Decisions in the Age of Emergence


Last week, we got news that April 2016 was the hottest April since we began keeping records; but not only that, that it will be the 12th month in a row to have set the record. While only a few months into the year, it is a near certainty that it will be one of the hottest years on record…for the third year running. Both streaks are unprecedented, and represent on a planetary scale what William Forster Lloyd referred to over a century ago as the Tragedy of the Commons.

We’re living in a time of aggregates, when the concepts of “externalities” and “unintended consequences” are no longer acceptable, because we – as a species – have reached scale. And as we’ve reached scale, the gaps in our personal knowledge, scope of responsibility or mandate can no longer deal with the scope of the issues we face.

We live in an age now where single companies are larger than the largest of the city states that Plato wrote about, spanning the globe in a way that Alexander the Great or the Khans could only dream of. Organizations like the UN tackle missions like immunization and hunger on a planetary scale. Politicians attempt to shift populations orders of magnitude larger than our ancestors could have imagined, yet in a context so interconnected and complex that changes to a road can affect the mortality rates a generation later, or decisions in housing can inflate costs in healthcare.

There is a missing concept in the conversation around complexity and scale, and it is emergence; the spontaneous presence of order and structure out of chaotic, diverse inputs. It is when the whole is more than the sum of its parts – when none of us have what all of us have.

Life is emergent. Somehow, the sum of our molecules, cells and chemistry amount to this emergent property – life – which none of them individually possess. In our social world, the same applies – culture, ideas – emerge from a cauldron of people and place. The cafes of Paris, the innovation of Silicon Valley, the philosophers of Greece, the politics of Rome – these were all points of emergence, which we all recognize today, but whose exact causes are much harder to pinpoint. That is, we know it when we see it, but we struggle to say where it comes from.

Emergence, as a lens, matters now more than ever because of the complexity that we face in the world. Complexity is becoming a tired concept – bandied about by consulting firms and tech companies – but nonetheless reflects a common impression that the number of factors needed to make decisions in policy and business are multiplying due to the increasing interconnectedness of a globalized, heavily populated world.

But if you look at many of the responses to complexity, you begin to see that while our attempts to understand the problem are bearing fruit – we get that complex interactions can confound our efforts – we are addressing them with an old paradigm, albeit aided by new tools. That is to say, we have accepted that the world is super complex, but our approach is to try and understand all that complexity. Whoops.

This is where emergence comes in. Using the lens of emergence, you can look at complexity and say “I will never understand all of this”; and then use that as your starting point.

Accept it. You can’t.

There are so many factors, so many actors, so many influences and moving parts, you, as an individual, can’t understand it all. Artificial Intelligence researchers don’t know why a neural network returns a result, they know that it does. We don’t know why the human body is alive, but it is.

Somehow all of those moving parts cause something to happen – properties to emerge.

Emergent Design is based on the belief that putting in place certain structures can influence the path of emergence – that you can influence outcomes by paying attention to the patterns of emergence; by studying the ways that certain outcomes occur, we can use design to facilitate them occurring.

That is the idea of it being a discipline of design; if emergence is continually happening, emergent design is about trying to intentionally influence emergence towards certain objectives.

So back to emergence and complexity; an appreciation of emergence requires a mindset in which there are no externalities, no unintended consequences, only properties and effects. As Stafford Beers put it, “The purpose of a system is what it does.” Our task, then, is to try and manipulate what it does, without getting immediately stuck in trying to understand completely how or why it does it.

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Emergent Design


This piece was co-authored with Jodi Engelberg.

You can’t force someone to innovate, nor can you tell someone to learn. Demanding creativity usually results in the opposite, and expecting opposing parties to agree on a solution rarely ends well.

But innovation does happen, and somehow, people learn. Great ideas do come to people, and against odds, stakeholders align behind a common cause.

For those leading organizations or guiding change, the critical question is, how?

