Design and Emergence

February 13, 2013 Leave a comment

|Photo by Dawn Huczek||

Working with numerous multi-stakeholder collaborative change efforts, we at IISC are often invited to help people co-create the structures and processes that will move their complex work and collective development forward.  There is never an easy or readily apparent answer and each case is unique to its particular context and nature.  A quote that I’ve found helpful to quell some of the anxiety that comes up around this work, especially among those who want to rush to adopt a structure that others have used and “get on to the work” (more on this false dichotomy here), comes from Fritjof Capra from the Center for Ecoliteracy.  Capra writes about the importance of recognizing and working the dynamics of life.

“The creativity and adaptability of life expresses itself through the spontaneous emergence of novelty at critical points of instability. Every human organization contains both designed and emergent structures. The challenge is to find the right balance between the creativity of emergence and the stability of design.” 

The key points here for me are that instability is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.  It is often the invitation to create something new, something more symbiotic with collective intentions and larger systems.  Also, there is no life without structure!  Thoughtful and strategic process and organizational design are, then, implicit to the work of social change.  (I am reminded here of my mentor Carol Sanford’s reflection: “What if the purpose of democracy was to create a kind of order out of which potential could be realized?”) Furthermore, the balance of design and emergence is never static.  It’s an ongoing dance, so grab your partners . . .

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