Emergence. A word that appears here and there more frequently now that complex systems and complexity are embedded in science courses and 21st century thinking. But what does it mean?
Try on this definition: Emergence is an unpredictable property of complex systems in which the parts cannot explain the whole-- or the behavior of the parts does not accurately reflect the behavior of the whole.
A complex system can be any group of things that interact in nonlinear (push does not equal shove) ways with each other, like an organization of human beings. Each person is an independent agent acting and reacting in such a way as to get more from the push than was put into the push. There are some simple rules to follow, like a mission statement, a reason for organizing.
Each person in the group may follow any rule in their own way. If they communicate freely, give each other feedback, maintain good relationships with one another, keep watch on both the whole and its parts (the members), what emerges is an ongoing result that reflects the mission statement. The soul of the group emerges.
However, if the members don't follow these simple guidelines, what emerges in an effect not intended by the mission statement. Lip service doesn't work. What you do as a group, not what you say, is what you become.
Do you sense a plot emerging? First a caveat: complicated is not complex. A racing bike has many parts, but each part has a clear function that must work if the bike is to operate as designed. It is complicated.
If the mission for all the employees of an airline is to get the traveler to his destination with the most comfort in the least time possible, but the employees insist on doing nothing more than their job description, what probably emerges is a reputation for poor service or non-caring. In many businesses, producing a reliable product can be forgotten in the name of making a larger profit.
Look at a few words in your story and ask, "Where did that come from?" or "What caused that?" or "How did that emerge?" or "Who did that and why?" Consider the words love, personality, thought, mind, hate, beauty, family, colony, trust, health, appearance, evil.
In the words of complexity theory--What self-organized to cause this particular phenomenon? Did something unpredictable happen when the parts worked together in nonlinear ways? What simple rule adopted by individuals (independent agents) caused this unique thing to happen?
Here are a few examples that could twist your plot into intriguing knots:
A church council’s mission is to provide a plan for educational activities, but each member takes on some problem to solve with unexpected consequences that may not reflect the mission. Check out the PBS series “The Vicar of Dibley.”
A detective agency means to solve a mystery, but the solution is lost in the twists and turns of the law, the personal problems of the detectives, or the unrelated motives of the protagonists. Think of some episodes of “Law and Order.”
Whenever you have a complex system, you have several opportunities for unpredictable outcomes that fall into place as if they were inevitable—just what you want in a plot.
Criticality—One more straw breaks the camel’s back One more insult destroys a relationship.
Amplification—two books tell the same story, but one outsells the other. Marketing analysts would love to understand why and be able to predict the outcome.
Chaos—a bedlam of activity or ideas gradually falls into a pattern as influences push the outcome.
Bifurcation points—two choices of path present themselves with no way to distinguish them but one may lead to disaster, the other to success.
The Power Law—may natural small events occur in large numbers, while large events occur in small numbers, like earthquakes, but the occurrence of any one event can not be predicted—like storms striking New York City.
The moral of a complex story: Nothing one does is inconsequential.
A reminder of living examples--your unique self, love, beauty, health, personality, David Korten's "suicide economy:" one that is driven by love of money.