Exploring Emergence in Complex Social Sector Initiatives
Fourth Quadrant Partners acknowledges the generous support of
the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and
the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
The case has been made that, because the systems we seek to impact in the social sector are complex and dynamic, we need to turn to complexity science and systems thinking to inform the way we approach social change initiatives. For example:
As a field, once we have identified a new idea, we are too quick to jump to embracing new approaches without fully understanding what they mean and what implications they hold, including how (and why) to embrace “emergent strategy.” Is there a difference between emergent strategy and adaptive strategy? Does emergent strategy actually produce emergence in the systems we are trying to influence? Have we validated that tools like systems maps work better than linear logic models to deal with complexity? What none of us in the social sector have done fully enough is to look carefully at what emergence means and what actually produces it.
Exploring these questions is our ambitious goal for this research project. We expect the in-depth case studies that are the focus of this research to produce a case-based description of what emergence looks like in practice and what contributes to creating an environment that supports it, with a particular focus on what foundations can do to support emergence.
Emergence, from a perspective of complexity science, is about more than simply finding adaptable solutions or course-correcting based on evidence. Emergence is a process by which, through many interactions, individual entities or “agents” create patterns that are more sophisticated than what could have been created by any individual entity. In his popular book, Emergence, Steven Johnson describes it as “the movement from low-level rules to higher-level sophistication.” Literally, emergence creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In the social sector context, to be considered “emergent,” a solution must have emerged from the interactions of entities (in our case let’s say funders, grantees, partners, beneficiaries), none of whom had access to the entire solution a priori. And once emergence starts, it doesn’t just stop when the contract is completed. Johnson described emergent solutions as “getting smarter over time” (Johnson, 2002).
We in the social sector often think of efficiency in a fairly mechanistic way -- as finding solutions that can be scaled through replication. Emergence holds the promise of a radically different kind of efficiency. Examples of emergence commonly involve a simple set of rules generating an infinite set of ever more complex behaviors (the game of chess, languages, economies). John Holland, one of the earliest thinkers in the field of complex adaptive systems, has spent his entire career studying emergence. He observed that “the hallmark of emergence is this sense of much coming from little” (Holland, 1998).
Perhaps the most challenging implication of emergence for grantmakers who aim to be strategic is the idea that the “best” solutions – those that are both robust and adaptive; that address the widest range of situations and adapt to fit them perfectly – cannot be fully designed in advance. They need to arise from, and/or be refined through, experimentation among multiple actors. This raises the question about what the role of strategy should be and, if there is a role, whose strategy is it? We anticipate that this research will help us develop a more nuanced understanding of the role of strategy in complex social change initiatives, such that strategy can become a more layered, interactive process owned by all parties.
What qualifies as emergence and what difference does it make in terms of impact? Answering this question will be challenging, but will also make an important contribution to the field of emergent strategy.
We are using an inductive approach to answering this question. Individuals or organizations can self-nominate or identify likely candidates. See “Nominating Examples of Emergence” for a description of the kinds of initiatives we are seeking and a link to the nomination form. Nominees will be asked to complete a short survey. We will select 6-10 cases to explore in greater depth through multi-stakeholder interviews, which will result in a series of case studies and a report, which will be made available by free download from 4QP’s website.
Examples of Emergence
In this year’s Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) conference, Marilyn Darling offered an example of emergence with which everyone is familiar – the ecosystem of the iPhone. Written histories tend to emphasize the elegance of the iPhone’s design and its capabilities. But as brilliant as Steve Jobs was, if the only capabilities the iPhone ever possessed were those designed by his team, it would not be the powerful tool we use today. What made the iPhone a platform for emergence was opening up its operating system to a wide community of app developers and a marketplace that allowed them to get a lot of feedback quickly from an eager public. In essence, it created a whole new field of play, which is itself emerging. The whole community of app developers learned simultaneously how to design for it and users learned how to interact with it. Popular apps got shared and less popular apps were ignored. Developers paid attention and focused on the successes. By constant trial and error interactions with users and “mashing up” popular apps, the collective ecosystem made it possible for designers to create even more innovative apps--to provide guidance through traffic, monitor health, or increase home security--that no one could have thought of a priori, much less been capable of designing, even a few years ago. At the same time, users have extended the use of those apps in creative ways to solve their own sometimes complex challenges. And no one person can predict today how we will use iPhones and similar devices two years from now. They (and we) will get smarter over time.
