Simplicity, Complexity and Emergence

john's picture

The Santa Fe Institute looks out over the city of Santa Fe.   From the terrace on the south side of the old mansion, the casual visitor is presented with a spectacular view of the Pojoaque valley to the west.

Something about the dry thin air, the mountainside setting of pinion and juniper, and the view to the distant Jemez mountains encourages a mode of pensive contemplation and intellectual self-renewal rarely felt in the sea-level world 7600 feet below.

As an External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute, I treasure my visits here, this week to attend the annual Trustees symposium and to work with colleagues in residence at the Institute.   To work at the Institute is to pursue the unraveling of mysteries using intellectual tools that are often unconventional, but rarely unproductive. 

The Institute was founded on the idea that complex systems, such as human societies, the global economy, the weather, the internet, and earthquakes, can all be understood and predicted using simple common principles.  While still a work in progress, these new approaches to science have found common expression in the idea of emergence. 

Stated simply, emergence is the concept that many of the recognizable, coherent structures that we see in the world around us have “emerged”  from an underlying, self-organizing, extended system as a result of  a universal dynamics.   Democratic governments emerge from self-interested societies.  Hurricanes emerge from the random motion of moist, heated air molecules.  Financial crashes emerge from the mechanics of stock markets.   The global internet and the new economy are emerging from networks of computers and routers.   And earthquakes emerge on driven tectonic fault systems.

According to current thinking, disaster-resilient societies arise as a result of a top-down system of government-funded studies, policies, and intervention, together with insurance products from a few large financial institutions.   Unfortunately, recent events such as hurricane Katrina, which destroyed New Orleans in 2005, and the May 12, 2008 Chengdu earthquake in China, which killed in excess of 80,000 human beings, vividly demonstrate the shortcomings of this approach.

To the contrary, we believe that, if given the proper information and tools, disaster-resilient societies will spontaneously emerge from self-organizing populations of neighborhoods, towns and cities working together.  Financial structures and disaster response resources will follow. 

From complexity to simplicity to emergence.   A new paradigm for the 21st century.

Risk Alert