Embracing emergence in innovation process

Satu Anttonen

Satu Anttonen

Lead Designer

Emergence is a crucial part of systems thinking, and has that way come to boost our design and innovation processes. It’s a framework for seeing interrelationships of systems parts rather than individual things alone. Under the right conditions emergence occurs in the process revealing new behaviours or properties in the system.

Emergence is the process by which a higher level of organisation arises through the aggregation and interaction of lower level components, revealing new behaviours or properties. What connects design and emergence is, that those both represent processes of morphogenesis; they give birth to new forms.

In the classic ontology of emergence the new form is created through natural selection or survival of the strongest, whereas in the case of design the selection is made by the collaboration of designers and users who determine the most functional and usable forms of the new product or service.

Design and emergence both give birth to new forms.

The formation of complex symmetrical and fractal patterns in romanesco broccoli is a classic example of emergence in a physical system. Photo: Shutterstock

In the design process one must understand that neither emergence nor innovation happen in a silo. Emergence cannot occur without a collaborative environment and a team of professionals from diverse fields. The patterns that emerge do so because of what each of them do.

Both emergence and design involve a bifurcation, the point when paths divide and something new is being created, from the original form towards the new organism or product. In other words, an emergent system is more than the sum of its parts.

Emergence in design is about being willing to set aside the plan and listen, and feel what wants to come forth from the group. It is also about quickly re-imagining and creating a new plan.

Emergence in organisation

In biology there are many naturally emergent systems, such as fractals and bacteria. Yet in the organisational level we tend to think that there’s some higher force — a god — that has a plan for the universe. This way we have shaped our current organisational models towards the form that has a leader who knows it all and the rest that work according to the master plan.

Collaborative workshops are a common way of working when designing new solutions. Photo: Teppo Kotirinta

Design, because it is emergent by nature and not always clear in its outcomes, can be difficult to put into the traditional organisational model. It’s hard to see in advance what comes out of the design process and how does the product or service look and feel like. For emergence to happen in an organisation it requires design maturity and an attitude of shared responsibility — to give and to take.

In the authorial organisation there’s always someone to take responsibility, and someone to blame. If the organisation finds out that all their assumptions were wrong, will the work pay off, and will everything done end up being rubbish? Questions start to arise; who takes the responsibility and who is there to blame.

This is the hardest point, when everyone in the team should take responsibility and ask; what did we learn from this and how do we go forward?

Why should we embrace emergence?

The strength of the emergent systems over those of authorial ones is that they are more resilient to change and faster to adapt to changing situations. Self-directed team can function and adapt to new situations even when the boss is sick, designs based on design systems are easier to alter in case of new feature requests and a romanesco broccoli can keep growing perfect fractals even if injured during the growth.

Emergence is the way leading towards innovation. Photo: Teppo Kotirinta

In the modern way of product and service design, the solutions designed are not usually made to be ready at once, but built piece by piece. A minimum viable product is typically the smallest version of the product that serves their users’ core needs, and the rest will be built on top of that. On the way the product built may change according the users’ and market’s feedback.

As in design we don’t know what’ll the product become until we launch it to the public. Designing for positive change requires adapting, learning and responding to internal and external changes. We also need to stop wanting to control the change too much and shift towards responsive interaction with it.

Are you ready to support emergence?

In order to benefit from the emergence in product or service design one should ask themselves the following questions:

Organisation: Do we have a strong enough vision of the future and are we paying attention to the quality and speed of information that flows through these systems to enable the different components to learn from systemic feedback loops?

Team lead: Am I ready to let my team have the authority on themselves? Do I have a trust in my people and can I support them in the best way?

Designer: Am I ready to jump into the uncertainty of not knowing what the end result will be, yet carry the responsibility of failure when necessary? Am I also ready to put the authority to the hands of the users, and let them guide me in my design process?

If your answer is yes, congratulations. You are most probably on the path towards something new and innovative.

With our customers, we work to foster environments where emergence thrives, and transform organisations into more digital- and customer-centric states of mind.

What kind of transformation are you looking forward to making — cultural, strategic, product or numbers? Ari Heinonen is happy to discuss how to get there and how we can help. Reach Ari at ari@nordkapp.fi or +358 50 386 6348.

And if you’re in Benelux, get in touch with Matti Mölsä at matti@nordkapp.fi or +358 40 727 3094.

Embracing emergence in innovation process was originally published in Future is Present Tense on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.