Systems are Creative: On Emergence and Creativity

Novelty is Emergent

How does the new come about? This is the fundamental question of creativity.

For a long time the answer to this question reflected a strong divide between the sciences and the arts. While the sciences pursued answers from evolution, systems, complex histories, and self-organization, the arts held onto the concept of creativity that was hyper-individualistic and mind centered.

As the historical divide between the sciences and the arts has reconfigured, new answers and approaches to the question have emerged. Critical to most of these answers is the concept of emergence.

Emergence is a technical concept that first developed in the study of complex systems. It developed out of the need to explain why some complex systems— such as living beings are so radically different from simple systems such as machines. For example, you cannot take a living being apart and put it back together. Unlike a simple machine it exhibits a distinct wholism — what we call livingness. This property is not one we could trace back to any single feature. It is seemingly a property of the “whole”. Mental activity is also something emergent — it is a systems property. The impossibility to trace a feature to a single cause led to the development of a new approach to causality— emergence.

Gary Tomlinson gives us a good simple definition to begin from: “Emergence denotes the presence of properties, features, behaviors, or capacities that appear in systems but are not easily traceable to their component parts.” (Tomlinson)

"Emergence denotes the presence of properties, features, behaviors, or capacities that appear in systems but are not easily traceable to their component parts.” - Tomlinson

This quality of “not being easily traceable to a specific source” becomes the definition of emergence. In some cases of emergence it’s not only difficult  trace a feature back to a specific source, it is fundamentally impossible — the feature is truly an emergent property of the whole.

From the “parts” a whole emerges. And this “whole” becomes distinct from and irreducible to the parts. And ultimately the “whole” starts to even shape the parts.

While life and consciousness are good examples of emergence, so too are all sorts of organizations. Such as:

  • art practice
  • a corporation,
  • an individual
  • a social movement
  • or a police force

These are all examples of complex systems that can be said “to have a mind of their own.” In each case (the individual who is alive or the art practice or the organization or the police force) there is a tight interdependent network that “individuates” or can be said to produce an operational separation from a related “outside” (that it also co-shapes).

In regards to creativity this is a radical shift: no longer can we point to a single instant, source or individual and say they invented this — they are the creator — rather we now have the conceptual tools to both understand and more importantly do creativity differently.

Understanding emergence in detail offers us a whole new set of tools to approach creative processes without falling back on individualism and the hunt for ideas. There are three main concepts to understand with emergence:

  1. Assemblages
  2. Non-linear causality
  3. System causation

Let's now turn to these and explore how they can transform our approach to creative processes:

Assemblages and Networks

All of reality is connected and organized in networks of processes. Nothing is solitary— everything is configurations— an organized and stable pattern of process. These webs of process entangle everything. But reality is not simply one massive undefined web of relations. Networks of relations individuate, and have a distinct character. Some of these networks form in ways that cannot be easily separated.  These are distinct assemblages. The human body is this type of assemblage, so too is a crowd, or an art practice. The diagram below gives one a sense of this.

Creativity forming from networked assemblage of components form

A couple of things to note:

  • Relationships have their own identity — they are things in their own right. They are irreducible and distinct from what they relate (and in many cases define their terms.
  • Components are not discreet things — but are themselves assemblages of processes. It is all patterns of processes.
  • The boundary between inside and outside is not one of clear separation but organization.

Once a complex system develops and stabilizes it has a form of operational closure — identity or individuation. It has a form of autonomy in how it relates to the “outside” — this is sensemaking. It actively defines and co-shapes an outside. The diagram below with the red arrows illustrates this dynamism.

Autonomous Creative networks assemble of components parts

What this means for creativity:

  • Understand things as assemblages
  • You’re always embedded in an immediate assemblage: a taskscape
  • You need to work across an assemblage
  • It is about relations

Systems Shift from Linear to Non-Linear

As an assemblage individuates the form of causality and the system shifts from being linear to non-linear.

Linear causality is additive, proportional and aggregation. It is like building with lego. Non-linear causality is neither additive nor proportional. You cannot trace anything directly to anything. Outcomes are not proportional to inputs. The chart below summarizes the key differences:

For creativity it is this last box that really matters: in assemblages — which is to say most of reality there are no solitary outcomes but a pattern of possibilities.

Outcomes Emerge From Constrained Possibilities

If we cannot trace an outcome back to a singular definable source it is the property of the whole of the assemblage or system. The next critical aspect of what emerges is that it is never a solitary discreet thing but a field of possibilities.. And these possibilities are constrained by the specific state of system:

Outcomes emerge from constrained possibilities

What This Means for Creativity

It really is the system that is innovating. And it innovates via emergent constrained alternatives (a field of emergent possibilities). When the system is in a certain state certain possibilities are probable and from these some are far more likely. If you change the assemblage the set of emergent possibilities will change.

