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Updated Wednesday, 18th May 2005

Tony Wright explains emergence and emerging properties.

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Emergence is perhaps the fundamental property of systems. The idea of emergence is implied in the well-known statement:

“The whole is greater than the sum of the parts”

This kind of statement sometimes appears in adverts, because it implies that the customer will be getting something extra if they buy what is being advertised (which is the job of advertisers).

IQ Variants

Unfortunately it is a misleading slogan. Worse than this, it can be meaningless, or even untrue in some situations. For instance, in a Peter Senge's study, a team of highly committed managers with individual IQs above 120 were found to exhibit a collective IQ of less than 63 when working together.

In this case, the whole was less than the sum of the parts (this example reminds me of some ineffective committees I've sat on!). So what happened? Had a large amount of IQ been lost somewhere? If so, how had it disappeared, and where did it go to? Because the statement is clearly incorrect in this example (as it is in many others), it cannot therefore be taken on face value. So what might be wrong with it? In what sense can a whole be greater than the sum of its parts? If you examine precisely what the statement says, it soon becomes apparent that it hides various dubious assumptions. For instance, can you actually add up the parts of a motor car in the same way that you can add two and two?

An example

For instance, I can state that "The whole exhibits properties that are different from those found in any of its parts" Of course, this isn't a very impressive as an advertising slogan, but I want something better than a mere slogan; I want a statement that has practical value, which means that it must have some semblance of truth and reliability for me. You may have already realised that the idea of emergence has something to do with the properties of wholes, rather than the parts. If so, you are right, but let me give you some examples to make it clear. Suppose we take four simple shapes; a curve, a couple of black dots and a circle.

Figure 1

A curve, a couple of black dots and a circle Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Open2 team


By themselves they don't have much meaning or significance beyond being shapes, and we certainly can't "sum" them quantitatively. But if we regard them as potential components of a system and organise them in a particular way, as I have done in Figure 2, you can see that they form an image which is familiar to millions of people around the world.

Figure 2

A smiley face Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Open2 team

Brain Associations

Of course I'm assuming that you can actually "see" a face in Figure 2, because I am expecting your brain to associate this particular pattern with a happy face, based on similar images you have seen before.

But is this really a face? Of course it isn't, it's only an image of a face formed by a few marks on a piece of paper, but there is enough information here to relate it to our mental images of what a happy face looks like.

There may also be an aural connection in this case, because you may also associate this image with the song "Don't worry be happy", from which it was derived. I want to develop these ideas of perception and emergence a little further at this point because how we perceive things is not just of academic interest; it affects both how we think and how we act.

What I have done in Figure 2 is to organise the parts (the different shapes) so that a recognisable whole (an image of a face) emerges.

This organised whole of interrelated parts is what we call a system. Thus we attribute new meanings to the shapes because we now perceive them as parts of this system.

New meanings

These new meanings emerge, both individually and collectively, because of their organisation as a system. It should be obvious that the meaning of the whole (system) can't be found in the parts; it is only when they are organised in a particular way that this emergence happens.

Also the meanings we give to the parts of the system (the shapes) are also changed through being organised into the whole (system), because we now see the dots as eyes, the curve as the mouth, and the circle as the boundary of the (whole) face.

So, although they have limited meaning in isolation, the parts now have new meanings because they are related to each other in the context of the whole.

Thus our minds perceive them differently when we observe them in Figure 2, even though they are the same physical shapes. [So we can say that a system arises when an observer distinguishes an organised whole from a background — an environment.]


This is what happens when we "see" a face. In this case we guess that the image is intended to look like a face because we perceive a pattern which contains some elements which are spatially related in a way matches our perception of a real face, and at the same time there is nothing which contradicts this matching.

It is in this sense that "the whole exhibits properties which are different from those found in any of the parts". So the parts are changed by being organised into a larger whole, and the whole is changed if the parts are removed from it.

But Figure 2 isn't the only way of arranging the four shapes into something meaningful. If I decide to turn the curve upside down, as I have done in Figure 3, what emerges is a different system from the one above, namely an image of a sad face.

Figure 3

Smiley face with mouth curved down Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Open2 team

Organisation of parts

Clearly there is an infinite number of ways in which the shapes could be organised, but most of the resulting wholes would be totally meaningless, at least to me. What this simple example shows is that organisation (the pattern of relationships between the parts) and emergence are crucial factors in thinking about systems and the presence of one implies the presence of the other.

So, a particular whole only emerges if the parts are organised in a particular way. It is the organisation of the parts which results in the emergence of the whole, not their summation.

It is the difference between the whole and any of its parts, not their sum, which is the emergent property the whole, and is a result of the organisation of the parts, i.e. the way in which they are seen to be related.

Systems of interest

Of course, what determines whether something is a whole (system) or a part, and how the parts are related, depends on the person who is interested in it, i.e. it is an act of choice. And this act of choice reflects the purpose of the person in thinking about, and giving attention to, the system.

So, in order to take these ideas into account, we talk about systems of interest to an observer and it is through systems thinking that an observer constructs systems of interest. So what constitutes a whole and what constitutes a part in a particular situation depends on the interest and perspective of whoever is the observer.

The important point about all this is that it is an act of choice, not something "out there" waiting to be discovered.


The association of an observer with any system is therefore very important because, as I said earlier, a system is always the subjective creation of someone, or a particular group of people. In much of our daily lives we unconsciously imagine boundaries in order to give meaning to what we see.

For instance, in Figures 2 and 3, I could have used just the two dots and the curve. I'm almost certain that you would still have "seen" a face, especially if I had told you to look for a face.

You would have imagined a boundary of a face in order to "see" the eyes and mouth. We do this all the time in order to give meaning to our experiences because we are uncomfortable in situations without meaning.

Take it further

Read more about Peter Senge's study in his book The Fifth Discipline





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