It’s been said that “Everything is simpler than you can imagine and more complex than you can comprehend.” As one might guess, emergent complexity is rather complex. Nevertheless, with a little imagination, there are simple ways to organize how we think about it.
FINDING ORDER IN CHAOS
Emergent complexity, or emergence, is a term typically used to describe the way in which relatively simple interactions can have disproportionately complex results. It involves a kind of grassroots, bottom-up organization that helps explain why we find so much order in a universe that lacks any executive, top-down organization. Everything from superconductivity to ant colonies and other everyday phenomenona are considered to be examples of emergence.
Yet all of these examples of emergence involve very different sorts of interactions. The only way to create a useful framework for describing emergence would require finding a common thread among them. Fortunately, that’s what Wilensky and Resnick (1999)
did when they explained the significance of emergent levels to the study of complexity.
HIGHER LEVEL THINKING
Of course, not all levels are created equally. Emergent levels are informed by specific dynamic, part-whole, and cause and effect relationships. If we organize these relationships into dimensions of patterns and levels of interaction, they provide the basis for an emergent systems framework.