Emergence: why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Kyle Findlay

The world we live in is staggeringly complex. We recognise and deal with this fact on a daily basis, whether as marketers, scientists, politicians or homemakers. Despite uncertain returns, we hammer away at our paths in the hope that we have at least some influence on our environment.

However, sometimes the effect we have is totally unintended and unpredictable. While we may be able to understand and rationalise the outcome afterwards, we often could not have done so up-front. 'Emergence' is a blanket term that describes how an outcome 'emerges' out of the interactions of many individual components. Often the emergent outcome is greater than the sum of its parts, which makes it very difficult to gain an understanding of the outcome by only studying individual components. Instead, we need to take a holistic view of the entire system.