What is Emergent Thinking?

David Brooks: Carl Popper, the great philosopher said, “All problems are either clouds or clocks.”  A clock is a… to understand a clock, you can take it apart, it’s individual pieces and you study the pieces and then you can understand how a clock works.  A cloud, you can’t take apart a cloud.  A cloud is a dynamic system.  A cloud you can only study as a whole.

So an emergent system is something you only can study as a whole.  So for example, a cloud is an emergent system, but your brain is an emergent system.  When you think of an idea like apple, it’s not in any one neuron in the brain; it’s in the interplay of many different neurons.  A culture is an emergent system.  There’s no one person who exemplifies American culture, but the interaction of all of us Americans creates this thing called American culture.  And once
that thing exists, then it has an influence on the rest of us, it shapes our behavior.

So we’re surrounded by these patterns of interaction, these emergent systems.  And so a corporate culture is an emergent system, team spirit is an emergent system, poverty is an emergent system.  So what are the things that contribute to poverty? Well some
of it is just sheer lack of money, but some of it is certain habits, some of it is racism, there’s a whole bunch of fake things that factor in.  And so one of the problems that we have as a culture is we take clouds and we pretend they’re clocks.  We take problems that are emergent and we pretend we can solve them through deductive reasoning, but just picking them apart.  And we always want to find the one thing that will lead to that, so we always want to find “X” leads to “Z”. The problem with an emergent system, you don’t have those kinds of straight causal relationships.  Everything, it’s all about the interplay.  It’s all about the dance.

And so when you talk about a corporate culture or a marketplace or anything, it’s about the complex interplay of all these different things.  And if we thought about emergent systems, we just have a much more supple view of how the world actually works.  We wouldn’t spend all our time trying to break everything apart and studying it by studying the details.

If we took a much more supple view of how the world actually works, we wouldn’t spend all our time trying to break everything apart to study the details.

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