The Generator of the New: how to influence people and create positive change

In a recent Plexus Institute call, Benyamin Lichtenstein and Pierpaolo Andriani talked about “Generative Emergence” and the dynamics of influencing change in complex human systems.  Several participants on the call, myself included, had submitted questions to the speakers.  To my delight, Benyamin and Pierpaolo engaged us all by email in what is now a rich ongoing dialogue.

Following are my initial comments in response both to the email exchange, and to the content on Benyamin’s “Generative Emergence” website:

As I begin to dive into this delightfully complex dialogue, a few observations and comments, in no particular order:

…what we call “emergence” in human adaptive systems, strikes me as being subjective, and socially constructed. We are noticing patterns and degrees of difference as we observe over time. What we see as emergent and coherent won’t yield to analysis of causality for the purpose of prediction and control, if the underlying dynamics are complex.  

…temporal dynamics rarely seem to get the level of attention that I suspect they deserve. What is the rate of change and behavior we are observing in the system? What is the perceived degree of urgency in the need for our response? 

…I personally do not believe that computational modeling of complex systems is (not yet, anyway) sufficiently able to match the sense-making of informed human sensor networks. The Algorithmists, as I call the pattern-seeking rule-makers, do not yet have sufficient ways to model the full complex dynamics of human systems, to enable successful analysis. One question I always ask of Big Data advocates, is whether they have done any research comparing their computers to human sensor networks (that is, groups of people in the system, telling and signifying/interpreting their stories collectively). After the puzzled looks, and my explaining what I mean, they have to admit that they haven’t thought of this, and have not done it. This would also appear to be linked to the Quantum Zeno Paradox, and the indivisibility of time.

I will add that I recently obtained some anecdotal data on a case in point. The genomics lab at a major university has invested many millions of dollars in computer systems to model and analyze genomic and dna data. Virtually without exception, the doctors and professors there- including prize-winning, world-renowned scientists- prefer to rely instead on their own judgment of the data. One world-famous there told me that he literally teaches their medical and research students to essentially ignore the computer systems.

…with regard to “dissipative systems” and the 2d Law of Thermodynamics in complex adaptive human systems– it took me a couple of years to solve this seeming dilemma when I first encountered complexity and began my learning journey in the late 1990s. One day I realized what the answer was. Human systems organize to increasing levels of complexity over time because they are not dissipative at all. Energy continues to flow into our endeavors (Dawkins was wrong).

…can we purposefully influence the emergence of positive change? That’s the Big Q, of course. I believe we can not know all that there is to know, and all that we might want (or need) to know, in order to truly control change outcomes. What we can do (and must do, if we are to survive and thrive), is continuously seek to learn and understand about what’s going on. We must iteratively try our most promising options, and continuously observe what happens. Where and when stability and desired outcomes occur, we act to stabilize and sustain them (which may not always work, since the underlying dynamics may still be too complex). We must work to keep improving our response capacity in the face of change and emergence of the new.  

…in reading a bit on the Generative Emergence site, I kept thinking about the work of Alicia Juarrero, and the influence she had on the work of Dave Snowden, and Cynthia Kurtz in particular. I am thinking here about the dynamics of intention, and how our purposeful actions yield boundaries, constraints, and simultaneous opportunities.

…I likewise think that the complexity community would be well-served to look at the work of the Bulgarian-born Australian professor, Vlad Dimitrov. In particular, Vlad’s twist on Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety. Vlad posits a Law of Requisite Vorticity. That is, the rate of communicated ideas and info exchanges between and among us. Following on the vortical flow dynamics of liquids, for example, Vlad suggests that a sufficient level of communicated exchanges yield a vortex of thought and action. Like the swirling funnel of a tornado, this vortex results in a specific vector- a trajectory of our intention and shared purpose. We can cultivate and nurture these exchanges and explorations of possibility space. In so doing, I believe we can influence and generate change. Except for…

…the power of social Attractors of meaning. The power of ideas and beliefs, the limits of knowledge and understanding, the barriers of emotion, will all work to simultaneously constrain and hold the status quo. Power and fear, often prime among these. So how then are we to act in the awareness of these dynamics, if we intend to generate new possibility and improved outcomes?

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