Emergence – How it works – Part 1

Beyond disrupting organizations and value as we know it, what is going to be the deep result of the use of Social Media? Many of us see it as at least making organizations more effective – faster, more informed etc. But I wonder. My growing feeling is that the widespread use of Social Media might soon enable us to gain the benefit of “Emergence”.

What you might ask is “Emergence”. Here is an example of how each of us as humans acquire the scale free use of language:


Let me explain – I have a one year old grand daughter now so I am re living all of this. At around 9 -12 months, the child starts to make sounds – it is training the muscles. At about 12 – 18 months, it starts to use single words – Dada is usually first – so unfair but easier to say than Mama. It starts to use simple connectors such as “It” “a” “. 18 months – 24, the child adds a few direct verbs and qualifiers such as “more”. Then, as if by magic Emergence!. The child starts speaking in whole sentences – the full acquisition of the structure of language has been achieved. In some cases children are all but silent until this point and one day they can speak full sentences.

How does this happen? The child needs a few simple but essential environmental factors to be in place. I will come to these at the end of this post becuase they are directly related to what may be needed to have Social Media offer us this opportunity for Emergence as well.

One more example.


An oak tree produces many acorns. Only a very small number grow to become a tree. All the potential of the tree is inside this tiny thing. To have Emergence so that it can become a tree, there has to be a number of environmental factors that offer the acorn, the best shot at reaching this potential. You can imagine with me as to what some of these might be. Not get eaten by a squirrel – falling far enough away from the parent or being dropped by a squirrel – the right soil/moisture – not being eaten by a deer – not being mowed by me etc. If enough of the factors are in place, then the acorn will become a tree.

Now here is a vital insight, once it gets to a certain size, it gets very robust and only man cutting it down with a saw or a big fire will prevent it from growing further and living a long time. It is vulnerable only for a relatively short time at the front end.

There is more. An acorn has more potential than a tree alone.


Under the right environmental circumstances, one tree will lead to another until there is a small wood. With a small wood in place, more Emergence! The wood bursts into a complex forest that not only has more trees but a huge supporting other ecosystem that itself depends on and supports the oak first. Such a forest is tremendously complex and long lasting and offers all its normal inhabitants the optimal environment for more scale and less risk.

So Emergence leads to more complexity and to more resiliency.  The resiliency is the reinforcement of the environmental factors that support the inhabitants of the system in reaching their full potential.

I am not clear about the ideal factors for Oak Trees. But the ideal factors for allowing children to reach their full potential are now known. My bet is that what works for infants works for all people. If we can be clear about what these few factors are, then we can see how Social Media might be used by us to go way beyond where are are right now.


An irony is that this little boy’s name is Acorn.

The link will take you to the research that has captured what Acorn and all of us need as human babies to set off on the pathway to our full potential or not. For if we don’t get the key factors we stall – stall for life.

Here are the key factors for our optimal development in simple form – as I list them, think of how your work place lines up or not to them. For this is what we all need all the time to be at our best as primates and humans.

  • Culture is the most important environmental factor – The family culturehas to offer the child a mix of clear boundaries of what is not allowed and yet also the child must be allowed a lot of room to explore inside these boundaries. It is Boundaries and Freedom. The child must be listened to and must have “conversations” with her parents. Very authoritarian parenting – all orders and all rules and all about the use of power over – is a huge shut down. All permissive – you choose baby is very unsafe and also leads to trouble in development.
  • Emergence is all about Patterns connecting to scale free – so how many words a child years by 2 is the last factor – Kids whose development cannot be stopped have heard up to 50 million words by 2. Kids who will  never develop fully will only have heard 10 million by the same age. They can never catch up

What we do know about Emergence is that it is Fractal. The key factors that support “Growth” do not change for scale. And also, that the chances of the key factors being in place, rise when there is a critical mass. An Oak forest offers the best shot for all who rely on its factors versus an acorn, a squirrel, a hawk, a truffle and a pig on their own.

When I saw the first slide in this post the other day – a light bulb went off for me. If this is how we acquire language and the optimal path for our own growth as a human, then the power of these connections inside the right social container could lead to something really special. The Netflix Prize story got me even more excited – for this showed how groups of people being connected had a major result as a consequence of the properties of Emergence.

If I am right, then we surely stand on the edge of a great awakening? Something like this happened 60,000 years ago, when humans acquired complex language itself. What might this mean for us? I can’t know. But we do know what happened 60,000 years ago. Human development exploded as did our ability to manipulate our world. Until then we were simply one of the species.

Now I fear that our reductive mindset based I think on our reliance on engineering rather than on Growth as the main process for getting more is putting us at risk as a species. Our only chance I think is to work with nature. If we as humans can find the best social container, we may have a chance.

So what container and how might social software help?

In the next post, I will get more specific about how we might translate these factors and Social Software into ideas about what the opportunity is. In the 3rd post in the series, I will share with you some brilliant supporting work that reveals how we might make better connections between us as a very diverse population. How we might solve the challenge of how to connect the geeks to the bureaucrats and to the business people – all of who have a very different world view.

Part 2 is here

Part 3 is here

2 thoughts on “Emergence – How it works – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Emergence – Part 3 – The Rules | Rob's Fast Forward Blog Posts

  2. Pingback: Emergence – Part 2 | Rob's Fast Forward Blog Posts

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