Thus a big part of creativity involves tweaking systems and exploring emergent fields for latent alternative possibilities:

Emergence leads to various creative outcomes

A useful way to represent these alternative possibilities is as a type of topological map:

Alternative Possibilities across a topological map

Such a diagram can seem abstract. Let’s explore an example we have used before: cooking an egg. There is an assemblage — a taskscape of tools, techniques, agents, goals, histories and a specific environment (the kitchen configured in a certain manner). Here the goal is to cook an egg. This assemblage — even when only one very specific type of egg dish is being prepared opens up a large field of possibilities which can be visualized as a field:

Possible states of egg cooking

Here it is important to understand that emergent systems have far more latent or virtual possibilities than are realized at any one moment. You might only make a boiled egg but the assemblage is poised to go in many other virtual directions.

Every realized possibility is only one of many. What we call mistakes or errors are simply other virtual possibilities of the system.

Critical to creativity is to always map the total field of possibility and to then systematically explore it. This involves working at multiple registrars: the “level” of the assemblage, the virtual field, and actual iain possibilities simultaneously.

Virtual and actual possibilities emerging

There is another critical level to work at — and that is to go back into how the components of the assemblage come into being. This is the level of how matter is self-organizing.

The emergence of an assemblage

Being able to work across these four registrars (the actual, the virtual, the assemblage and the self-organizing of matter) is critical to emergent creativity:

The Network begins to exhibit non-linear behavior

If we return to our egg example we can see these levels and sense how we would act in distinct manners to inflect each of them simultaneously:

The networks fields and possibilities of creativity

Emergent Processes of System Causation

The third critical aspect of emergence is that the “whole” remakes the “parts”. This is often referred to as “downward causation” but is better understood as “system causation”

System causation can seem mysterious. But it is the critical piece of the puzzle. That the whole makes the parts effects all of us every day. Today in America the debate over policing is a critical example and it is one that pits essentialist explanations against emergent ones: is the killing of George Floyd and others a case of “bad apples” or is it something bigger? System causation and emergence gives us a way to understand that it is not a case of bad apples acting out of their own essential troubled natures, but the system made all of the apples.

Creating and inventing a better justice system or a new work of art face the same question: who and how do things happen? And chasing after bad apples, silver bullets, or singular geniuses will not help us engage with creative processes in any meaningful manner.

Emergent Processes and Systems Causation Developing

Some Conclusions on Emergence and Creativity

Someone will take credit for things or be held responsible for things. We can write histories to make Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or a poor soldier in Abu Ghraib responsible — but in every situation essentialism is just a fable that benefits someone or some part of the system — and more importantly it is a fable that keeps the who and how of creativity obscure.

To realize that causality is not linear, and that it is not about tracing things back to imaginary sources frees us up to actually engage in creative processes free of disabling illusions. Emergence is who we are, what creativity is, and how we innovate.

Worlds Emerge

There is much more to be said about emergence, but that will have to wait for future Blog posts and newsletters in the coming weeks.

We can now say three critical things about the who and how of creativity and innovation:

  1. Relational systems (assemblages) are authors of innovations
  2. Self-organizing systems produce novel outcomes via indirect emergent processes.
  3. The emergent “whole” in turn transforms its “parts”

What Do We Do When Worlds Create?

These answers can be frustrating — we know what to do in the classical model of creativity (even if it does not lead to change) — but now what do we do if the system is seemingly mysteriously doing all the real work?

In the classical model there are familiar tools and methods: ideation, empathy, prototyping etc.:

These are all methods for a universe of simple linear causality.

What complex systems require are wholly different techniques— techniques that work on the whole to co-shape the system from inside the system. This is done via experimentally nudging and dampening feed-back, while co-evolving with what emerges.

It requires new senses and sensitivity.

It requires a new approach to creativity. A worldly creativity.

We are very much involved, we are active, experimenting and responding. But we are not imagining that we are the sole captains and authors, or that there is any one thing to find or do:

  • We experimentally act and wait to sense how the system responds — we are partners in a complex dialog.
  • We work simultaneously at multiple scales.
  • We activate and foster collective capacities for response (capacity building)
  • We are comfortable being blind to causality, and pragmatic in our skills for stabilizing novelty as it emerges.
  • We develop collective systems and processes that recognize the role of humans but equally the critical authorial role of tools, environments, organizations, situated histories, environments and processes

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