A simple but powerful way to experience social emergence

In her book, Coming Back to Life, Joanna Macy described a way for people to have “a direct experience of the dynamic nature of open systems.” Since that is a key idea in the Foundations of Design for Social Innovations course in the SVA MFA in Design for Social Innovation, I use Macy’s “Systems Game” to explore ideas of complex social systems.

Something similar happens (almost) every time we play it. Here is the story of what happened with a class in the Carnegie Mellon University School of Design.

Debriefing: some key things to remember about social systems

(…and by “social system” I mean school, family, corporation, local food system, government,….)

After the activity shown in the video, we sat down to debrief and reflect on what we had experienced, listed some of the key characteristics of a social system, and considered the implications for our work.

Complexity arises from simple rules and mental models. Only one rule existed here, and look at the complexity that it created.

It shapes me, I shape it! Systems are composed of interdependent actors. When you change what happens in one part of the system, it affects the other parts of the system as well.

It can’t be understood or controlled from the outside
You must step into the system and engage with those involved to see the whole.

Any static snapshot or diagram would be a lie
To understand the behavior of a system, you have to watch it in action over time. A single snapshot won’t help.

Observing parts in isolation won’t teach you about the whole
This system is composed of interdependent parts. We wouldn’t be able to understand the behavior of the whole by studying each part in isolation (piece by piece) or studying just the parts together. We need to see both the parts and the connections between them in motion to begin feeling the whole. We have to expand our view, and even then we would be deceiving ourselves if we said we fully understand.

Change is part of its nature; when pushed, it pushes back
We tend to expect the system to stop; we think that the goal is to find a stable point. In reality, this system could keep moving forever. The only constant is change. While systems may be goal seeking—that is, they try to reach stability—other processes prevent them from achieving equilibrium. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.

You are following someone, and someone is following you
We often pay attention only to whom we are following and not to who is following us. How are our actions affecting those around us? Or those who are not in our line of sight?

Cause and effect are seen only in retrospect. Prediction is impossible, and decisions based on predictions will fail
Even knowing the rules and parts, you can’t predict exactly how the system will behave. The outcome is shaped by the rule, the free will of the parts, and the context, i.e., the environment.

Further reading

If this interests you, you might like…

My Notes on Emergence, gathering in an article on medium.com.

A PDF guide to facilitating the systems game, kindly provided by LeAnne Grillo of Reos Partners.