The difficulty is that many of the hoped for outcomes we have around innovation, creativity, and learning, for example, focus on properties we can’t directly influence. These things just emerge when they emerge: not on command. They have emergent properties. They are the “a-ha”, Eureka and magic moments. The culture, the attitude, the killer idea. While you can’t say in advance what “an innovation” is, or should be, you know it to be innovative – to be the product of innovation – when you see it.

We teach, but the objective is learning. It’s easy to plan what we will teach, but difficult to say when learning will happen, or indeed if it did.

Deliberate thought, design and planning is needed to achieve emergent results that are better than random. To innovate, we must create the environment, interactions, exposure and space in which innovation is most likely to happen. We call this emergent design. The emergent part happens at a few levels.

First, co-creating your design with the people you are designing for is the first level of emergence. This helps create the environment, process and structure necessary to influence the broader system. The second level, however, is being open and flexible to the changes, challenges and shifts that occur when people in the wider system are engaged. It is planning for the unknown, and knowing it when you see it.

Emergent Design is a mind-set, a philosophy and a set of methods for coaxing specific outcomes from systems; a method for focusing on what you can control to get results from a system you don’t control; because complete control is an illusion.

The Value Web has always strived to be emergent in our approach. Now we are trying to better describe what that means to us and how we do it. So, here’s a first draft of what we see as the common elements. We hope you will share your view and help develop a better understanding of this important practice.

Strategic Clarity & Purpose
A rigorous approach to objective-setting is required; everyone involved must know and agree on what goodness looks like, or at least how to recognize it when you see it. This is the “North Star” for the design – a clear direction that helps to keep everyone’s eye on the prize.

Different types of emergence – learning, creativity – have patterns that allow it to happen time and again. People learn when the sum of their experiences are allowing to mix with new influences, and they are allowed to explore. New ideas are brought to life – both by individuals, and by groups – when we can see how to solve a problem, and build the desire to bring that solution to life. Having a model for the pattern allows you to shape your design – whether for an building layout, a strategy or a meeting – towards the outcome you are looking for.

Empathetic: Designed by and for Humans
At this stage in history, there is so much that we know about how humans work – or don’t – that we can easily increase the odds for success. Psychology, sociology, architecture, systems dynamics, social physics, economics; drawing simple rules from these vast bodies of knowledge allows us to experiment with the ways in which we meet to solve problems and grasp opportunities. Fire won’t ignite without oxygen; basic rules help us shape the physics of emergence.

These three elements, when properly mobilized and assembled in concert, create the conditions for intentional emergence – the spontaneous creation of unexpected outcomes which positively align with strategic objectives. Whether in an organization, a meeting, a campaign or an alliance, it involves tilting the system towards the highest contribution of all parties – of creating a combination of people that is more than the sum of its parts.

Over the next few months, members of The Value Web will continue to work together to detail our approach to, and understanding of, the practice of Emergent Design. We look to the broader community of practitioners to give insight and examples.

What practices and methods have you seen which could be seen as Emergent Design? What makes them so?

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UberX: Apps are magic, and other policy myths

Today we heard news that Toronto city council has created a new class of license for drivers in the city, to allow for the use of ride-sharing apps like Uber. While the policy conflated several issues which were not necessarily dependent upon each other – such as technology-mediated dispatch and flexible employment and licensing – there were few glaringly problematic elements to the motion. Except for one in particular. 
The new policy allows for surge pricing, and indeed, potentially even expands its applicability.

This is truly astounding to me, and is yet another example of policy-makers allowing themselves to be distracted from base principles by technology.

In Toronto, currently, if you take a metered taxi ride, not only does the meter tick along according to clearly posted rates, there is a small, tamper resistant seal holding the unit closed.

Why is that? Why would the government mandate that taxi driver cannot open and adjust the taxi meter? It would seem that this is a policy response to a past problem in which unscrupulous drivers would tamper with the unit to charge riders unfair prices. For anyone who has travelled in the developing world, this type of protection is seen for what it is; a necessary bulwark against the circus of gouging that comes with unregulated taxi services.

