Emergent Process

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

An emergent process is a process of change that involves non-linear, abrupt phase transitions as a system’s overall structure and function is transformed into a new regime of behavior, exhibiting new properties that could not have been predicted to arise prior to the transformation.

Linear Change

Emergent processes may be contrasted to linear processes of change. With linear systems, the overall behavior of the system is a direct consequence of the interaction between the parts, at all times. The macro-level features and behavior can be directly computed from the micro-level elementary parts, changes in the micro-level create corresponding changes in the macro-level. For example, micro-level changes in the mechanical parts to a car create the macro-level changes in its position. Any future or past state to the system can be understood as some combination of changes within the elementary components. We can, for example, predict far out into the future the occurrence of eclipses because the future state of the solar system is governed by the changes of its elementary parts. We can predict into the future where the planets will be and this will be similar in quality to previously experienced states in the past, i.e. nothing qualitatively different will occur.

Many modeling techniques are based upon this assumption of an absence of emergence, with the whole process of change being the sum of its micro interactions. For example, within economics dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models(DSGE) attempt to explain aggregate economic phenomena, such as economic growth, business cycles, and the effects of monetary and fiscal policy, as derived from microeconomic phenomena.1 Linear systems equally show proportionality between input and output meaning that change typically happens in an incremental fashion.

Emergent Processes

Emergent processes are different from linear processes of change. Systems that involve emergence, i.e. have two different levels of organization, may undergo change on both levels, where changes in the macro-level are not directly correlated to changes on the micro-level. The macro-level undergoes its own processes of change that have their own structure. Whereas with simpler systems the macro-level states are directly correlated to the micro-level, with emergence the macro-level states may become disassociated from the micro-level to a greater or lesser extent.

For example, ecosystems, societies, and economies go through macro-level processes of change, such as succession and industrialization that have their own dynamics on the macro-level. Often all the parts have to move together into a new macro-level regime and this places a downward cause on the parts. New macro-level regimes within the system emerge when the system converges upon a new set of rules or protocols that drive all of the parts to adopt that new pattern. For example, now that we have converged upon digital as the basic format for information encoding there are strong positive externalities for everyone to use digital as analog becomes increasingly less compatible. Thus we get a rapid change from analog to digital and a macro level regime shift, this shift can happen very fast because of positive externalities creating positive feedback. In this way new macro regimes can rapidly emerge within whole economies, societies or technology infrastructure, shifting to a new pattern of organization that would have been difficult to predict beforehand. This period of major, rapid, macro-level change is called a phase transition.

Phase Transitions

A phase transition is an emergent process of change between different overall states of organization in a system.2 Phase transitions may be understood as rapid, abrupt transformations in the overall macrostate to the system that is triggered by some small change within an input variable. Thus, whereas with linear change the macro system changes somewhat proportionally in accordance with the change in some input value, with emergent processes this is not so, during its process of development there are critical stages either side of which its macro structure takes a very different overall makeup given only a small change in the controlling variables.3

The simplest example of this is the different phases that water takes as it goes from gas to liquid to solid ice. In the case of the transition from liquid to steam, as temperature increases, this transition happens abruptly when the system approaches the critical value of 100 degrees centigrade at a constant pressure of one atmosphere. In phase transitions, such as the spontaneous magnetization in ferromagnetism, relations of long-range order emerge in a system under special conditions. Unlike linear changes – which are largely accountable by statistical averages over the micro properties – they are results of the parts working synergistically in a synchronized fashion where unique properties emerge for the whole system that are not such simple averages.4


The nature of the phase of the system cannot be related to the microscopic nature of the basic elements composing the system.5 Thus phase transition processes typically do not require that we understand the micro-mechanisms upon which they rest. It is sufficed to take the system as a whole and from this we can infer the general phase-transition behavior as a similar macro-level dynamic to that which occurs in all emergent processes. As such system properties do not require derivation from micro dynamics; they can be said to be emergent.

When a system undergoes a phase transition, its micro-components get rapidly reconfigured into a qualitatively different macro-structure. However, the properties of the components themselves remain relatively unchanged. Prior and post-macro states correspond to roughly the same configurations of microstates, i.e. phase transitions involve a restructuring of the system on the macro level with only a limited change in the properties of the parts and other local conditions.6

This emergent process that engenders phase transitions can be seen in a wide range of systems, including physical, biological and social systems. One example of this might be the outbreak of ethnic violence. The phenomenon of ethnic violence can be seen as a phase transition from a mixed but non-aggressive population of individuals to occasional, abrupt outbursts of widespread conflict. The underlying level of racism and hostility within the members of a society may remain relatively similar before widespread violence breakouts – which represents one macro regime of peace and stability – and as the system flips into a violent outbreak – another regime of widespread violence. Thus it is not that the members have necessarily become more racist and hostile, it is instead that the system was near a phase transition and a small event triggered it to flip from one macro regime to another while the component parts’ properties changed only slightly.

Critical Points

Because emergent phase transitions are discontinuous – meaning they go from one overall state to another with limited overlap between them – they involve critical points of change. These critical points are discrete changes on the macro-level. Critical points occur due to the system having mutually exclusive regimes, thus instead of one regime gradually giving way to another – which would be a continuous change without critical points – what happens when the regimes are mutually exclusive is a discrete and rapid flipping from one into the other, at the critical point. We can see this in the change in dictatorial political regimes. Because they are autocratic – meaning there can only be one, stable macro political regime – a change between regimes has to involve a critical phase transition point; which is what we see empirically, as typically when a regime falls there is positive feedback driving a rapid move towards a new political regime.

Qualitative and Quantitative Change

Emergent processes of change create qualitatively new systems.7 Whereas with linear processes of development, the change is within the properties of the parts which can be quantified, however regime shifts change the structure and functioning of the whole which results in qualitatively new behavior and features. For example, if we think about learning a new subject like physics or chemistry, initially one starts out by learning individual bits of knowledge and trying to understand the subject piece by piece within one’s existing conceptual framework; thus gaining more knowledge in a quantitative fashion. But at a certain point, one builds up the full repertoire of understanding within a domain to create an integrated conceptual framework. At this point one’s way of seeing physical systems will have now changed qualitatively, representing a qualitatively new conceptual regime. Accumulating more knowledge at this stage would be of limited use, as one now has the overall structure needed to generate one’s own knowledge, thus a whole new function has emerged because of the structure of the macro system. At this stage, a regime shift has occurred, from learning to creating knowledge, from student to researcher.

Equally, this can be seen in learning some new practical skill. When one starts learning or practicing something new one accumulates isolated rules: “do it like this”, “if that happens, do this”, “don’t forget to”, etc. These are incremental quantitative changes to behavior because one is essentially just gathering a list of instructions and working through them in an iterative fashion. However, at some point, if successful, these isolated rules will start to become coherent as they coalesce into a new way of acting. At this point one will start seeing them as integrated into some overarching framework, one begins to act from within that overarching framework rather than merely executing on isolated rules. This is a qualitative change as it induces new emergent, macro-level behavior and functionality.

Systems Innovation

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