We believe that there are many examples in the philanthropic sector where this is already true — initiatives in which:

  • Ideas and solutions have emerged from the interactions of a diverse set of people doing the work, whether they are funders, grantees, partners, beneficiaries, or, ideally, a combination of these;
  • The path that a successful program or initiative took could not have been predicted in advance by any of these players; and
  • Ideas and solutions continue to evolve — to “get smarter” — over time, even perhaps after the program or initiative is done and the funding has gone away.

With generous support from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, 4QP is launching a research program to explore how emergence contributes to the long-term impact of complex social change initiatives. What makes emergence possible? What does it actually produce over time? What secondary benefits or unanticipated costs accrue? What is the role of strategy in generating emergence, and whose strategy is it?

We are seeking as many examples as we can discover. If you are aware of an initiative that has some or all of these characteristics, whether it’s current or historical, you are invited to nominate it for this study. The example you nominate might be your own; it might be a program or initiative with which you were involved or one you have admired from afar. It might have been launched by a foundation, a collaborative, or a single nonprofit. Nominated initiatives will be contacted to complete a survey, and a few will be selected for deeper case studies.

Read more about the research program, including a definition of emergence and a few examples to spur your thinking, or nominate an example.

In his book, also titled Emergence, Holland proposes that “the hallmark of emergence is this sense of much coming from little.” That’s an intriguing idea. We hope to learn what funders, grantees, partners, and beneficiaries could do to create the conditions to make this value proposition come true.

Marilyn Darling is a founding partner of Fourth Quadrant Partners. Contact her at Marilyn@4QPartners.com.


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