So I wonder – where is the tamper seal on Uber’s surge algorithm? Would I feel better getting into a taxi if the driver said in advance, “I’m feeling busy, so I will charge you double.”?

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Framing the “Sharing Economy”: Opportunity, or Sharecropping for Oligarchs?

The early years of the 20-teens have been dominated by talk of “disruption”, as new technologies surge into previously conservative corners of the economy and shake things up. But there is a narrative that I believe will change as we move into 2016 – indeed, I believe it needs to change; what have been conversations about technology are actually about economics, politics and power.

Using the battle cry of technology and progress, some very old ideas have reemerged, let loose by depressingly shallow public debate which has been distracted by outdated ideas of the state of technology and the internet.

There are many examples, but I will begin with just one; the “sharing economy”. The state of affairs around what began, perhaps, as an optimistic reimagining of sharing, ownership and consumption has become a venture-fuelled orgy of exploitation, masquerading as a crusade against municipal corruption and cronyism.

But what underlies the “sharing economy” is a cynical trade of the control of the means of production for the means of connection; what, in the “old economy”, we would refer to as “middle-men”.


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Beyond Analysis – Designing Communities and Networks


Canada’s former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page made the distinction between his office and that of the Auditor General as a matter of perspective and direction; Auditors go back an analyze what is done, whereas his office was meant to look forward, seeing if the government’s projections for the future added up. This requires a different set of tools, but the ability to project forward is critical in informing strategy and decision-making.

As more organizations wake up to the importance of “the social graph” in understanding the patterns of connection and collaboration within and across their own networks, many are caught in an “audit” world, with no model for setting strategy around social networks. Simply put – most tools and research around Social Network Analysis and even network science is inherently backwards looking, with no entry point for strategy and design.

Pentland’s writing on “The New Science of Building Great Teams” is instructive of the difference; passive monitoring of different team configurations reveals that different densities and patterns of interaction correlate to different measures of team output, therefore, we should encourage those densities and types of interaction.


But how was the team formed? Why was it formed? What were they working on, and did it matter if they cared about what they were working on?

More importantly; if I were to assemble a new team from across my organization to achieve a specific goal, what should guide my decisions about how to assemble that team?

Any forward looking, strategic questions of that nature tend to find very few sources of input.

I take the findings of SNA as a given; great input, and generative of an awareness of network dynamics that represents critical table stakes for operating large or diverse teams. But to confidently assemble teams, networks, movements or communities, a framework for answering forward looking questions which link network interventions with desired strategic outcomes is critical.

First – a set of “design principles” are needed, gleaned from a broad set of disciplines which can provide guard rails for design, while also a framework for hypothesis testing. Scott Page’s research on diversity is an example of fertile ground for input here.

Second – a broader model for connection or network archetypes is needed in order to connect intended outputs of a group with decisions about its purpose and structure; I outline this separately here.

Third – a model for the role of the individual in the process of community formation, as I’ve outlined here, connects the whole with the individual, which is important for the last piece;

Fourth – a solid analytical framework and matching engine are needed to gather information at scale as the basis for team formation.

Absent these pieces, much work in analyzing networks is difficult to mobilize strategically, and thus its value to decision makers is diminished. I’ll be fleshing out the components of this approach in greater detail in further writing in this space.

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7 Ways to Set Up a Collaborative Space that Doesn’t Suck

I see it in every company or organization that I work with; lots of money spent kitting out meeting space or collaborative space so that people can work together. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the space is terrible, and largely unsuitable for collaboration.

If you’ve ever wondered why it feels so good to sit in an Italian piazza, why some restaurants feel more romantic than others, or why university lectures feel so boring, it’s because we are, as humans, profoundly affected by the spaces we are in – they shape our attention, our emotions and the nature of all interactions that take place within them. Ignore this at your peril.

