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Emergence

Emergence
Steve Johnson

View Emergence on AmazonThis is an excellent thought provoking book that I thoroughly enjoyed, and provides a good introduction to the topic of emergence dealing with the bottom-up creation of intelligent behaviour from lower level less intelligent behaviour.

This is perfectly illustrated by the example of harvester ants whose colonies exhibit intelligence and learning that no individual ant possesses. The complexity of the colony and its structure is constructed by the behaviours of ants whose vocabulary extends to only ten discrete actions. In a real sense the ants do not consciously create the colony but it is created through the interactions between the ants. There is no helicopter view of the colony held by any ant, no master plan, yet the colony is created. It emerges from the lower level actions of the ants.

Interesting though the behaviour of ants is, the book goes on to cite many other examples much closer to home, not the least of these is the creation of cities which is shown to parallel this emergent approach.

The book explores how our mindset makes it difficult to see and accept the creation of complex intelligent behaviour in this emergent way. Our thinking tends to look for a top-down leader driven explanation, the bird in the flock that sets the direction, rather than each bird in the flock following a simple set of rules with the flock behaviour emerging as a consequence.

For me the book provided real insights into the prevalence of emergent systems and points to computer games such as Sim City which allow us to glimpse the creation and operation of emergent worlds.

Whilst the book roams across a broad canvass discussing the behaviours of cities, ants, slime mould, software, the internet and politics as emergent systems, it does not focus specifically on business organisations. However to the discerning reader the profound importance of the message of emergence and its implications will resonate in every business.

This is an excellent and stimulating read that introduces the principles of emergence and may change the way you look at how a host of systems operate including those involved in business operation and business change.

Steve Unwin 1 February 2004

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