So how do systemic patterns emerge in the first place? According to Complexity Science they are the product of continuous interactions between numerous individual elements. These could be molecules in chemical soups producing chemical reactions, the neurons in our brain firing patterns of awareness, or buyers and sellers in markets generating an array of prices. Whatever the environment, it is the accumulation of numerous individual interactions that ultimately gives rise to the patterns we observe, both the ones we find highly conducive to our social ecology and the ones we desperately want to change.

The logic of emergence can be most easily observed in the natural world. Take for example the elegant movement of schools of fish. While seemingly coordinated, they do not rely on any form of leadership or direct communication. All that is required is for each individual fish to follow three very simple rules – swim towards the average direction of the others, maintain speed, and keep some distance, i.e. don’t bump into anyone. Yet when all fish follow this simple logic they create an unpredictable pattern of movement that truly helps them survive.


Underwater murmuration of these large groups operates as a dynamic protection mechanism. They spatially protect the majority of fish swimming on the inside, while potentially overwhelming predators. Yet, this collective survival mechanism is an evolutionary outcome rather than the product of intentional strategic design. In this sense, it reflects one of the most fascinating properties of emergence - a decoupling between the behaviours found at the local level and those which are observed at the macro level. For example, a diamond might hold the macro property of extreme strength, yet this is a property which will not be found in the carbon atoms that construct it.

In the social realm, human behaviours create systemic patterns that are very different from their individual experience and considerations. Patterns in house prices, fashion trends, cultural norms, or power structures, only make sense when observed at the systemic or macro levels and cannot be deduced from assessing individual cases in isolation. This differentiation reflects a deeper and sometimes counterintuitive gap – that between intention and outcome. Individual behaviour is driven by local and immediate contexts - making a living, promoting an idea, or helping out social and family relations. For example, a state of protracted conflict may not be reflected in the intentions and attitudes of the people fighting on both sides. While most of them might prefer peace over war, the conflict still endures, sustained by the everyday actions of the very people who tragically suffer through it.

The significance of emergence is not only down to how individual action is transformed into collective structures, but also to the manner in which these very structures come back to influence individual action, i.e. their systemic feedback effects (see also Feedback Effects).

Kim Kardashian Fame based on fame

Take for example celebrity culture. Social media feeds about figures like Kim Kardashian are read religiously by millions of people daily - yet it is precisely this phenomenon that incentivises people to follow them in the first place, thereby creating a self-enhancing feedback effect whereby fame breeds more fame. At the same time this pattern also directly impacts and is influenced by other phenomena in the social ecology. These could be new advertising practices like product endorsements; new business niches like Reality TV, or new cultural perceptions of beauty, race, gender and social status.

Crucially, once emerged, the pattern of fame does not become a fixed element within the system. Rather it must be recreated on a continuous basis. Unless people continue to follow, like, and retweet celebrity posts, the pattern will cease to exist. In other words, all emerging patterns are in a constant state of flux seemingly locked in a self-sustaining cycle recreated daily by the human networks that support them.

SO WHAT does that mean in terms of: Intention; Design; Power; or Control?

From a strategic perspective, the significance of understanding the concept of emergence is threefold:

A) When analysing a complex pattern, it is easy to wrongly interpret outcome as intention or power. Yet just because certain players across the system end up benefitting from a systemic outcome does not mean that they had been able to intentionally create it, and / or hold the power to transform it. For example, just because kids from upper middle class families have a higher probability of getting into good universities does not mean that they or their parents have created this outcome. Having said that, when designing strategies to disrupt patterns, such players are the most likely to oppose new initiatives. 

B) Systemic patterns cannot be planned or controlled by any players. They are the product of endless interactions among numerous individuals reacting to multiple and dynamic local pressures and opportunities which no one can plan, enforce, or recreate. There are no “end states” to aim towards. Peace, prosperity, equality, or sustainability are general trajectories not destinations, they cannot be modelled or backwards engineered.

C) While complex patterns cannot be engineered they can be enhanced and / or disrupted. As they are in a continuous state of becoming, sustained by the actions and relations among their underlying networks, there is always strategic potential to influence them. But much more on that in Building Blocks.