So for those of you in mid-renovation of your offices in the hopes of making the workplace more collaborative, take heed of the following 7 patterns:

Give me natural light

Like plants, humans need natural light. Plenty of research shows that daylight affects attentiveness, productivity and absenteeism – allowing the light to shine in helps boost the emotional state of those in the room; where creativity and collaboration is the goal, natural light should be on your spec list.

Where possible, that natural light should be on two walls; having a “light tunnel” means that half of the people are backlit, creating a subtle psychological tax on everyone else.

TL;DR – if a plant wouldn’t survive in the room, don’t stick humans in there.

Have enough space

Just like the height of your ceilings can impact your creativity, being crammed into a room like Tic Tacs makes people feel constrained, not to mention the fact that it creates physical barriers to moving from one mode of working to another. Collaborative work should allow people to work as a large group, and split into smaller groups in the flow of their tasks, ideally all within the same contiguous space.

Have a suitable setup for interaction

A circle is great for a focused conversation where you can see everyone’s face. Sitting around a table is great for working on individual tasks, together – though King Arthur had a round table for a reason. Sitting in an arc facing a whiteboard is great for capturing common ideas in a common space. Sitting in opposing rows works well for debate. Agora-style seating works for passive reception of presented content or speeches. What type of interactions do you want people to have as they are collaborating?

Being conscious of what types of collaborations are meant within your space (sharing, transactional co-creation, integrated/extended co-creation, co-working, cross-pollination, parallel work) and matching the physical setup to support it increases your odds of achieving your intended outcome, or at least keeps you from sabotaging your own work.

Have flexible space

Hopefully you read the last point, and thought – “But over time, we’ll need to do all of those things! How do I know which setup to choose?”

Exactly. Plonking the default boardroom table in your meeting room means you will only ever be setup for one type of interaction, and your space will suck for everything else. Collapsible tables, stacking chairs, rolling whiteboards and plugs all over the place means that whatever the needs of your group, you can setup to accommodate their work. Think: airwalls that let you open up to bigger groups and furniture that can flow throughout.

Have technology that knows its place

Technology is meant to support your work, not dictate how and where it’s done. Think about the interaction scenarios first, and all the ways that you might want to set the space, and let the technology follow. Don’t let the placement of plugs, or the only VGA cable dictate how every meeting or collaborative session should take place from now on. Screens should either roll, or be easy to “beam” to from where ever you’re set up. Audio and video conferencing should supplement the physical setup, not distort it towards the phone in the corner.

Have support for analog

Just as taking notes by hand supports better recall than notes taken on a computer, allowing people to work in analog allows them to process complex information more simply. Whiteboards, physical models, sticky notes and Legos allow people to construct common concepts without the tunnelling effect of watching someone take notes into PowerPoint. Let people work together on the boards, and if you need to share it quickly, surely someone has an iPhone in their pocket? Try Turboscan.

Try making it look nice

Knowledge work should be in a knowledge-rich environment, and one that feels active and creative. Throw in some plants (your room has natural light anyways, right?) and a library of interesting, inspiring and challenging books. Not only will the plants make you smarter, the books will too, just by being present…and heck, you might pick one up, and get an idea or two. And they look nice, too.


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Thresholds in community formation


I’m recently taken with the idea of “liminality” in the concept of community formation. Taken from readings in Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process, liminality is a central component of an individual’s passage from one state to another, referring to the middle condition where the person is no longer who they were, but have not yet transitioned into what they will become.

Turner pulls from the earlier work of Arnold van Gennep on rites de passage to explore three phases to a transition; separation, margin and aggregation.

This exploration of liminality by Turner is within the context of his larger theorization on communitas – or the sense of community or belonging that is unstructured and distinct from groups with an “area of common living”. This, for me, is where these theories become interesting in the context of designing for community; elements of communitas seem to be what we are designing for, yet the “rituals”, routines and formats of modern gatherings bear few of the attributes that would support this state of liminality.

There would seem to be a need for a strong cultural component to act as a framing for this type of transition – a larger framing in which could act as a container for the individual and community; a context within which the individual goes through a process of submission, surrendering in order to transition to a new social state.