In the same CEP session, Marilyn Darling shared 4QP’s own in-depth research of an unlikely system that demonstrates emergence – the Opposing Force (OPFOR) at the U.S. Army’s National Training Center. Through a disciplined attention to learning via After Action Reviews (AARs) – a methodology that they created over 25 years ago – across the entire regiment, the OPFOR has transformed from the traditional conception of a “yes sir, how high sir” organization to a highly adaptive team that wins 99% of its engagements, even though it has fewer soldiers, older equipment and only the data it can cobble together itself. The field of battle is the epitome of a complex and fluid environment. By conducting AARs literally daily for over 20 years, this unit of soldiers was able to identify patterns in enemy behavior, patterns in the environment, and patterns in its own behavior and turn what had been a chaotic and unpredictable environment into a competitive advantage (Darling, 2005).
Co-presenter Patti Patrizi offered Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s End-of-Life Campaign as an example from the social sector. After an initial very public failure at implementing a large and expensive demonstration project to improve end-of-life care, the foundation showed an unusual amount of humility. Rather than downplaying the reported failure, RWJF’s president used it to call for everyone to “get out there and learn.” After a good deal of trial and error among a number of participants in the initiative, the whole community developed a deeper understanding of the root causes of the system’s failure to focus on a “good death” and experimented with alternative pathways to thinking about and improving palliative care. The end result—a major expansion of the field of palliative care—was considered a breakthrough success (Patrizi, 2013).
In their 2014 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World,” John Kania, Mark Kramer and Patty Russell highlighted the Rockefeller Foundation’s Impact Investing Initiative and its role in “activating a global movement that continues to grow even as the foundation shifts its support to newer forms of innovative finance.” Without an initial theory of change or logic model, Rockefeller focused on strengthening the ecosystem, which actively participated in co-creating outcomes and strategies -- a strategy which “continued to co-evolve for the life of the initiative” (Kania, 2014).
The previous two examples were about field-building. One example of a deliberately emergent strategy that is place-based comes from our own work at 4QP is The Learning Alliance (TLA) in Vero Beach, Florida to support their third grade literacy project, Moonshot Moment. Since 2011, this initiative has explicitly sought and been willing to test solutions that come from any stakeholder in the community, no matter how premature or yet unviable. Each stakeholder has been encouraged to develop their own hypotheses about what they can do to help children achieve grade-level reading by the end of third grade, including every aspect of a child’s life from birth up to pre-K, an area that has previously been off-limits to efforts supporting public education from K forward. This is still a work-in-progress, but the openness of TLA and the whole Moonshot’s community of leaders (from education, health, religion, sports, policing, philanthropy) to innovative thinking has made possible a number of creative solutions -- approaches to Kindergarten readiness, a scholar-athlete program, and coaching reading skills, among others. This emergent approach has gained sufficient community support that the new superintendent and school board members now see this initiative as unstoppable.
Nominate a Case
We believe that there are many examples in the philanthropic sector where this is already true — initiatives in which:
We have closed nominations for this first step in our research, but we are always interested in learning about initiatives that have these characteristics. If you are aware of an initiative that has some or all of these characteristics, whether it’s current or historical, please send an email to email@example.com. The example you offer might be your own; it might be a program or initiative with which you were involved or one you have admired from afar. It might have been launched by a foundation, a collaborative, or a single nonprofit.
We encourage you to spread the word! Share this URL with your colleagues who might have good examples to contribute. To get in touch with the project, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2016 Fourth Quadrant Partners, LLC