Emergence

A week or so ago, I received an email out of the blue from a manager who works for a local non-profit agency. She was interested in social innovation and had done some work in that area, and recently learned about the First Tuesday session I had hosted in January on the topic. We met for coffee and had a great conversation, coming up with some ideas on how to promote and support social innovation in Saskatoon. Our next step was to reach out and connect with some other people locally who might be interested in helping out with the planning: although I was already expecting a positive response, I was a bit surprised by the strength of interest expressed and the ease by which we were able to convene an in-person meeting (past experience in the non-profit sector has taught me that finding a date and time for everyone to meet is easily two-thirds the battle!).

This experience of going from a couple of blog posts and a one-off session on the topic to finding an ally, developing some concrete ideas, and quickly connecting with a group of co-conspirators reminded me of the concept of emergence, as described in Getting to Maybe. One of the social innovation examples that the authors drew on was Irish rocker Bob Geldof’s work organizing the Live Aid concert to help alleviate famine conditions in Ethiopia. In describing his experience, Geldof noted that once he started on the project, momentum and energy flowed in, almost beyond his control. “No one particularly stood in my way,” Geldof recalled; “On the contrary, doors impenetrable a week earlier swung open effortlessly.” In Getting to Maybe, this and similar experiences are held up as examples of emergence. Based on ideas from complexity science and in contrast to traditional views of the heroic individual or the deliberate plan that is followed inevitably to a logical conclusion, emergence recognizes that disparate actions from a variety of actors can unexpectedly come together and multiply one’s efforts. New and surprising outcomes often result, while cause and effect can become hopelessly tangled.

In a similar vein, this developing movement on social innovation in Saskatoon has demonstrated emergent properties. Did I plan that my blog posts and the First Tuesday session would be found by someone who would contact me, and that we would subsequently find such a good reception amongst others? Although I may have hoped for such an outcome, I saw my work as simply laying the ground and waiting to see what happened. The situation could have turned out differently – someone else could have contacted me, or perhaps at a different time, or maybe someone else in the city might have started something similar that I would have learned about later and joined in. On the other hand, it would be foolish to think that I had no impact, that this issue was fated to happen regardless of my individual action. If I didn’t write those posts and hosted that discussion, would anything have happened?

Although emergence can seem like something inherently uncontrollable, there are some means to encourage it, or at the very least to be prepared to recognize and act on the opportunities that come along. Getting to Maybe articulates a number of principles in this regard, several of which jump out at me: speaking passionately about the issue, practicing and developing the expression of one’s vision, and supporting intense interactions, networking, and information exchange among those who are interested. I think I was (unconsciously) following those principles through writing on this blog, holding the First Tuesday session, developing my own learning and understanding on the topic (such as by reading and commenting on Getting to Maybe), and building connections with like-minded people in Saskatoon.

Going back to our ideas and plans, I’m going to hold off on sharing specifics for the time being because we’re still very much at the beginning stage: I’m hoping to have something more concrete to announce before the end of the month. That being said, if you are interested in supporting and promoting social innovation in Saskatoon (especially if you are or have connections with powerful strangers), please drop me a line! I think there are some real possibilities here, and I’m excited to see where this venture will lead.

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