I believe that there could be a larger psychological threshold, or liminal state, that is part of a longer process of transition, but that there could easily micro-transitions that could be designed into community interaction. Japanese architecture and landscape design paid a great deal of attention to transitional spaces and thresholds, with gates and low-hung doors meant to pattern a psychological response to transitioning from one state to another on passage.

In designing both educational and community processes, I am curious in how deeply the sense of self needs to be challenged in order to induce a liminal state of “becoming” in order to forge a more connected self, and how that depth affects the durability of the community or sense of identity for the learner what they come out the other side. Part of this question is exploring the role of ritual, and of course, it all relates back to the role of identity formation I began to explore here.


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A Theory of Community Formation

A Model of Community Formation

Seeded by interest, germinated by experience, grown through identity and sustained through intent

As part of our work at The Value Web, we’ve been involved over the years working with various communities – such as The World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders community – to organize numerous community gatherings and create processes that achieve particular outcomes or explore areas of interest.

More and more, however, the creation of community has become an end in itself, as the people we work with come to recognize the value of strong and engaged communities of people and their ability to achieve what disconnected groups cannot. While we have intuitively designed using our core models in a way that has nurtured communities through shared experience and work, I have found myself wanting a meta-model that would aid in explicitly designing for community formation.

The theory and model presented here is an early version towards having a design toolkit for community formation; it is based on a number of underlying theories and assumptions. The first assumption is that any community or potential community is a complex system, based on the fact that it is made up of a series of independent actors with their own influences and interactions. Secondly, it is based on the idea that community itself is an emergent quality – community, per se, does not exist; it is a perceived connection between a group of people, based on overlaps of intent, identity, interest and experience.

Which brings us to the model; as the model is in its first iteration, it is still in two parts; there is the individual, and there is the community. The idea is quite simple; individuals are the component parts of the community, and the community is based on the creation of connections or overlaps between the individuals.

identity formation in communities

A model of identity formation

The aspects of the individual that have been pulled out for the purposes of this model are the ones that are relevant to our sense of self in relation to others and groups, as well as those aspects which form a basis for connection. These aspects are interest, experience, identity and intent. These elements have, between them, a series of complex interplays, and I believe there are a number of archetypal interactions between them both for the self, and in the connect between people, that will be part of the next iteration of the model. For now, in this version, each particle within this “molecular” model of the self has multiple sub-components which dictate the behaviour of the particle.


Interest is meant in two senses of the word; first, in the sense of attraction or affinity to something as engaging, and second, as something perceived to be of benefit to the individual. Interest is a motive force which guides action.


Experience is the retained memory of past actions and senses. As it accumulates it begins to work in a feedback loop with interest and intent, but also begins to form a basis for identity, in that we become a collection of what we have done.


Intent runs deeper than interest – it is more complex and nuanced, in that it combines the drives of interest with the insights of experience to create a broader, vision-based set of motivations. Belief plays a role in intent, and intent, where forms, becomes embedded in identity.


Identity, in this model, is a purely emergent quality. It is presented as the interplay between our own self-perception which is “projected” into the world, and the received “reflection” from others as our projected self is validated, challenged and shaped. Identity, which we craft from our experience (“who have I been?”) is a balance between who we say we are, and who we believe others think we are.

The social aspect of identity is critical here, when we think of this model in the context of community formation. The most robust communities become so because the community has become a constituent element within its members’ self perception.

Forming Community

The concept of community formation within this model, then, is that communities can form based on the overlaps between these elements among a number of people. There are different archetypes of formation here – communities of interest, alumni (based on past experience), movements and causes (based on intent). Part of my contention here is that a community that is designed could be designed for resilience by sequencing and overlaying the different types of formation – once the development of a community has gone from loosely based on interest, then grown through shared experience, then catalyzed through intent (or multiple intents, mapped back to interest) would become a major identity vector among members. This delicate weave is what begins to create not a gathering, but a community, whether it be online or off, geographically based or transnational.

