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Emergent Design. What Does It Mean?

Synthesis” has been on my mind lately. More precisely, I am hearing it come up across many of the conversations I am having – be they of a cultural, political, organizational, economic, or social nature. It seems the world over is entering a period of synthesis. It is a synthesis bridging Focus with Act (ref. Scan-Focus-Act model). There is a strong and widespread sense of intent. “Now!” is the time, I hear or read over and over again, to transcend, to reassemble the parts into fundamentally new forms…

  • Economics is pervading just about every conversation right now. Though experience and opinion varies widely, nearly every where I go I hear the call for fundamental re-shaping and re-structuring of economic systems. People are asking for more than a pendulum swing – they want a paradigm shift.
  • Politically, the US (at least) is as poised for synthesis as it has been in decades. Civic activism and civic discourse are rampant. The citizenry is boiling over with Intent (ref. 7 Stages of Creative Process model). Alternative models are being designed and engineered on local, regional, national and global scales.
  • The Value Web will be coming together in March for what I would characterize as a quest for a new synthesis. We are at the precipice of a state change organizationally, ready to push on an entrepreneurial button or two or three.

In terms of our modeling language, synthesis corresponds to Insight. A complete synthesis is difficult to get, but easy to recognize when you can get it. A good synthesis articulates the problem statement in a concise and powerful way that can be widely and readily understood and acted upon. One of the best, and most oft used examples, is Kennedy’s statement to Congress that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Relative to other stages, synthesis is swift, often seeming instantaneous. This means that we should be preparing ourselves for the surge in Engineering and Building to follow (ref 7 Stages of Creative Process model).

Of course, synthesis at the personal, organizational, communal and global levels has profoundly different characteristics and implications. Still, it strikes me that 2009 will be a year to bring out, use and add to our “synthesis toolkits”. What are the some of the ideas, processes and tools that can help us design our way through this stage successfully?  Below are a few that I have found useful. (I will be adding to over time.) What are your suggestions? Where do you see synthesis showing up? How do you  recognize when a system is ready for synthesis? How do you facilitate it?


  • The Nine Laws of God, by Kevin Kelly.
  • The Clock of the Long Now, Stewart Brand’s book about the ideas behind The Clock of the Long Now. Specifically, on page 34 where he talks about “the relationship between components in a system that have different change rates and different scales of size. Instead of breaking under stress like something brittle these systems yield as if they were malleable.”
  • 7 Stages of the Creative Process, from the MG Taylor modeling language: “The problem is not how to fix the conditions. The problem is how to imagine, design and allow for the evolution of new components of the system (or new systems) that will help the system create different (and hopefully more healthy) conditions. There’s no other problem you can solve. You can’t fix the conditions.”


  • Simulation – face to face, in groups of 25+ (scaled to get a requisite variety of input) where participants play either existing or possible components of a system which can be put in various situations and given various rules of engagement. Simulations often provide rich, emergent learning that significantly influences choices made in the “real” world.
  • Model Building – in synthesis, modeling is critical. Get beyond “mental” models by constructing prototypes and other physical representations. Model building activities can be scaled up and down to fit the particular circumstance. One of the reasons simulations work so well is that they are model building (and using) in which participants are within the bounds of the model itself.
  • Why It Won’t Work – Now is the time to use all those sticky notes you’ve been hoarding. Get every one to give every reason they can foresee things going awry. Spend enough time with the reasons to understand root causes and connections.

MGT Models:

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