There is much more to the model, in particular the archetypes, but I’ll save them for a subsequent post. I am curious, first and foremost, to get the insights of others on how they have seen communities form; does the model hold? What’s missing?

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A Value Web

As part of my work with The Value Web, both as a knowledge worker, and as a board member, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the model which underpins it – the “Value Web” or “Business of Enterprise” model developed by MGTaylor.

At the core of the model is the concept of working differently together to change “the game”; as Matt Taylor puts it:

In a zero sum game, there’s a finite amount of resource and the game is to decide how it gets distributed. In an infinite game, the purpose of the game is to continue the game–to grow and expand the resource base and the distribution model.

What is needed to make it work is a willingness to work differently and reconsider the nature of working relationships, client relationships and peer relationships; especially as it pertains to hierarchy. The model suggests a dynamic interplay between consumers, producers and investors, where each actor might fit within multiple roles and the interactions are seen as complimentary and coordinated.

In practice, how this has played out with us – from my perspective – as an organization formed around a set of methods for facilitating collaboration and effective decision-making, is a remake of how we engage on a number of fronts:

With Clients: For me it has helped shape my mental model of engagement, essentially drawing from our tools of collaboration to extend into relationships and contracting. By rethinking the boundaries and purpose of the relationship, “selling services” within this model of engagement doesn’t make a lot of sense; finding a way of working together to create shared value does. It encourages an ethic of co-creation right from the get-go, thinking of how mutual benefit and value can come out of a working relationship that extends beyond simple transactional remuneration.

With Colleagues: In our case, by formalizing a brand identity around the value web itself (by creating The Value Web), we – in effect – created a brand DMZ; a common space for mutual working and collaboration that was neither mine nor yours, but which belonged to the larger working community. But by making it operational (ie a functioning entity which would pursue and complete work), it made the idea of collaborating together concrete and not theoretical. By approaching work as peers and equals, many of the unhealthy dynamics between peers disappeared, and again, the focus tends to stay on creating value, rather than who was getting a cut of what.

What I find fascinating about putting the model into play is the degree of trust, true peering and mutual respect that is required to make it work. This model is something I will be delving into further over the next while. How does trust get manifested and maintained within the network? How do teams work within this construct? What are the principle threats to this type of model? How does it adapt, and what is the balance of robustness or fragility?

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Auto-tuning, harvesting, and the design of knowledge

The Garden of Your Mind

Reading this article at fast co-create about an auto-tune artist’s design process, I was stricken by its similarity to our Harvesting Process, which is, in essence, a process of designing knowledge.

Boswell watched eight episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.As he watches, Boswell identifies clips he likes and writes down their timecode, before organizing them digitally. Through this process, the video’s theme and message start to emerge. Next Boswell establishes the chorus, which must have a direct correlation to the message of the video. Boswell says that for this video, the themes he identified: creativity and imagination, were woven in easily since Rogers deals with them so much on his show. With the chorus and theme in place, he begins to eliminate clips that won’t work within the context of the video, winnowing down his selection the way a sculptor crafts his art from a block of stone.

This process of absorbing, listening for emergent themes and then remixing to create something new, compelling and coherent is precisely the process we’ve been working with at The Value Web to make sense of a stream of interrelated conversations; something we’ve been referring to as Harvesting. In an age of infographics and snippets, I believe that there is immense value in being able to not just summarize, but to synthesize and find the compelling narratives that flow through and between conversations to create something that is memorable and moving. What I love about this video is that it clearly draws on a vast sampling of Mr. Rogers work, but manages to pull out a meta-thread that reinspires you, makes you see built in wisdom that is easy to miss if you focus on the particulars.

The same goes for conversations and conferences; I may remember individual conversations I had, but what would a holistic view of the conference or summit be if one were to pull out the emergent narrative?

In some of our work last year, we summarized this visually in this sketch:

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